Summer Solstice, Berlin.
Summer Solstice, 2013: Berlin. It is a perfect midsummer night's eve, not a cloud in the blue sky at 8:00 p.m. Today is also the Fete de la Musique, an annual event that began in Paris in 1982 and is now celebrated across Europe. As part of the musical performances occurring in over forty locations in Germany and one hundred different stages within Berlin itself, the range of offerings is as inclusive as one could wish, with plenty of venues for kids and classical music fans. Describing the main kinds of music as pop, rock, and folk hardly does justice to a program that includes "psychobilly,". reggaetronics," "electro swing," "Russian speed-folk," "handicapped rock," "italofrench futurefunk," "diamond glam pop," and "apocalyptic folk." There are even apparently unclassifiable performers such as "Thomas Tulip mit poppiger Wurstmusike" (Thomas Tulip with trendy sausage music) and the "Blockflote des Todes" (Recorder of death). The festival also officially encourages everyone to make their own music spontaneously (as long as it is in public areas, without electronic amplification, and ends at 10:00 p.m.).
There is a quite a "public" clogging the streets on this summer evening: besides the tourists, participants in the Christopher Day parade on the morrow have arrived and are already enjoying themselves as flamboyantly as expected. As part of the official program, one particular event strikes me as very "Berlin": the BVG's (Berlin's Public Transportation System) U5 Klangerlebnisse (U5 listening experiences). The U5 is the subway line under construction right in the midst of the city's biggest tourist attractions, the Brandenburg Gate and the Unter den Linden Boulevard. Cranes and heavy excavation machinery operate unnervingly close to the temporary walkways that are the only access to luxury stores and hotels. The U5 listening experiences offer a "Klangteppich" (sound carpet) of music-making along the walkways, which are already plastered with informational placards about the history of the underground transportation system in Berlin and its future.
One of the locations--a Volkswagen showroom--has a rock band competing for attention with the latest cars on display. Although it is completely soundproofed, it also competes, at least visually, with the jazz trio playing in the walkway directly outside it. The jazz group is identified by the official logo of the Fete de la Musique, but its open instrument case for donations makes it easy to confuse them with the other street musicians playing in similar venues every day.
This listening experience seems to exemplify the way Berlin appears to be self-consciously compelled to turn everything, even an unsightly and noisy construction site, into a learning opportunity. But is there anything wrong with this? Of course not: what could be wrong with the idea of filling the city with free performances of every kind and encouraging people to appreciate the "sound carpet" that surrounds them every day?
Sanna Pederson is the Mavis C. Pitman Professor of Music at the University of Oklahoma, where she specializes in German nineteenth-century music and culture. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of the American Musicological Society and is currently working on a book called A History of Absolute Music.