Ears as Portals: Alternative Realities of Musical Infrastructures. A CTM Festival 2023 Review

CTM Festival: “Portals”, 2023.

Luigi Monteanni

SOAS, University of London (UK)

What is a portal? Whether you base your definition on fantasy and sci-fi tropes of self-generating megadungeons (Berti forthcoming) and interdimensional gateways (Yalcinkaya 2022) or on informational technologies such as the internet (Magaudda 2020), the portal conveys the idea of a device and threshold offering an access to some other space, a passage towards somewhere radically different. Of course, a portal can be secret or hidden, dangerous, or difficult to activate. By connecting multiple points in space and time the portal is a two-way medium offering exceptional insight and mobility to who actively chooses to exploit its powers (Hanson 2021).

“Portals” is also the theme chosen by CTM festival for its 24th edition, which took place in Berlin between 27th January and 5thFebruary 2023. CTM probed the possibility of a curational approach that makes “contact with specific modes of experience, histories, communities, and speculative futures” reflecting on “the preconditions, thresholds, regulation, and fundamental function of sound and music as gateways to other realities” (CTM 2023). In this sense, the festival’s portal(s) used different venues and art spaces around the city—15 in total including Kunstquartier Bethanien, silent green, Adk, FabLab Neukölln, Festsaal, MONOM, KQB, RSO, HAU1, HAU2, KW, Panke, radialsystem, Morphine Raum and, obviously, Berghain—to allow trespassers to behold and overhear geographically and subculturally heterodox musical contexts.

Of course, as I have mentioned, portals are not just there: they deform and disrupt the concepts of reality, space, and time to generate something, to make something happen by creating new threads, pathways, and experiences. This is an idea that is expressed through aural means by CTM Radio Lab winner Isuru Kumarasinghe, who describes his installation “Gilunu” (submerged, in Sinhala) as follows:

When we step into a space or a place, where the resonance is changed or enhanced, we naturally feel like engaging with that resonance … to see how the space transforms the sound and how in return it transforms us. It becomes like a portal into a different world, as part of this world, just for this moment. (CTM 2023)

Accordingly, the festival embraced multidisciplinarity, structuring this week of activities around club nights and music performances as much as around exhibitions, installations, screenings, workshops, labs and talks which, besides never resulting as secondary activities, helped inform the awareness of currently forming processes of musicmaking around the world. Part of these experiments were the Afropollination project, in which Piranha Arts (Berlin) and Boutique Foundation/Nyege Nyege Collective (Kampala) established a transnational laboratory for sonic research to bring together artists from six African nations and Germany, the exhibition “We Found Our Own Reality” curated by artist Paul Purgas, in which installations, archive materials, artworks, a series of live performances and commissioned texts were gathered to account for the under-explored histories of the sound studio at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, the first electronic music studio in India (Purgas 2023), the Radio Lab open call showcasing an always different array of audio-installative endeavors within the medium of radio, presenting works by Anna Kravets and, of course, Kumarasinghe and discussions that surveyed a number of themes, including the impending generational change in club culture and issues of cultural production during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. From this perspective, CTM has shown how it is possible to use programming as a tool to produce new forms of sensory and intellectual knowledge, forging connections between music circuits and performers accentuating the elements of uniqueness that the selected musical acts bear from their context.

From the audiences’ and organization’s point of view, after years of pandemic fatigue and a life-affirming 2022 edition based on bringing back the joys of the dancing body, ”Portals” seems again to give more space to contemplative and introspective listening experiences, betting on a courageous line-up presenting comparatively fewer resounding names than many previous editions. This is an attention that both staff and attendees seemed to be more than willing to offer given the almost total sold outs and the constant, remarkable presence of the organizers and curators.

Of course, even for a militant practitioner of sleep deprivation techniques such as myself, it would be impossible to map the festival extensively; an endeavor that goes also beyond the scope of the present text. Therefore, the following selection of highlights is not only extremely personal but should give a glimpse in an impressionistic fashion of what I tried to convey above. Among the performances, personal favorites include the improvisation between Afropollination’s sound artist Jessica Ekomane and the Ugandan DIY synth builder Afrorack establishing new canons of non-eurocentric sound synthesis, the heavily poetic minimalism and metal-infused tribute to mourning songs and traditional lamentations by Sara Parkman and Maria W. Horn of Funeral Folk, the extreme, pedagogic interactivity of Poulomi Desai, slowly inviting the audience to take control of her unorthodox, non-musical instrumentation challenging the idea of authenticity in regional music and the objectification of the ”South Asian female body” in popular culture, the queering post-rave romanticism of the Neapolitan neo-melodic performance by 2023 SHAPE+ alumni NZIRIA and light artist Bianca Peruzzi with the collaboration of choreographer Franka Marlene Foth and dancer Janan Laubscher, the screamo meme music for TikTok doomscrollers of Lil Mariko supported by the raw, physical spoken word grime of Iceboy Violet, the A/V cyberpunk of Japanese gabber and black-metal crossover ensemble VMO, Tzusig’s anxiety-inducing and betrayal-themed dance provocations, the ambiguously brutal and theatrical genre-juggling of Vieze Meisje and the Kampala singeli dance-fest conjured by Queen Asher’s productions, galvanized by the singing of her mother Rehema Tajiri and by dancers Nana and Zai. But above all, a special mention goes to Asep Nayak, a Papuan producer and pioneer of the electronic wisisi: a genre that from the rituals of harvesting ceremonies in Wamena was recreated and innovated through FL Studio beats and mp3 technologies. I had previously binged on wisisi on YouTube for a couple years and I would have never believed I could experience it live in front of my eyes and twitching muscles. Witnessing this act really made the festival for me, showing that music can really create extraordinary junctions between audiences and scenes.

