Music & clubs

Leaving the DJ name behind: Phillip Sollmann

Phillip Sollmann (aka Berghain's DJ Efdemin) goes from the club to the avantgarde with the premiere of new microtonal piece Monophonie. Check it out Wed, Feb 7 at the Volksbühne.

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Photo by Yasmina Haddad

Phillip Sollmann goes from the club to the avantgarde with the premiere of new microtonal piece Monophonie.

Berlin clubbers know Sollmann from turning knobs behind the decks of Berghain and co. as DJ Efdemin. For his latest project, he put away his electronic gadgets to focus on the microtonal theories of US composer Harry Partch as well as replicas of artist Harry Bertoia’s sound sculptures. And if that wasn’t enough, he dug up a 150-year-old double siren designed by German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a theory geek to enjoy the world premiere of Monophonie at Volksbühne on Feb 7. Sollmann talked us through the basics.

Can you briefly explain microtonality?

For millennia, there have been discussions about how to partition sonic space; how many notes should comprise a musical scale. Microtonal tuning has smaller intervals between tones than we are used to: Partch extended the conventional piano keyboard of 12 tones to 43 tones per octave. It’s a subject that more and more musicians are interested in – especially in drone music. Indian music, in particular, uses microtonal tuning, or gamelan music in Bali.

How do Bertoia and Helmholtz fit into all this?

Bertoia and Partch autonomously worked on sound concepts without knowing about each other, and I will bring them together for the first time. Bertoia is rather unacademic – when a metal rod fell to the floor, he noticed its sound and felt compelled to create sculptures from it. Partch’s pure-sounding instruments counterbalance the noise-like qualities of Bertoia’s disharmonious metal rods. Helmholtz was also a supporter of microtonal tuning, and he was frustrated that Bach’s so-called well-tempered tuning prevailed on the piano.

That’s a lot of theory to take in.

True, but when you hear it, there’s a casualness to it. You don’t need the theoretical background. Music has to work on its own, which is a problem of contemporary classical music. If you don’t have the developments of the past 70 years at hand, it’s anything but easily accessible. My composition, however, features elements of pop and concepts from the 1970s, like La Monte Young, Terry Riley and The Velvet Underground.

How did you go from Djing to composing?

I had to go back to school because none of my usual skills applied. I saw Robert Hayward, a microtonal composer, who developed a software called Tuning Vine. During improv sessions, I got acquainted with all the instruments. Then I sampled each note, and I composed on my computer for a year. It was quite meditative to listen to tone intervals for hours and compare how they interact. From the start, I knew that I didn’t want any click tracks or electronic manipulation on stage. I was interested in creating sounds with purely mechanical instruments. I find nothing more hideous than musicians playing along to a click. Inaccuracies are much more interesting.

Are you still influenced by club music?

Not directly, but I used more rhythmic parts than originally intended. Actually, I was surprised that, while working on it, I didn’t even think once about what my fans from a Berghain context would think. For me, Monophonie is a step in a direction I had neglected for a very long time. The possibility to travel the world as a DJ opened up, and I went along with it. It was a great part of my life, but I had a strong desire to work differently with music. Finding the courage to put my DJ name to rest is a big step for me.

Are audiences more open-minded about experimental music these days?

There seems to be more of an interest. It’s astounding how many people attend events like CTM who wouldn’t have gone 10 years ago. It seems like a renaissance of the avant-garde to me. I hope this trend continues, because I have a few more things up my sleeve. [Laughs]

Phillip Sollmann – Monophonie, Feb 7, 19:00 | Volksbühne, Mitte