The subject of our first Frequency Response is "history," but Teufelsberg evokes so much more than that. Its name translates to "Devil's Mountain," although it's actually an artificial hill—and the highest point of elevation in Berlin—built from World War II rubble. Underneath the site is the Wehrtechnische Fakultät, an unfinished Nazi military-technical college. "The Allies tried using explosives to demolish the school, but it was so sturdy that covering it with debris turned out to be easier," says Wikipedia. These days Teufelsberg is known as the site of a former US National Security Agency listening station, but down the years it's also been home to a 24-metre ski ramp and a failed attempt to redevelop the space with apartments and hotels.
These days Teufelsberg offers a striking contrast. The buildings remain largely intact but in a state of disrepair, the radar domes towering above as an ominous symbol of Cold War paranoia. But framing the site is a landscape of classically German natural beauty. The surrounding Grunewald Forest sprawls into the distance, eventually met, to the northeast, by the edges of Berlin itself. An intense sense of calm hangs over the site, belying its origins in war and chaos.
On a sweltering evening last month, we travelled to Teufelsberg with Modeselektor, Laurel Halo and Lotic. Each artist retreated into his or her own headspace, absorbing the site, taking in the incredible reverb inside the domes, and making preparations for a musical response.
We didn't have any idea what would happen there. The only fact we knew was we were going to Teufelsberg, which was a radar station used by the American army during the Cold War. Our overall plan was to do some field recordings up there, but in the end we had more than we thought and expected. The site reminds us of a scenario from a science fiction movie, where the last four people who have survived try to make some music—or something like that.
This was a military "no go" area in the past, so we had no idea what it would look like and the incredible acoustics. There's this particular place in the middle of the dome—it gets really scary when you whisper.
We brought back many field recordings from our visit. We usually choose a few seconds, cut them and loop which we then use as basic rhythms we add to. It was nice to have other musicians with us, like Laurel Halo. We also recorded some choral singing. Overall the process wasn't how we'd usually work. You at some stage establish technique and tools that kind of lead the results, which usually sounds different from what you've planned anyway...
After several failed GPS attempts, appropriate for the occasion of visiting an obsolete surveillance site built on grown-over WWII rubble, itself used to bury Albert Speer's never-completed Nazi military technical college, we turned up the correct hill to Teufelsberg. From there we could finally see the tattered and fraying radomes, unambiguous against the blue sky.
We went to the second level, where the first pair of radomes were. They were worn, just these sad-looking tributes to all the senesced technologies that were covered in half-baked graffiti. Making sound inside those was difficult because the reverb was such that it'd make you shy to even speak to yourself—you had to overcome self-consciousness of hearing your own sounds amplified so readily, like unwanted feedback.
After recording there for a while we went to the top floor, to the largest and highest radome. When we finally entered there was an immediate somber feeling; it dwarfed the two below, and it was much darker, as light only came from one small opening. The sound in here was stark—even whispering could be picked up and amplified. You had to be careful to avoid rusty nails and sharp wire. I ran glass on wire, banged my fist on the wall, scraped footsteps, finger-snapped, played snatches of radio, talked, hummed—all of it dressed in this elegant, empty, long reverb. There were rubber bands set up that you could twang and get this great pluck sound. At one point we sang some harmonies together. The highlight was the guard dog Coco, a smiley Rottweiler named after Coco Chanel, slobbering and panting and dragging her paws in that reverb.
I used all of those sounds in this track. At first I started with something more structured but a looser approach was needed in the end.
I didn't really have a plan other than to go and observe the setting, soak it all in, and take my thoughts back home with me. Most of my productions are 90% editing and consideration and only 10% actual action, so I knew I probably wouldn't do much on site.
I certainly considered the site's history, but more than anything I was speechless from being able to see all of Berlin from any point. It's hard to describe the feeling of looking out at this man-made, highly constructed way of life, from above a forest, while standing on a mountain made from the rubble of a previous version of the city you're looking at. Surreal, depressing, but ultimately humbling.
There was a dog named Coco who lived there, who came to say hi at the end. I ended up writing the piece as if I could see Teufelsberg through her eyes. I couldn't really process my own thoughts about the space in a way that made any sense to me, so I had to kind of project. I wanted to write something that was a bit lighter and more uplifting than my typical thing, something more playful. Imagining how a dog would approach the project instead helped me achieve that. And it was also fun.