From this perspective, despite the partiality of my account, this year’s CTM showed even more interest towards the subterranean, the peripheral and the subcultural. As noted by Juliet Hoornaert in her review of the festival for the magazine Gonzo Circus (2023), CTM presented a broad, generous conception of music, in which scratching the surface already meant pointing at the underlying artistic and social symmetries and disparities between manifold scenes. What I personally found to be the most remarkable aspect of the festival was its ability to put the listener in the right conditions to experience sound. Whether it is for the dauntlessness of the curation or for the carefully selected list of locations, there was always the feeling that one was always offered the possibility to listen to something in the best technical and contextual conditions possible, whether with their ears or through the whole body in motion, creating the possibility for a range of extremely different styles, from pop and hyperpop to black metal, folk, spoken word, singeli and wisisi to coexist as equals. Throughout, agreeing with a discussion I had with CTM cofounder Jan Rolf, which informed this piece, I appreciated the feeling of urgency that the festival expressed in reorganizing the field of musical knowledge, trying to push many peripheral phenomena to the foreground of the clubbing experience, highlighting distinct aspects of geographical and subcultural locality.

In this sense, going back to the possible question of what a current club culture is or should be today, I support the stances of scholars such as Silver (2014), Labelle (2018), Rief (2009) and Magaudda (2020), arguing that clubbing today should employ music and technology as vibrational tools to cultivate particular forms of reflexivity and modes of experience that reconfigure the boundaries around youth cultures and other social identities, allowing a better circulation of sociality and power. Therefore, the contemporary club culture that I envision, and that CTM seems to support, sees sound, festivals, venues, scenes, and encounter as the fundamental infrastructures allowing this special type of circulation; an alternative flow proving that, contrarily to what Attali (1985) has noted, music does not only move along the routes of war, power and trade.

Accordingly, the portal is an apt metaphor of how to reflect on this ambiguous and exceptionally powerful type of infrastructure. Seeing the progressive attention to socializing the organizing process through open calls, curatorial collaborations, and commitment to support less-known music movements, I have no doubt regarding this edition’s awareness relative to these issues. Nonetheless, accounting for my own experience as well as the one of many attendees, journalists and even participating artists with whom I chatted during the events, some elements seemed worth reconsidering.

First, even though focusing on the netherworld of the global underground, the large majority of the invited projects still benefits from the support and visibility offered by many institutional organizations (e.g., SHAPE+, Goethe-Institut), agencies and renown musical labels (e.g., Nyege Nyege, PAN) albeit from the fringes of the music industry. Thus, even though these associations often work with positive affirmation strategies, how it is possible to create further representation and inclusion for projects that fall off the actors’ curatorial purview still needs to be assessed. Secondly, the petty hostility and unwillingness to help finding solutions of some of the Berghain staff, arguably a staple of CTM’s program, inside and outside the venue, remains at odds with the “be respectful to others” attitude promoted on their website (Berghain n.d.), creating spaces in which edginess and even mockery have prevailed. This has prevented me, for instance, from entering the night I was looking forward to the most (“Bodily Overdrive”), which is hence not mentioned in this review. Then, more in the form of a suggestion than a critique, I argue that this edition’s theme should be, in view of the next, socially meaningful topic of 2024 edition “Sustain”, further examined, keeping in focus how these infrastructures come into being, shift and are regulated; what are the portals that are still difficult to open, that benefit from advantaged access or remain closed? When translating the metaphor to the reality of today’s musical infrastructures, we should ask ourselves who controls the points of entrance and exit. Who has access to them and under which conditions? How can we make sure that they remain functional, but their usage is not overly regulated? Overall, for me this edition was a definite success and a positive example to follow for other festivals of the same kind. Thus, I’m confident that all these points might be explored in the next years.


Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Berghain. n.d. “Awareness”. <https://www.berghain.berlin/en/awareness/>, (Accessed 22 August 2023)

Berti, Paolo. Forthcoming. “Megadungeon: A Model for Media Complexity”. Magazén 4(1).

CTM. 2023. CTM 2023—Portals. <https://www.ctm-festival.de/festival-2023/welcome>, (Accessed 21 August 2023).

Hanson, Kara. 2021. “At the Threshold: Science Fiction Portals as Agents of Liminality”. Medium, 9 August: <https://kshanson.medium.com/at-the-threshold-science-fiction-portals-as-agents-of-liminality-1f1e65ff1b2a>, (Accessed 21 August 2023).

Hoornaert, Juliet. 2023. “CTM 2023: een futuristisch ravecongres”. Gonzo Circus, 14 February: <https://www.gonzocircus.com/ctm-2023-toekomstfestival-vol-klankanarchie/>, (Accessed 21 August 2023).

Labelle, Brandon. 2018. Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance. London: Goldsmiths Press.

Magaudda, Paolo. 2020. “Music Scenes as Infrastructures: From Live Venues to Algorithmic Data”. In Popular Music, Technology, and the Changing Media Ecosystem, ed. Tamás Tófalvy and Emília Barna, 23–42. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Purgas, Paul. 2023. “Introduction”. In We Found Our Own Reality: An Exploration of India’s First Electronic Music Studio and its Resonances into the Present, ed. Paul Purgas, 4-5. Berlin: CTM Festival.

Rief, Silvia. 2009. Club Cultures: Boundaries, Identities and Otherness. New York: Routledge.

Silver, Micah. 2019. Figures in Air: Essays Toward a Philosophy of Audio. New York: Inventory Press.

Yalcinkaya, Günseli. 2022. “The Worlds of Technology and Magic are Closer than you Think”. Dazed, 4 July: <https://www.dazeddigital.com/science-tech/article/56442/1/new-age-of-technology-mysticism-magic-somerset-house>, (Accessed 21 August 2023).