the berghain column – march 2012

March’s column for Berghain’s flyer: Tempo Zones



Panorama Bar, Sunday morning. Andre Galluzzi plays the last hour of his set to a floor properly crowded. Andre flips feverishly through his CD wallet while the BPM meter shows 116. The tracks he pumps out aren’t produced differently from those you used to hear two years ago at 128 BPM. It’s just that the pitch control is set to minus 8 – a DJ’s creative decision. Now the music feels significantly different. The elegantly euphoric swing of deep house’s classic tempo zone between 123 and 128 made way to a heavy, dragging grind. Limbs seem to rather float freely than move along actively to the beat. Any excessive movement of an arm here would look like the out-of-synch crowd expressions at an indie rock concert. Long gone are the times when Kevin Saunderson proclaimed: “130 BPM and people dance the whole night.” Well, the night has been over for quite long, too.

Even slight changes in tempo affect the impact and perceptions of musical elements strongly. Certain quantization schemes, rhythmic microstructures, sound differently when just a few BPM faster or slower. The bass seems to shift, too: from solid to pushy, from heavy to hectic. A light offset from binary towards triplet rhythms, produced by turning a wheel named “shuffle” on the drum machine’s sequencer, evokes associations of Chicago house. Turning the wheel up to the max produced a style associated with Cologne (the city where Kompakt is based) – thus “Cologne Schaffel.”

Different tempo zones address different possibilities to express and engage with. Different people and different social groups are drawn to (or driven off) the dance floor by them. Sometimes it’s a loose common experience by individualistic hedonists, sometimes it looks like a marching formation of people in uniforms – BPM-fields of identity. May that be a reason for the predominantly teenage or young male audiences found in styles ranging from dubstep to hardcore techno? Will you see women dancing to beats mostly below 130 BPM? That’s probably a cultural phenomenon. At hectic bass parties in Detroit for instance one can witness quite remarkable female dance moves, too. In a European setting, things theoretically turn around again once beats push past 160 BPM. When I was 16 and sneaked out at night from our class trip hostel to visit the Metalheadz Sessions at London’s Blue Note, black girls in athletic gear made incredibly liquid moves in half time – i.e. they synched to a groove at 85 BPM (instead of the 170 the DJ was spinning).

Playing around with rhythmic patterns is like looking through a kaleidoscope, assembling a new cultural concept every time it is turned around. Whole genres in the fashion of “footwork” can be created by accidentaly pushing the tempo controller somewhere unintended. Miniscule interventions at the right time and place, spread by enough socially invested individuals, are often sufficient to quickly build a devoted crowd meeting for a dance in some basement – week after week. No one needs to fear that we might run out of ideas, that is. And hardly anyone has touched on all the asymmetric metres as yet. Endless possibilities.

As I found out recently, the duration of exposure to a rhythmic form has its own special meaning too. When recently, after a frenetically greeted live set, KiNK decided to engage in 15 minutes of experiments with layered loops drifting apart, someone started screaming “stop! stooooop!”. Everyone looked with amusement at the angry girl. She probably felt betrayed, the spell of potential eternity that was built up by the looped 4/4 kick drum being broken. Do not disturb my circles.