Sonic Geography: Mulhouse, France

For MusicWorks Issue #101

During late August when some streets in Mulhouse, France take on a decidedly other-directed character associated with the Jazz à Mulhouse (JAM) festival, it’s likely neither visitors nor locals realize the symbolic roots of the celebration, an integral part of the city since 1983.

Known as France’s Manchester, industry in this city of about 112,000 people in the Haut-Rhin region has been involved with the textile industry since 1746, when four locals founded the city’s first textile printing works. Annexed by France in 1798, Mulhouse was formerly a free republic associated with the Swiss Confederation. In the late 19th and early 20th century Mulhouse’s factories remained world leaders in the manufacture and marketing of printed cloth for both home and apparel, while students from around the world studied at the École nationale superieure des industries textiles.

Over the centuries the city also established enduring links with New Orleans, main port of Louisiana, from where cotton for its textile factories was imported. Isn’t it appropriate then, that one of Europe’s most sophisticated improvised music festivals should have this long-time attachment to the purported cradle of jazz?

Not that there’s any sort of languid Crescent City feel to this city, 30 kilometres northwest of Basel, Switzerland. Its distinctiveness comes from being a French city in close proximity to Germany and Switzerland. Annexed by Germany following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1918) and from 1940-1945, there’s a Teutonic bustle in the streets and a few restaurants where German-styled dishes such as baeckeoffe, meats simmered in wine, markknepfle, sausages with potatoes and spätzle noodles are available. Additionally, there’s that Swiss connection, and not just from visitors. As Adrien Chiquet, JAM’s artistic director notes: “The specificity of Mulhouse is that part of the supposed middle class works in Switzerland and earns a lot of money.”

This money means that Mulhouse is able to support artistic endeavors such as the Musée de l'Impression sur Étoffes (printed textiles) and the Musée National de l'Automobile de Mulhouse, initially located within a textile mill. There’s also La Filature, the theatre/opera house, which is dark throughout August.

In contrast, during JAM, day-time concerts take place in the austere 12th Century Chapelle St. Jean, midtown, and at night at Le Noumatrouff, an expansive rock club in the suburbs, next to the tram terminus. “Even if Le Noumatrouff is not so comfortable, it’s more appropriate for what I want to do,” confides Chiquet. “Free-Music has more to do with punk venues than opera houses.”

Considering that JAM now hosts rock-improv, and electronica as well as acoustic Free Music, proves his point. In 2007, for instance, the rock-influenced Alsacienne duo Donkey Monkey and the Basque punk-improv Billy Boa trio were featured along with improvisers such as computer manipulator Thomas Lehn, saxophonist Evan Parker and pianist Irène Schweizer. The affiliated Jazz en ville/À La Campage concerts earlier in August are more conventional. This reflects the festival’s origins as a standard summer jazz fest, which as recently as 1990 featured boppers such as flugelhornist Art Farmer. The improv concentration occurred two years later when founding artistic director Paul Kanitzer gave up direction of the cultural center to concentrate on JAM.

It’s not as if there are many well-known musicians of any stripe living in the area. Although since the Beatles-era there has been a militant alternative rock scene – witness the airport hanger-like size of Le Noumatrouff – but with larger cities like Basel and Strasbourg, France nearby, committed professional musicians move on. Rather than a musician, probably the most famous Mulhouse native was Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), the French army captain whose trumped-up treason conviction exposed the country’s latent anti-Semitism.

Still, JAM tries to encourage appreciation for music in the area. Over the years concerts have been held on the streets, in bars and shops and in 2006, even at the Bains Municipaux, with a multi-media soiree fluid including videos, dance, and an electro-acoustic group led by Parker.

Off season JAM also co-presents improv-rock and electronica concerts, organizes electronic music workshops and sponsors a year-long series at the Mulhouse conservatory where visiting improvisers work with music students and non-professionals. During the festival young players come from all over – about 30 per cent of them locals, estimates Chiquet – to participate in intensive improvisational workshops, which in 2007 were directed by Parker, pianist Sophie Agnel and guitarist Noël Akchoté. The previous year sound designer Jérôme Noetinger led similar workshops.

Expressing a profound improv ethos, Chiquet sees the expansion of local musical activities as the workshops’ and the festival’s underlying objective “I think that 35 years of creative music in Mulhouse – because of Paul Kanitzer’s activity – has produced a lot of musicians here even if, in the end, they don't play ‘improvised music’ but turn to rock, jazz, singing, electro, etc.” he affirms.


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