Sonic Geography
For MusicWorks Issue #100


Aromatic perfume made of fragrant oils and alcohol; the gothic Dom, with its 157-metre twin spires; and the frenetic, colorful Köln Carnival that preoccupies the city and its inhabitants the week before Ash Wednesday.

That what most people associate with Cologne – Köln in German – the oldest of major German cities, founded by the Romans in 50 AD. Built on the banks of the Rhine, Köln, which today has a population of about one million, profited from its harbour trade for many centuries. Today Hohestrasse is the major shopping district, with most of the streets radiating away from the Dom to the first ring road, packed with more retail outlets than you’d find in any mammoth North American mall.

Travel a couple of blocks beyond this, however, and you’ll be confronted with the squat, concrete slab that is the local headquarters of WDR or Westdeutschen Rundfunks. From 1963 to 1977 with Karlheinz Stockhausen as artistic director, its Studio für elektronische Musik and WDR itself was practically the epicentre of European experimental music with the scores of Stockhausen, Györgi Ligeti, John Cage and others often performed and these composers frequent visitors. Meanwhile other musical experimenters such as Maurizio Kagel and Hans Werner Henze were teaching at Musikhochschule Köln.

As well, because – or perhaps in spite of – this Stockhausenian focus on contemporary electro-acoustic composition, strains of pop-rock-electronica – most noticeably in the sounds of the 1970s ProgRock band Can and contemporary dance duo Mouse on Mars – are very popular in the city today. In fact, funk and electronic beats have superseded jazz as regular fare on the club scene. If there are improvised music-oriented performances, most take place in The Loft, located in the city suburbs; at the Wundertütte, a grungy bar whose offerings alternate between rock and Free Jazz; and at the Galerie Rachel Heferkamp, which also provides a showcase for such sound artist/composers as Hans W. Koch.

What Köln musicians lack in regular venues, however, they make up with innovative programming. Most notable is the annual Kölner Musiknacht. An outgrowth of IFM, a freelance musicians’ group, each year a program is organized to allow audiences to spend one night sampling sounds from about 300 musicians – ranging from early-music specialists to avant gardists – at about 25 different locations throughout the city. “It’s a way to show the public and the politicians the large amount of great music that is worth while to know about and to support,” explains composer and alto saxophonist Georg Wissel who has been involved with IFM since its 1999 founding.

In Köln, non-mainstream music extends past congruence to cooperation. Both jazz and free musicians play together in large ensembles like the James Choice Orchestra, while some musicians who teach at Musikhochschule Kölnr or are members of one of the city’s two orchestras which play at the 2,000-seat amphitheatre-shaped Philharmonie, are also involved in improvising ensembles. These musical intersections date back to the mid-1960s, when members of Gruppe 8, consisting of contemporary classical composers, and early German Free Jazz players such as saxophonist Peter Brötzmann were involved with each other’s music. At that time, WDR, which now is one supporter of Kölner Musiknacht, regularly recorded improvised and notated music concerts

Brötzmann is probably the best-known improviser from nearby Wuppertal. With that city, Düsseldorf and Bonn all less than 40 kilometres distant from Köln, and with other centres like Essen, Bochum and even Wiesbaden – home to the annual experimental HumanNoise Congress – only slightly further away, players from those cities quickly develop rapport with Köln-based ensembles. Right now, another of Wissel’s activities is organizing a pool of about 30 musicians from Köln and elsewhere to create an on-going improvising music ensemble. “We Europeans have to recognize, that we live in a small, dense place, with for example Wuppertal only 40 minutes away from Köln, Wiesbaden, two hours away etc,” he notes.

Since non-traditional music in other major German cities is usually championed by a few individuals, why the numbers in Köln? It may be because Kölnians consider themselves different than other Germans. Over a glass of top-fermented, light Kölsch beer, they’ll compare themselves to Italians in craft, guile and entrepreneurship. Since the average day’s weather in Köln encompasses sunshine, drizzle, pouring rain and sunshine again, the comparison with Italian ports is inescapable.

Although it’s mainly a matter of “curiosity, personal contacts and shared musical interests” that contribute to musical relationships in Köln, as one player puts it, the city also welcomes outsiders. American and British improvisers have become part of the scene, and when it come to the recruiting players for the orchestral project, Wissel jokes that “even musicians from Mars are welcome, if they can limit their traveling-costs to a reasonable limit.”


Ken Waxman (www.jazzword.com) writes in Toronto and internationally about jazz and improvised music. This is the second of his reports on the sonic geography of selected European cities.