Sonic Geography: Munich

For MusicWorks Issue #103

Mammoth beer-drinking establishments and meticulously maintained older structures of all sorts are the images that resonate most strongly about Munich, Germany’s third-largest city. All year Munich’s outdoor beer gardens – one of which holds 8,000 [!] people – are packed with folks enjoying the traditional one-litre (die mass) glass of beer and chowing down on regional specialties such as Weißwürste (white sausages), Leberkäs (baked sausage loaf), and sweetish chewy pretzels, while listening to brass bands. Annually the 16-day Oktoberfest adds about 17 million visitors to the Bavarian capital’s nearly 1.5 inhabitants.

Bombed during the Second World War Munich is the only major German city to painstakingly preserve its pre-war street grid, while rebuilding older structures such as those on the shopping streets around Marienplatz square exactly as they were beforehand. There daily, to glockenspiel accompaniment, miniature enameled cooper figures jerkily move along a platform jutting from the town hall’s clock as they have since the 19th Century.

This innate conservatism extends to the music scene. Munich supports an inordinate number of “official” classical ensembles, but there’s little interaction among musicians involved in different genres. “Most of us are separated into small, locked circles,” explains Hannes Schneider, one of the founders of Offene Ohren e.V., which organizes improvised music concerts. “For instance, people in the experimental [composed] new music scene have a yearly one-night festival, but remain closed to dialogues with us.”

Meanwhile the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, located in the modern Gasteig centre that seats 2,400 people is financed by the city of Munich; the Bavarian State Opera and the Bavarian State Orchestra, headquartered at the Nationaltheater where several of Richard Wagner's operas were premiered, are funded by the state of Bavaria, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s primary concert venue is the Herkulesaal, a former royal residence. Except for isolated New music programs, the official ensembles also cleave to traditional sounds. It’s the same story with the Munich Symphony, Orchestra of Gärtnerplatztheater, the Rundfunkorchester and the Munich Chamber Orchestra. “The majority of people go to the symphony not to listen but to be seen,” Schneider explains.

However, arranging concerts which take place in a variety of performance spaces far from the main city centre, the non-profit association whose full name is Offene Ohren e.V. – Freunde der improvisierten Musik or Open Ears – Friends of Improvised Music attempts to counter this situation.

Pointing to the city’s Englischer Garten, one of the world’s largest green spaces, established in 1789 as a pioneering example of urban planning, the influential Der Blaue Rider group of expressionist painters in the early 20th century, and the Bayrische Akademie der Wissenschaften founded in 1759, Schneider maintains that groups like the Offene Ohren aim to reach Munich’s hidden progressive side. Equally strong however, is the area’s right-wing past. The beer hall where Adolph Hitler staged his unsuccessful 1923 putsch still does roaring business and pre-1945, Munich was known as Hauptstadt der Bewegung or “capital of the Movement”, since it was where the Nazi party was organized. “But”, pleads Schneider. “Don’t reduce an 850-year-old city to a few years of recent history”.

Those recent years though have been pretty mainstream even when it comes to non-concert hall music. For pop, the city is most famous for disco diva Donna Summer’s 1970s hits created by a Munich-based writing-producing team. Meanwhile Unterfahrt, the city’s major jazz club, has for almost a decade mostly booked smooth, contemporary jazz groups.

Besides Offene Ohren, only the International Composers & Improvisers (ICI) ensemble promotes experimental music. Directed by trombonist Christopher Varner, ICI has since the late 1990s, collaborated with international improvisers such as American trombonist George Lewis and Dutch drummer Han Bennink. Today it hosts concerts at the Schwere Reiter, in a suburban factory-like space not far from Schloss Nymphenburg (Nymphenburg palace). Performance lofts are difficult to find, divulges one musician, because with so much of pre-war Munich devoted to agriculture, large industrial buildings are rare.

Offene Ohren has similar experiences: many of its earliest gigs took place in an out-of-the-way bar, which had fallen out-of-favor as a pick-up spot. With the improvised music crowds the largest the owners had seen [!] the venue was secured for a time. “Nearer the [Munich city] centre, all real estate is supposed to generate revenue per square metre,” notes Schneider. “Our advantage,” he jokes “is that our target group is not likely to reside where this big money circulates.”

Recently though, many Offene Ohren concerts are held at the t-u-b-e gallery for radiophonic art, installations and audio, supported by Munich’s Cultural Office and Bavarian Radio. These shows have featured such improvisers as French bassist Joëlle Léandre, British pianist Chris Burn and Bennink among many others. Yet separation even exists between Offene Ohren and ICE bookings. “There is some exchange, but we still have our own circuits,” admits Schneider.

Further maintaining its own agenda, Offene Ohren recently turned down an opportunity to present improvised music in Munich residents’ most popular entertainment venues. “We [Offene Ohren] were approached last year by some beer garden owner to organize the mid-day music in a beer hall, and we refused,” Schneider relates. “People there like the music easy and predictable to help them get drunk. It’s the wrong place for us.”


Ken Waxman writes in Toronto about jazz and improvised music for local and international publications. This is the latest in his ongoing series of reports on the sonic geography of selected European cities