Event Recap: Ableton Loop 2016

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Above: Kimbra and Daedelus perform

When I discovered that the 2nd annual Ableton Loop conference was going to be held in Berlin, Germany at a venue called “Funkhaus”, visions of a George Clinton performance crossed my mind. Upon arriving at the massive Cold War era complex – roughly the size of a suburban shopping mall – I was informed that “funk” was the German word for “radio” (if only) and the venue was originally designed as the world’s largest recording studio and radio station, with Hall 1 reportedly being more massive than any other studio’s live room. Considering there’s a clearly visible pipe organ integrated into its back wall, I’m inclined to believe that.

While the original purpose of the '50s-era Funkhaus complex was to serve as the ultimate propaganda machine, Ableton Loop upended that idea for three days, transforming it into an international convergence of world-renowned artists, producers, visionaries and all-around deep thinkers in the world of music production and technology.

Day 1 kicked off with a thoroughly academic deconstruction of breakbeat production by Jason Hackman in Hall 1. Going far beyond a simple history of the “Amen Brother” drum loop and including multimedia elements projected on the halls’s two massive screens, this presentation was just a tiny taste of the rest of the weekend’s agenda. After the lecture, I headed up to the “sound chamber” – a huge, brutal concrete space originally designed as hybrid acoustic echo chamber and architectural device for redirecting sound from the various halls. Here, a simultaneously delicate and foreboding laser-based audiovisual installation piece by Ableton co-founder Robert Henke served as both palate cleanser and meditation space during the conference.

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With those two experiences serving as my introduction to the Loop aesthetic, I then immersed myself in the experience as a whole, taking in lectures and performances from a diverse array of living legends like Morton Subotnick, Suzanne Ciani (below), Jazzy Jeff, and even Lee Scratch Perry, the eccentric Jamaican innovator of the reggae and dub genres. On the more contemporary side, modern artists like Kimbra, Daedelus, and Kopenhagen Laptop Orchestra provided glimpses into the future of performance and collaboration.

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While the structure of the conference felt a bit like SXSW for braniacs – you couldn’t swing a patch cable without hitting someone with a resume longer than your arm – the format remained approachable and even somewhat informal, at times. Put another way, if you’re addicted to TED videos, Loop was a bit like living inside one for three days. This was helped greatly by Ableton’s precisely curated array of moderators like Dennis DeSantis and The Wire’s Frances Morgan, who perfectly balanced neutrality with insight in their interviewing style, even when conversing with artists who were obviously new to this format.

While the headlining interviews were the obvious draw for this invitation-by-lottery event, stepping away from the main hall led to a labyrinth of more intimate talks and recitals in the complex’s smaller studios, which were equally unique in their Bauhaus aesthetics. Navigating the corridors, I stumbled upon illuminating discussions on instrument design with Axel Hartmann and gleaned new insights on the history of synthesis from Tara Rodgers, later enjoying an up-close electronic performance by Native Instrument (singular; the artist, not the company) in a tiny but packed studio.

As an aside, the program’s diversity was another subtle yet pervasive element of the event, with a near 50/50 ratio of both male and female speakers, as well as a full spectrum of ethnicities. It’s one of those details that’s often touted, but rarely witnessed – and the end result was a feeling of real connectedness with the humanity of our industry.

Simply put, this was a banquet of musical brilliance, without even a whisper of marketing or soft sell advertising. Other than a bit of signage and the branded event program, Ableton’s presence was ephemeral. I doubt that any other company in our industry could pull off a gathering of this complexity and nuance, but Ableton isn’t like any other company – and Loop 2016 was a testament to its ideals.