Protesting the Weaponization of Atonal Music

By · Title Image LIENHARD SCHULZ (CC BY-SA 3.0) · Date 8/30/2018

On August 17, Germany’s state-owned railway company Deutsche Bahn announced the launch of a new initiative that aimed to sonically evict “homeless people and drug users” at its Hermannstraße station, a story that caught the attention of virtually every news outlet in Germany, as well as the New York Times. (The project has since been abandoned, citing criticism from the public and the German Music Council. “Nature sounds” will be tried out instead.) It is the latest development in a series of instances where European public transportation agencies believe they can weaponize classical music for positive social outcomes. But unlike previous efforts in places like Leipzig and London, where the ostensibly calming sounds of Vivaldi and Mozart fill stations to subdue criminal behavior, Berlin’s approach attracted attention because it was far more confrontational. Violent, even: Deutsche Bahn hoped that the “anxiety-inducing” qualities of an exclusively atonal playlist would simply rid stations of “unwanted” guests.

PHOTO LIENHARD SCHULZ CC BY-SA 3.0
PHOTO LIENHARD SCHULZ CC BY-SA 3.0

Last week, VAN’s Merle Krafeld asked representatives at the railway company for answers about the purpose and programming of their project, which was slated to start in September, but her inquiries were met with frustratingly curt responses devoid of many details—signaling that Deutsche Bahn hadn’t put much thought into the plans.

Intentionally or not, the project can be seen as a sort of sonic endorsement at the institutional level of the market forces that are forcing Berlin residents from their homes. The housing crisis plaguing Berlin—more specifically, Neukölln, the neighborhood where the Hermannstraße station is located—is indeed a tragic backdrop for this new initiative. Following neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg in the ‘90s and Kreuzberg in the aughts, both now flooded with third-wave coffee shops and generic fast-casual farm-to-table restaurants, southern Neukölln is the most recent battleground in the fight against rampant gentrification that has drastically changed the face and feel of Berlin in the first 30 years of its post-Wall history, not to mention driven long-time residents (often immigrants) out of the city. But Neukölln’s case stands out over its precursors in the context of current global economic and political events. Homelessness has spiked in the past ten years since the global financial crisis, a period that has seen wage stagnation for many Berliners and an influx of refugees. At the same time, wealthy residents from the EU and the Anglosphere attracted to the last dying breaths of cheap property in Berlin have landed Germany’s capital at the top of a list of the world’s fastest-rising rental prices—and Neukölln is at the center of it all.

Berlin’s musical institutions were quick to respond. On Friday, August 24, one week after Deutsche Bahn’s announcement, Berlin’s Initiative for New Music staged a concert outside an entrance to the station highlighting music that fell under a broad atonal umbrella. Featuring works by Julius Eastman and Salvatore Sciarrino, among others, and titled “Atonal Music for All,” the event touted an explicitly inclusive rebranding of atonal music “as something that stands for the liberation of (tonal) hierarchies and of the equivalence of all sounds as a metaphor for social equality, for participation and to counteract social discords with our own musical dissonances.” The Initiative wanted to stand with the homeless in solidarity, or so it seemed.

At the concert, when I got off the train at Hermannstraße and scaled the stairs to the entrance of the station, I noticed a few things that immediately caught me off guard. The drink of choice among audience members was either Ayinger or Augustiner, beers from Munich that are among the most expensive brands you’ll find in Berlin’s Spätis, or bodegas. One woman was even drinking champagne. Far more striking was the sight of the “food and drinks for everyone” advertised in the Facebook invite, which were provided on a volunteer basis. My expectation was that the food offering would be a central part of the event, thinking that providing food, naturally, would be a simple and concrete action to combat the food insecurity that poor people face. Instead, the reality was a disorganized mish-mash of food items that were shoved into an overcrowded doorway on the floor, in a way that made the food seem like an afterthought. Hungry people wouldn’t have been able to get to it anyway because of the crowd, an impenetrable mass of people who wore tattered clothing as a marker of Berlin cool, not because they couldn’t afford better. The food seemed to go untouched throughout the evening; homeless people were nowhere to be found.

The rhythm of the concert rose and fell as the program oscillated between electronic and acoustic works and people, many of them just trying to use public transportation, shuffled in and out of the jumble of audience members surrounding the station. Proper concert protocol was followed—relative silence between pieces, no clapping between pauses—perhaps this concert would have been more at home in a concert hall. Dissonance was center stage, not only in the sounds being produced but in my thoughts: in a concert setting replete with the bourgeois classical concert norms that often feel exclusionary, it’s worth asking whether or not the people you are trying to include actually feel welcome. Programming Eastman, a composer whose life included bouts of homelessness, on a concert nominally devoted to combatting it, seemed a little misplaced, a move that benefited only the educated patrons who may have understood and identified with that reference. The time spent programming esoteric and inaccessible references could have been spent investing in and organizing a more robust food drive, to give one example.

While the sentiment and messaging behind concerts like this one come from a sincere place, the reality is that efforts like this have the potential to do more harm than good in a locale like Neukölln, where for many residents, the simple maintenance of everyday life is a precarious balancing act. What was missing was a sensitivity from organizers to the fact that the traffic created by inviting thousands of concertgoers into the makeshift homes occupied by the homeless can actually displace that very population—a devastating irony that speaks to the blindness with which the event was conceived.

The language underpinning the concert’s motives offered some clarity to the discomfort I felt at the event. Beneath empty gestures of inclusivity was an egregiously misplaced victimhood. The concert portrayed the Initiative’s response to what they saw as atonal music’s involuntary and unwarranted involvement on this political stage. In the Initiative’s words, “we are demonstrating against the railway’s plan to use atonal music to drive away marginalized people. With this event, we would like to make it clear that our music is not intended to be exclusive—on the contrary, it invites people to have new aural experiences together.” As a new music organization, it seemed INM felt like its duty was to stick up for what they saw as the real victim: atonal music. Deutsche Bahn wasn’t to blame for imposing sonically violent practices in its station, but rather for involving atonal music at all, as if a project like this one drags (relatively) contemporary classical music’s name through the mud.

In new plans announced this week, Deutsche Bahn is replacing atonal music with the sounds of nature (yet to be defined). Will Berlin’s new music community still stick up for the victims of sonic eviction at the station, or do the boundaries of musical violence extend only to dissonance? The Initiative has succeeded in preserving atonal music from an icky association, but homeless people at the station will still suffer. I was left with a feeling that Berlin’s new music community was patting itself on the back for taking a putatively progressive stance on an important issue, when the reality looked more like a lukewarm response characteristic of liberal philanthropy. What purpose does an event like this serve if the result is that the very demographic this concert seemed to be in solidarity with was not only apparently excluded, but perhaps even harmed as a result of ethically questionable concert organization? This is one example of how new music spaces—even ones with express messages of inclusivity (“music for all”)—can in fact be exclusive on these bases. The application of a broad, blanket political statement to a concert with little direct action results not only in a negative sum game but also the kind of vapid virtue signaling that leads credence to ideas that music cannot be effectively political or that music and protest are mutually exclusive. They are not. ¶