Deutsche Bahn abandons plans to use atonal music at Hermannstraße S-Bahn station after protest concert

With the Month of Contemporary Music just around the corner in Berlin, atonal music made unexpected headlines last week. Germany’s national railway company Deutsche Bahn (DB) which also operates the Berlin S-Bahn, announced plans to play atonal music at the Hermannstraße S-Bahn station.

Photo by Sarah Schmidt

A post for Omnified by Sarah Schmidt


With the Month of Contemporary Music just around the corner in Berlin, atonal music made unexpected headlines last week. Germany’s national railway company Deutsche Bahn (DB) which also operates the Berlin S-Bahn, announced plans to play atonal music at the Hermannstraße S-Bahn station.

The disharmonious tunes were supposed to drive off drug users and homeless people, a plan that drew widespread criticism and has since been abandoned, in part due to a peaceful protest organized by the Initiative für Neue Musik Berlin e.V (Initiative for New Music, INM) last Friday.

Friedemann Keßler, DB’s regional director for Berlin, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern told Der Tagesspiegel that the plans to play atonal music in the train station were part of a larger initiative to make some of the city’s train stations safer and more passenger-friendly. Hermannstraße, as one of the “focus stations” of the initiative, was supposed to get a new coat of paint, some wall decorations, and possibly a new soundscape.

Lisa Bensje from the INM organized a protest concert in response. Due to the INM’s good network in the contemporary music scene, they were able to pull together a lineup with several well-regarded performers in only two days. They also offered beer and potato salad. Bensje said the protest wanted to address several issues.

For one, INM, which sees itself as a lobbying organization for the contemporary music scene in Berlin, is against the use of music as a means to an end and wanted to ensure experimental music is taken seriously as an art form.

Bensje also criticized the underlying classism of using “difficult” music against a certain clientele: the implication being that only the educated upper middle class can appreciate classical and experimental music, an idea she rejects as elitist.

The organizers estimate that about 500 people came to listen to performances by vocalist Sirje Aleksandra Viise, flutist Erik Drescher and saxophonist Ruth Velten – all established names in the contemporary music scene. Mathis Mayr on cello and Ernst Surberg on synthesizer performed a piece by Joanna Bailie, aptly named “Trains.”

Many of the listeners already were familiar with or had an investment in the contemporary music scene themselves, but some passersby also stopped to listen to the performances.

Not everyone was happy with this form of the protest, however. Two local residents behind a small counter-demonstration said they thought the emphasis on atonal music as a misunderstood artform is misguided.

Fine and Anne, who spoke under the condition of giving their first names only, said they personally know many of the homeless people in the area. They think people should focus more on the inhumane attitudes towards poverty and drug addiction expressed in the plans, and less on the use of contemporary music.

Fine held a sign which read, “Wir [haben] hier Spaß – Wohnungslose bald keinen Schlafplatz mehr!” #Empörung statt Party-Protest” or in English, “We’re having fun – the homeless will soon lose their place to sleep. Outrage instead of party protest!”

Anne said the topic was a deeply personal one for her, since she recently lost her brother to an accidental drug overdose after he became homeless. Both agree that the problems of homelessness and drug addiction in this part of Neukölln need to be solved instead of simply displaced.

Sirje Viise, an Estonian-American vocalist who opened the concert with a rendition of Julius Eastman’s “Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc” said she chose the piece very consciously for the occasion. Julius Eastman, an American composer avant garde composer, lived a life between genius and tragedy and died age 49 in 1990 from a drug overdose after living on the street for several years.

Viise said she believes art can be a way to make suffering visible and comprehensible and felt the concert was a show of solidarity with the disadvantaged people of Berlin and elsewhere.

Friedemann Keßler and Burkhard Ahlert, DB’s press official for Berlin, were among the crowd on Friday. After listening to improvisation from two saxophonists, Keßler seemed to have revised his opinion on atonal music. Last week he told the Tagesspiegel that atonal music “completely undermines traditional listening habits” and that “few people find it beautiful.”

After the concert, Keßler expressed his admiration for the virtuosity of the performers and the organizers’ expertise on the subject. He also said that his statements were misunderstood – when talking about atonal music during a brainstorming meeting, his team was thinking of random sound snippets and not compositions by Schönberg and Webern.

Keßler conceded, however, that the whole plan might have been misguided: while the station will still be beautified in some way by the end of the year, the idea to use sound in any way was dismissed after it sparked so much protest.

In the end, the concert did at least one thing well: it brought people together. While not providing any direct solutions to the problems of homelessness and addiction that plague the area, the event got people talking about both issues.

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