Newly remastered by Rashad Becker for this vinyl edition, ‘5 S-Bahn’ finds Lucy Railton rendering a sublime, haunting impression of Berlin made in early Spring 2020 for our Documenting Sound series of sonic postcards from around the globe. It’s essentially a recording of a world-renowned cellist duetting with the S-Bahn outside her apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, playing with, thru, and against the atmosphere of Berlin in spring during lockdown, capturing a scene that feels timelessly nostalgic, pregnant with an unresolved and restless quietude.
For a compelling 45 minutes Railton describes the slow daily arc of life under lockdown in a usually bustling Berlin slowed to stasis. Quite brilliantly, her voice and her musical gestures become fleeting ephemeral presences as much as the passing trains, planes overhead, birdsong, and the gorgeous church bells of P’Berg, which all unfold and recede in languorous turns. It reminds us of the exquisite, seemingly effortless location recordings used in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ - ambient sound in the truest sense of the word; suggestive of life just outside our field of view; close - and out of reach. Railton’s ear for ghostly haptics serves to search out an underlying poetry in the ubiquitous and everyday, highlighting the serene yet dread-filled uncanniness of a usually bustling Berlin awakening from winter into the torpor of lockdown. Railton sets the scene:
"On the other side of our backyard wall is Berlin’s main railway line, the Ringbahn. A train passes the apartment block about twenty times an hour, drowning out our conversations and waking us up at night. It is a communal annoyance you learn to love. It structures the shape of this place and enforces a rhythm. I’ve always been glad of these interludes, they provide rich listening material that heightens an otherwise peaceful sonic space. ‘5 S-Bahn’ is my attempt to inscribe part of my sonic location and my own position within it.
By accident this is the second time I’ve ended up living by a busy train line. The first was in Hackney Wick in London. I was short-term living on my own in a studio with an industrial window wall that pretty much touched the safety rails of the train platform. I saw legs, dogs and the Overground Line for most of the day. It was strange being the bystander of a scene like this - what people do on platforms - I got used to their waiting and escaping. Sonically though, things were their best at night. Then it was Maersk and Delphis and other blurry cargo containers, momentarily paralysing us tenants as the noise of the passing freights peaked, sometimes in awkwardly long sustains, long enough that you could fall back to sleep inside them. These sonic treats were (almost) a comfort and, for us neighbours, these freight tremors brought a kind of communion as we endured their assaults together in our sleep, a bizarre way for us to connect, though I might have been the only one to romanticise them in this way.
In Berlin, the setting isn't as intense. Here, there's a distance and a wall separating the backyard and the tracks. I have to climb it to mount the recording equipment. Over the wall, I learn the look of the garage, the church, the rows of Maple trees, the tracks, a playground and the graffiti. Up here, the traffic on Schoenhauser Allee is more pronounced and the deep hum of the city funnels in along the tracks. The machines and people who had been in our ears all this time are now visible. Pressing record I start the process of learning this space and its articulations, hearing it washed out over and over again by the train’s intense interruptions. I wash out with it too, listening from inside my apartment with my headphones on, playing along, singing along, in duet with the tones and frequencies of this space and the organic shapes of its drama. There is so much music already here, maybe this is a collaboration or a dedication of some sort. I find myself admiring its virtuosity and its personality: relentless, seductive, beautiful in all its variation. By taking part in collaboration, I learn and absorb the character of the other, and through the sitting process, I find new shapes and tonalities and temperaments."