Professor Michael Bierylo Finds New Sound in Berlin

Matt Parish
January 27, 2011
On faculty member Michael Bierylo's return to Berlin, he performs two sessions for laptop improv and collaboration with live manipulation of animation.
Bierylo's composing setup in Berlin, running Ableton Live and Reaktor
Bierylo in Berlin
A corner of the world-famous Schneiders Büro analog synth shop in Berlin
Photo courtesy of Michael Bierylo
Photo courtesy of Michael Bierylo
Photo courtesy of Michael Bierylo
Photo courtesy of Michael Bierylo

Electronic production and design professor Michael Bierylo's musical paradigm was dramatically challenged when he took the first sabbatical of his Berklee career and moved to Berlin to study the world of laptop performance. It was a natural result of changing his environment, and a process he embraced.

"After a while, you get to have certain assumptions about how things work and techniques you use to produce music and write music," says Bierylo. "So this is an opportunity for me to kind of just bust out of that and say, 'I know nothing—where do I start?'"

Bierylo was awarded a Newbury Comics Faculty Fellowship and took an eight-month sabbatical to explore this new territory, which included two stints in Berlin—a city with one of the world's most unique collections of electronic musicians and artists. He first traveled there last February and stayed for a month, meeting with performers and artists, getting to know electronics shop owners, and rethinking his approach to electronic music. He returned to Boston to work out the lessons he'd learned while abroad, and went back to Berlin in August for two laptop performances of his own.

The trips were transformative for Bierylo. After working with a new array of music programming and animation software, modular synth equipment, and found sounds, he's equipped with an entirely new language. 

"I just wanted a chance to change my skin," Bierylo says.

And that's exactly what he did.

In Germany, Bierylo set out to infiltrate the burgeoning world of sound and art performance typified by artists on the sprawling Raster-Noton record label and growing from cutting-edge software being designed at Berlin-based software giants Ableton and Native Instruments. He brought with him his own sensibilities as an artist, informed by his work as a member of the eclectic instrumental rock quartet Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, as well as a full career of commercial composition, digital audio production, and electric guitar performance.

When he arrived in Berlin, he made connections with a few old students and with contacts he had at the software companies, and hit the world-famous Club Transmediale (CTM) festival. The city, he's learned, is home to a music and arts scene like no other. Since German reunification, Berlin has undergone massive changes in demographics and living conditions, beckoning a variety of artists from all over the world to take over deserted areas of the city, positioning it as an incubator for a notable electronic music scene.

Invigorated by a scene more inspired by sound art and architectural spaces than anything he'd been exposed to in the United States, Bierylo also spent a lot of time in his apartment getting a feel for working within the parameters favored by a lot of the artists he was being exposed to. He ditched all use of MIDI, working with Reaktor and Ableton Live. The latter program he's taken to calling his "axe." 

"I recorded all sorts of sounds in the apartment, from the ambience to different appliances, like my washer," he says. "I would normalize the room ambiance so it was at maximum volume. The clock ticking comes out. I said that for a certain series of pieces, I'm going to just use these sound sources and construct rhythmic pieces based on these sound samples.

"I wanted to just work with sound, manipulate sound in different ways. I'm not going to deal with traditional melody-harmony relationships, I'm not going to write tunes per se—but I'm just going to explore what I'm can do through the relationships of noise."

Meanwhile, his connections with software engineers yielded interesting results. While socializing with a group of pioneers in strictly digital media, who he'd assumed would all be working strictly on digital audio platforms, he came to discover that many of them were old-school analog synth buffs. 

"And the more I talked to people, I found that people there are really into hardware," he says. Eventually, the group introduced him to the world-famous electronics shop Schneiders Büro, which carries boutique components for modular synth systems that can only be found at a few dozen places in the world.

Those trips rubbed off, and Bierylo soon found himself building a modular synth system of his own to add to his library of sounds to save and sculpt, making for quite an expansive palette. "The beautiful thing about the modular is that if you come up with something cool, you'll never get it again," he says. "But you can capture it."

By the time his initial month in Berlin was over, the project had begun to mutate into a crash course in all-inclusive composition and improvisation strategies. 

His return trip to Berlin in August yielded two successful performances with an old student and current Berlin resident, Pierce Warnecke. One involved the duo performing a laptop audio improv session and another featured Bierylo playing audio pieces while Warnecke performed projected animation.

Back to teaching at Berklee since last fall, Bierylo says he's finding ways to harness his Berlin experience. It's influencing his teaching, and he's planning more solo performances using his new laptop strategies in arts venues and with Berklee performing groups. He has also noted a drastic shift in the work of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. 

Meanwhile, he's planning a trip back to Berlin this winter to CTM 2011, this time with some students in tow.

"What I'm hoping for is to make a bridge between what's happening here and the scene in Berlin," he says.

Whichever direction it all takes, Bierylo is careful to leave room for adaptation. "The nice thing about these sabbaticals, at least for me, is to plan, to think about some goals and things you want to achieve. But also be open to surprises."