BY Geeta Dayal in Profiles | 01 MAR 13
Featured in
Issue 9

Surround Sound

Beyond techno. The many sides to Berlin’s PAN records

BY Geeta Dayal in Profiles | 01 MAR 13

John Wiese / Even Parker, C Section, 2010; Sewer Election, Vidöppna Sår, 2010; Joseph Hammer, I Love You, Please Love Me Too, 2010; Heatsick, Intersex, 2011 (courtesy: PAN Records, Berlin; photographs: Traianos Pakioufakis)

‘Sometimes I want to read about, say, “phase transitions” in relation to the growth and form of things in nature, and sometimes I want to listen to music in a club at 3am, and sometimes I want both things simultaneously,’ muses Lee Gamble, a British DJ and producer. ‘This state seems to drive me into wanting to make something musical, when in my brain, creatively, these things collide and seem incongruous.’

Gamble is one of the biggest names on PAN, which is somewhere between an art project and a record label. PAN was founded in 2008 by Bill Kouligas and has emerged recently as one of Berlin’s most talked-about imprints, encompassing noise, experimental electronic music, free jazz, techno, sampled jungle mixtapes, and sound art. PAN occupies an in-between space in Berlin’s music community, quickly building an influential aesthetic without conforming to any one particular sound.

‘I saw it as a way to develop a visual project,’ says Kouligas, ‘whilst at the same time making a platform for a wide range of music that I had already been involved in, both as an artist and curator.’ Last year, PAN had a booth at abc – art berlin contemporary, in the ‘bazaar’ section curated by New York’s Artists Space.

Many of the musicians on PAN cross over into the art world. The artist James Hoff’s record on PAN, How Wheeling Feels When the Ground Walks Away (2011), exists primarily as documentation of a sound installation, commissioned by Performa, New York, consisting of – according to the label – ‘various historic riots, from the concert hall and music venue to the sounds of modern warfare.’ (Hoff is also a co-founder of the New York non-profit Primary Information, which publishes out-of-print artists’ books; PAN helps distribute Primary Information material through its website.) Mark Fell, represented on PAN via his projects Sensate Focus and his long-running duo with Mat Steel, as SND, makes visual art as well as music; his live performances are often a synthesis of sound and video. Eli Keszler, an American experimental percussionist on PAN, builds complex, fragile sound sculptures with wire and motors, which he triggers with his manic, focused drumming. The German artist and experimental electronic musician Florian Hecker, whose key 2003 Mego release Sun Pandämonium was reissued by PAN in 2011, was included in dOCUMENTA (13).

Eli Keszler, Cold Pin, 2011; James Hoff, How Wheeling Feels When the Ground Walks Away, 2011; Ghédalia Tazartès, Repas Froid, 2011 (courtesy: PAN Records, Berlin; photographs: Traianos Pakioufakis)

PAN also reaches deep into the history of sound art, with some old-school names: the underground American sound artist Joseph Hammer, who began work in 1980 with the Los Angeles Free Music Society, and the British electroacoustic composer Trevor Wishart, who also hails from the same era. Hammer’s woozy sound collage I Love You, Please Love Me Too (2010) is one of PAN’s best releases to date – it sounds a bit like what would happen if you melted all of your vinyl records down into their plastic essence.

The label’s visual aesthetic is varied but immediately recognizable; the vinyl cover art and packaging is as considered as the music inside. Many of PAN’s releases incorporate a clear outer sleeve with a striking geometric pattern, overlaid on another sleeve, often with an elegiac found photograph. ‘I collaborate with artist Kathryn Politis on the majority of artwork’, Kouligas says. ‘We have kept certain basic packaging elements from the beginning – the records come in a PVC sleeve featuring some form of silk-screened typography and design.’ One of the most striking PAN releases is Repas Froid (2011), a reissue of archival 1970s and ’80s works by the French-Turkish avant-garde legend Ghédalia Tazartès. The previous reissue, on CD, was in a plain black sleeve with the title typewritten on a plain white label. PAN’s vinyl cover art, meanwhile, is over the top, splashed with bright colour and drama. One panel shows a fantastical, bird-like costumed being posing against a blue backdrop, covered in a gold geometric pattern. Another portrays Tazartès petting a rooster, with gold Art Deco lettering.

Berlin has thriving art and techno scenes, but often they occupy separate worlds. There are a few labels that cross the boundaries between those worlds – Raster-Noton and the Austrian label Mego come to mind. But one of the oddest things about PAN – and perhaps the key to its success in Berlin – is that the label presents an alternative to techno, but it doesn’t work against it. Instead, it works with it: PAN can be in a gallery, but it can also speak the language of Hard Wax, Berlin’s blue-chip electronic music records shop. (It helps that PAN’s vinyl releases are mastered by Rashad Becker at Dubplates & Mastering, the Hard Wax-affiliated outfit that’s widely considered in techno to be the gold standard for good sound.)

Many artists on PAN – few of whom are actually German – play at places like Berghain, crossing fully into dance music culture and attract adoring profiles in dance-centric publications like Berlin’s own Resident Advisor and the UK’s FACT.

Gamble’s Diversions 1994–1996 (2012) was constructed from surreal, hazy samples from mid-1990s jungle tapes. At first this seems to slot in with the growing pile of rave nostalgia in recent years, or the ‘hauntological’ or ‘hypnagogic’ impulse in certain corners of dance and pop music. You could draw a line connecting that release to Mark Leckey’s fractured memoryscape Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999). But Gamble has little time for dance music nostalgia.

His latest LP on PAN, Dutch Tvashar Plumes (2012), goes in more of a techno direction, but it’s a sideways approach. Massive tracks like Plos 97s, layered with disorienting live effects, sound like what it feels like to be inside Berghain at eight in the morning, like it’s playing through a thick layer of mist.

Gamble’s attitude to techno might sum up PAN’s own: Gamble has an innate feel for the genre, one that marks his music, but he isn’t actually much of a techno guy. Instead, he finds resonances in experimental composers like Iannis Xenakis. ‘One thing Xenakis offers me is that he was influenced by and branched into many other areas I can learn about – architecture, mathematics, philosophy, composition, psychoacoustics, politics.’ Gamble goes on: ‘It was interesting to be exposed to these other areas of thought via something seemingly outside of those subject. You listen to Cornelius Cardew, for example, and maybe you end up learning more about left-wing politics than music, or you find out about Buckminster Fuller through John Cage.’

PAN leads in many directions. Berlin still has a heart of techno, but its music scene is expanding and splintering into a panorama of sounds, extending far beyond the dance floor.

Geeta Dayal is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA.