When Music Becomes Hostile (and How to Counter It): Observations from Neukölln, Berlin

In August 2018, operators of the S-Bahn Berlin announced a plan to run a pilot program at the railway station Hermannstrasse in Berlin-Neukölln, which would make use of “atonal music” in order to deter homeless persons from staying inside the station. What they meant by using the term “atonal”, of course, was what they perceived as the paradigm of “ugly” music. Within days, the “Initiative Neue Musik Berlin” responded by presenting their happening “Atonale Musik für Alle”: “[…] Atonal music in everyday life? Sounds great! We would like to extend our gratitude to the operators of the S-Bahn Berlin for this stroke of genius and cordially invite you to our event on the 24th of August at 1900, in the entrance to the Hermannstrasse station. We will be serving food and drinks for everybody so that we can celebrate and listen, together, atonal music or indeed even, to play it [sic!]. This Friday evening we would like to represent and portray atonal music, as something that stands for the liberation of (tonal) hierarchies and of the equivalence of all sounds as a metaphor for social equality, for participation and to counteract social discords with our own musical dissonances […]” (Atonale Musik für Alle, 2018). By rhetorically relating the concept of the “emancipation of dissonance” to social equality and transforming the station into a venue for an exclusively inclusive concert, the organisers of the happening undermined the plan of the S-Bahn Berlin: The announcement and realisation of the protest concert, which drew around 300 people, generated nationwide media attention and led to the dismissal of the pilot program before it even started. Surely, most people will agree on the hostile character of this program. But when exactly does music in public space become hostile? In order to answer this question, I need to complicate the matter by introducing the notion of “unsought sound”, which potentially also includes artistic and scientific approaches to sonic alterations of public spaces.

The reciprocal transformative potentials of musical experience and its situatedness in public space, which encompasses the location’s acoustic qualities and socio-aesthetic contexts, are a central concern for both the artistic and scientific research on affordances of our daily sonic environments. In a similarly adaptive manner, sound artists and aural architects try to include the ever-changing sonic and social dynamics of concrete public spaces into their conceptions. Public sound installations and sculptures may emit electronic, pre-recorded local or non-local sounds, thereby often incorporating participatory and adaptive elements, for example through the implementation of sensors or kinetic elements that alter the sound in real-time. The subtle transformation of a pre-existing, sonically informed reality is at the centre of most conceptions, thereby enabling a constructive and playful involvement of the passers-by while retaining their capability to auditively and meaningfully “locate” the stimuli. While aural architecture is less about playful aestheticisation than sound art, it is equally site-specific. By determining the aural properties that best match their evaluation of a “functional” real or virtual space, aural architects initiate concrete acoustic arrangements that could lead to the desired emotional, behavioural and visceral responses.

Of course, it must be stated that there are always possible disparities between intent and effect. Sonic alterations of public spaces, for example through temporary sound installations, may cause individual resentment when the artistically imagined affordance and functionality of the work is obstructed by the recipient’s unwillingness to aurally explore the augmented soundscape. Passers-by might feel involuntarily “detained” in the soundscape due to the nature of sound: you cannot just look away. Thus, sound art in public spaces could potentially become “unsought sound”. In this case, however, the usage of sound or music can hardly be described as an intentionally hostile or even violent act. A (conventional) sound installation does not aim at territorial control or the exertion of political power, whereas in commercial locations and workplaces sound and music may be instrumentalised to decrease stress, to induce less critical reflection, to increase the work rate or to enhance the physical territory through sound emission and thus gain the potential customer’s attention. In the context of these behavioural applications of sound, Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan note that it is only “a small step from producing those who are biddable, to expelling those who are not” (2009, p.182), referring to sonic means of hostile or defensive architecture. Just like the design of uncomfortable benches or “anti-homeless spikes”, such strategies of “hostile aural architecture” aim at the exertion of social control over public spaces. While visual hostile design usually modifies functional physical objects, thereby often using their disguise, sonic strategies against unwanted demographic groups, ranging from unpleasant frequencies to classical – or atonal – music, are more transparently recognisable as a merely hostile instrument. Both physical and sonic strategies have been subject to creative responses and guerrilla actions. However, the hostile instrumentalisation of pre-existing music potentially prompts the most effective counterings, since not only the physical space but also the music’s original contexts may be used in a performative (re-)coding. Pre-existing music, especially highly conceptual music like (early) atonality, allows more easily for its defence against attempts at its social or political occupation. Music with such historical “gravity”, being a sensual carrier for multiple socio-aesthetically effective ascriptions of meaning, downright invites its symbolic re-appropriation and the meaningful reconfiguration of its site-specific aural experience.

“Unsought music” is all around us in our day-to-day life: From music in restaurants, shopping malls and elevators to halftime music shows, public sound emissions constantly claim territory, aim at our diversion or attention. Although these examples cannot be regarded as “hostile music” in a narrow sense, its inclusive and exclusive effects are inevitable (and most often intended). Attempts at a re-appropriation of the used music seem futile: Especially the experience of exclusively produced music for public spaces cannot be re-coded in the same way, since its aesthetic inherence and historicity is entirely missing. In times of an overwhelming hegemonial use of “industry music”, the pilot program by the S-Bahn Berlin posed a solvable problem: Its openly hostile strategy, coupled with the ahistoric instrumentalisation of a tradition-bound and highly institutionalised branch of musical modernism made its application virtually impossible on its own.


(Photo retrieved from: https://www.musikkritik.org/2018/09/atonale-musik-fuer-alle-musikalische-aktion-in-berlin-paradox/)


Atonale Musik für alle – Konzertkalender – Initiative Neue Musik Berlin e. V. Retrieved April 10, 2019, from https://www.inm-berlin.de/de/konzertkalender/23595/atonale_musik_f_r_alle

Johnson, Bruce and Cloonan, Martin (2009). Dark Side of the Tune. Popular Music and Violence. London, UK: Routledge.

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