Public Art Munich’s ‚Grande Finale‘ was Ari Benjamin Meyers’ Staatsorchester – The beginning of something new at Munich's city hall

Ari Benjamin Meyers’ Staatsorchester closed the program of Public Art Munich (PAM), Joanna Warsza’s perennial dedicated to performance art in the city, with a four-hour performance by street musicians playing as an orchestra. It featured loops, solos and a large-scale symphonic composition all taking place in the main rooms and balconies of the city’s 19th century town hall, the Munich ‚Rathaus‘.

MILP: The Staatsorchester had been rehearsing at Maximiliansforum, an underground arts project space, beneath trams and cars passing by overhead, before moving to the Rathaus. Anyone who would go down the stairs and sit for a while to listen, could feel the vibrations of life in the streets and the orchestra mingling with each other.

ABM: I was very happy about this. Actually I was surprised how good the space feels, how good it sounds. If I were the person in charge I would turn it into an open rehearsal space for Munich-based performing groups, so people can come down, pass by or stay for a few hours and witness all different types of ensembles rehearsing.

MIP: How did the project turn into an orchestra of street musicians?
 ABM: When Joanna (Warsza) first approached me with the idea of a public work of art, I was already working on the idea of creating an orchestra with civilians, but not specifically street musicians. The idea was to create a civic orchestra with all different kinds of people, a larger one of probably fifty to sixty people with different backgrounds, people with no musical experience. Originally it was to last one year; a year in which people get together to discuss and rehearse, adults and children, and the kids teach the adults how to play the instruments. But this idea in the end proved to be too complicated, and too expensive. I really wanted to keep the idea of creating a public/civic orchestra from scratch, and so I re-focused on Munich’s street musicians.

MILP: So the idea of a civic orchestra was something you developed in conversation with the team of the PAM?

ABM: It was an idea I brought to them, but in response to the question of what public art could be today. When you think about public art you think first of monuments, sculptures, of something physical that has some kind of permanence. So the idea of giving birth to an orchestra for the public space is also determined by the pursuit of wanting a continuing dynamic that can project into the future, beyond the original time frame of PAM, something potentially ongoing.

MILP: This depends on the interest of the musicians, who also normally play individually on the streets.

ABM: That would be a future conversation between them and me. Adapting the idea of having an ensemble of “ordinary” citizens to street musicians brought in a lot of new elements to consider. Even though I’ve worked with a very wide variety of musicians, I had never before worked with street musicians as a group. Street musicians are mostly invisible, usually people don’t really notice them or maybe they get annoyed by them. Even myself as a composer I have to admit that I had not paid much attention to this very special class of musician. They aren’t passive like elevator music in the background; in many ways they are actively the soundtrack of the city.

Among street musicians you can find professionals, students and dilettantes. Some of them make a lot of money, almost all of them have homes and families and earn their living through playing. I realized that without really knowing it, I have had these musicians in front of me all along and by gathering them together as an orchestra, they represent a very interesting economic and performative social class of musicians.

MILP: I have friends that play around the city every weekend that are actually teachers at the Volkshochschule, making more money on the streets than in their regular job. Something like forty Euros per hour.

ABM: And if you have a really good location even much more than that.

MILP: Which kind of boundaries do you see blurring here between them and your work as a professional musician and composer?

ABM: In music there are many boundaries to deal with. We make so many distinctions between professional, trained musicians and non-professional musicians. Even though perfection is such a strong marker in music, it really is a very passé idea as it applies to an art form as a whole. You wouldn’t for instance expect a serious review on any work of contemporary art where they discuss the technique and its imperfections. I mean, anyway, that would be boring. Then again, in music this is exactly what we have; it is very much about technique and perfection, especially in western classical music and by extension in contemporary music. And then beyond technique, the perfection of the sound, the acoustic. For me, questioning those boundaries is an integral part of music making.

MILP: Perfectionism thus plays no longer a role in your compositions?

ABM: Of course I want my composition itself to be perfect as well as the total situation as it pertains to the work. But these are parameters I set myself and may have little or nothing to do with the sound of the composition. Most concerts today are something like a simulacrum of recordings. And recordings themselves must always be as perfect as possible, and then you want the perfect stereo system for it, the perfect acoustics, the perfect listening situation. And so it comes full circle that the sound of a live concert should be as similar as possible to a recording.

For me that has nothing to do with perfection in an artistic sense but with the commercialization of music: if you want to sell music as a quantifiable product then you have to be sure of having the same high quality every time.

And I personally reached this kind of strange point some years ago as composer where I didn’t want to do records and concerts anymore on the old terms, but something new, something else.

