EJN Awards

Back to list

EJN Award for Adventurous Programming winner 2023: Blurring boundaries in Berlin

Blurring boundaries: Insights from Berlin's genre-expanding A L'ARME! festival

At the 9th Europe Jazz Conference in September, EJN was delighted to present A L'ARME! with the 2023 EJN Adventurous Programming Award.

Blurring the boundaries between improvised music, electronic music and noise, A L'ARME! has made a name for itself as a cutting-edge festival with a devoted following. 

Rooted in the city of Berlin, and taking place alongside the River Spree, each edition of the festival features over 20 gigs across three to four days, creating the conditions for creative and musical alchemy. 

Louis Rastig set up the festival in 2012 as artistic director. One year later he was joined by Karina Mertin as executive managing director, who had been part of the 90s techno scene, and together they developed the concept of the festival as it exists today.

We talked to Louis about how the festival has evolved, the Berlin vibe and what other festivals can take away from the bold programming approach of A L'ARME! 

Artist-led collaborations

“I invite the artists to basically curate their own invitation.”

A key element of A L’ARME!’s programming is giving artists autonomy. The festival invites artists to propose their own projects and collaborations, and also asks them how they can present existing work in new contexts and surprising ways. 

Most special projects originate from the artists themselves and Louis and Karina help them to make their creative vision a reality. Another approach is to use artists on the line-up in two or three gigs, showing different sides of their work.

Many forms of hybridisation

We do invite jazz-related artists and improvisers, but aim to present their work in the most surprising, and possibly unexpected ways, so that you could also "read" A L'ARME! as a non-jazz-at-all-festival, if you will, which can make the whole thing potentially interesting for new audience groups.”

Louis identifies ‘hybridisation’ as the single curatorial concept - or leitmotif -   that defines A L'ARME! 

He shares examples of gigs from the 2023 edition to reveal the different types of hybridisation at play. The line-up includes genre-crossing artists and artists performing in new and unexpected contexts or collaborations.

“We started to incorporate hip hop in 2019. And this year we featured artists like the American drummer, rapper and multi-instrumentalist Kassa Overall and the Austrian drummer and composer Lukas König who are both equally active in hip hop and avant-garde jazz or improvised music, respectively.”
Lukas Konig, described by Louis as belonging to “Europe’s finest improvisers”, presented an exclusive live version of his noise rap project "1 Above Minus Underground" featuring vocalists and noise artists from the US, UK and Austria.

And in some cases hybridisation isn’t about the blurring of two genres but of many:

“The conceptual artist and bassoonist Joy Guidry impressed with their ensemble work "Radical Acceptance" at the intersection of Black music, avant-garde jazz, contemporary classical, gospel, improvised music and performance art.”

In a final example, the hybridisation is between music and AI technology. Louis explains: “Meat.Karaoke.Quality.Time featured three German straight-up jazz musicians, Florian Walter, Karl-F. Degenhardt and Jan Klare. In this special trio project, they only worked with electronic devices including sensory percussion, electronic wind instruments and synthesizers. In the performance they improvise freely while interacting with an audio-visual artificial intelligence in real time, pre-programmed by the Canadian software developer and composer Mike McCormick.”

Ultimately, hybridisation means avoiding genre categorisation and limitations and embracing creative experimentation. Louis observes that the younger generation of artists and audiences are often the natural genre expanders, moving fluidly across stylistic borders and embracing versatility. “The younger people seem to leave the borders behind like it's normal.”


Visual surprises, unusual stage settings

“We are known for being very creative, in terms of how to work with the rooms so we aim for visual surprises and unusual stage settings. We’re also a very vibey festival. It has always been like that but it has got more and more intense.”

For Louis, bold programming is not enough on its own. A L’ARME!’ strives to create “an intimate experience that is an emotional one too”. The gigs are creatively presented and audio-visuals, light projections and installations are an integral part of the overall experience. 

The spaces at the venue - Radialsystem - allow tiered seating to be removed, meaning the audience is free to move around and experience the gig in different ways. The capacity of the venue is 400, so the festival has an intimate atmosphere.

“Mostly it's a very interesting way to get the raw Berlin feeling. If you want to get to know Berlin from a special side then A L’ARME! is one of many ways to get the Berlin vibe because there's a very particular raw and beautiful energy in this city and we try to capture this.”

Mixing up the demographics

When the festival started, it had the standard jazz audience demographics - lots of mature people and a few younger ones. Nowadays it’s mostly people in their thirties and forties. 

“We are pleased we’ve managed to mix it up, which is connected with the people on the stage. In the last five years or so there are hundreds of sound and creative music artists coming through. And they’re all good. And young people leave boundaries behind.”

A L'ARME! also cultivates that sense of community through side experiences like natural wine collaborations and live radio broadcasts. 


All this comes with challenges.The biggest of these is how to continue to develop the artistic programme at a time of inflationary pressures. This year the festival had to reduce its programme from four to three days.

“Right now we are in the middle of fundraising. That's the most important thing. So first of all, we have to find our way back to our four-day standard. And then we would like to implement even more commissioned works and audio visual artists in our programme, with more installations to make beautiful experiences.”

Advice for programmers

As we bring our conversation to a close, we ask Louis for his tips to other programmers who want to journey into increasingly adventurous territory. 

“Don’t be afraid to leave your own comfort zone” he answers immediately. “Most of all, keep an open mind to get inspired and don’t be afraid of taking risks because you're aiming for a lively, vital process. It will be rewarded by a very inspired and enthusiastic audience.”

A L’ARME! aims not just to present gigs, but to encourage collective adventure and new encounters around a love of experimental and genre-expanding music.

Photos by ​Juliane Schütz.

1. Louis Rastig

2. Claire Rousay

3. Joy Guidry

4. Kassa Overall

5. Tomoki Sanders, part of Kassa Overall's band project

6. Meat.Karaoke.Quality.Time

7. The venue - Radialsystem

8. Victoria Shen, part of Lukas König's "1 Above Minus Underground"

​9. Eve Risser & Adrian Bourget