MILP: You refer to the commercialization of music as a conditionality of the entire distribution system of the music experience itself. But what happens with music experience as an art work?

ABM: Music is for me first and foremost a social form. That’s really what it is and I think it’s worth pointing out that you don’t have to go that far back in music history to see that’s indeed the case. Before radio and the explosion of recording technology, to experience a piece of music you essentially had two options: you could play it yourself, or someone else could play it for you in the same room as you, and that’s it. The basis of music is the social interaction between two or more people.

MILP: In your work within the system in which contemporary art is sustained, what happens to the value of this very basic idea of music?

ABM: You have to be present. Very simple.

MILP: Is that an additional value given to a music piece as a work of art?

ABM: It puts the emphasis on something else other than just sound. It opens it up to a wider range of possibilities. Sound is only one layer of many, an outer layer. There is the symbolic, the social, the spatial, the time layer, and this last one includes the writing of the score, the rehearsal, and this time layer can be also extended into the future.

MILP: I would like to go through the singularity of this composition for Munich, because there are also so many unusual instruments being played, like bass-balalaika and glass harmonica. How did you bring all these musicians together?

ABM: It took a lot of time and leg-work; the team of PAM was in the street for many months talking with the musicians they came across and then sending me videos. It was like a big puzzle. I wanted something representative of what people hear and see in the streets of Munich, not a typical classical orchestra.

MIP: What surprised me was that I wasn't listening to one single melody, but an amalgam of different things happening in parallel. How is this to be understood as a representation of the streets of Munich?

ABM: I think it’s interesting when you say you hear an amalgam, because what you are referring to is the act of hearing elements beyond the aural. You for instance hear the musicians listening to each other and making decisions, you hear them losing their individual identity as musicians and becoming an orchestra. These are musical processes to be sure, but not necessarily aural ones.

MIP: You told me that only about half of the orchestra was in place when you had to start composing. Isn’t a four-hour piece a really hard challenge for a new-born orchestra?

ABM: It’ s not a four-hour piece in the conventional through-composed way. There’s a central orchestral piece that is about twenty-five minutes long and it gets repeated in a choreography of people moving in and out of the spaces inside the Rathaus. It’s an installation, in a way, and I wanted the audience to feel free to join and leave the performance whenever they felt like it, to dip in and outside of the space; to return to the streets and maybe still believe they were inside the piece.

MIP: Is it intended to transgress then the definition of an audience?

ABM: I like to avoid the classical division of the audience being the passive part, caught between the start and the ending of a piece. This is what I like so much about the exhibition format. There is the choice for them to gravitate to a particular space or moment, but also to decide whether they want to stay or not. This goes back to the overall social component of the experience.

MIP: This gesture also goes back to the members of the Staatsorchester, who are accustomed to playing for pedestrians who only pass by to listen to a small fragment of a melody.

ABM: Sure, I wanted to keep that dérive element but do it in a way that squarely puts the focus on the musicians. In a sense to turn the tables. That reminds me of one of the first meetings with the musicians, where I first presented the piece to them. It turned into an emotional thing, you know. We were all sitting together, when someone finally asked—and this is after the general feeling was already coming up around the table—what if the people don’t like it? I understood that the musicians base their work on pleasing people passing by in order to make their money. It was very important to say,

“Hey, don’t worry about that, this is a piece for you.”

To only please others can be soul-crushing.

MIP: And how did they handle this invitation to have an absolutely free relationship to the music you composed for them?

ABM: It can be scary to play without knowing what the parameters are. But it was also a free space for them to get courageous about their own capabilities. This is why it was so important for me in the performance to use the balcony where normally the FC Bayern stands when they win a big tournament, but now to have each of the musicians come out on that same balcony to play a solo, their private and simultaneously very public declaration to the city Munich.

MIP: You had a similar passage during the performance at Lenbachhaus with your work Symphony 80.

ABM: Yes, but there it had a different meaning. In this case, it’s about each musician saying, “I exist, look at me.” It goes against a certain invisibility when they perform alone on the streets. But a year ago in Lenbachhaus I worked with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s great orchestras. So I had this amazing body of musicians at the museum, and I wanted to show the musicians being themselves, individually. But in a way that also wasn’t easy for them, you know? It’s hard to play alone as an individual if you have played within a huge group of people for your entire career.

MIP: Why did you choose the Rathaus for the performance of Staatsorchester, and not the streets?

ABM: The Rathaus is the very place street musicians have to line up in front of at 6am in the morning to reserve a time slot and prime location in the city, so there’s that direct connection. But also, perhaps even more importantly, by placing the musicians in that very charged space, the Staatsorchester ends up being a political action, where the musicians, usually very much on the periphery, overtake for a moment the center of power in the city.