Classical musicians in a Culture War
On September 15, 2001, the flutist Klaus Holsten was in the German village of Klein Jasedow, a short drive from the coast of the Baltic Sea, when a truck accidentally unloaded the herbicide Brasan onto 5,000 lemon balm plants. The organic herbs were growing in a garden belonging to Holsten; his wife Beata Seemann, a harpsichordist; Johannes Heimrath, a music therapist, author, and gong builder; and several others. Overnight, local media reported, the green fields were turned yellow or white, like a dusting of fresh snow—in September. The damages were estimated at some 15,000 euros. A local woman sought medical attention, complaining of suspicious flu-like symptoms.
The clomazone was sprayed by an agricultural company with the sinister-sounding name Agrar GmbH. But instead of closing ranks against corporate malfeasance, Erin Brokovitch-style, the inhabitants of Klein Jasedow and its neighboring villages turned against the classical musicians living in their midst. In a 2004 documentary by the filmmaker Claus Strigel, an older couple identified only as “the Bliese family” claimed that the musicians, who had meanwhile managed to make local and federal politicians aware of the scandal, were attempting to destroy conventional agriculture in the region and replace it with an “organic ideology.” Long-simmering tensions bubbled over. Holsten, Seemann, Heimrath, and their cohabitants were accused of wanting to ban money, cars, and all non-biodegradable dishware, and of starting a “lesbian club” in the neighboring village of Pulow; a church gate in the village, which the group had helped fix as a gesture of goodwill, was now rumored to include secret satanic symbols. Their music, too, was viewed with paranoia. A concert review in a church newspaper warned parishioners to stay away from performances. Mrs. Bliese accused them of drumming and dancing around the fire at night like witches. When people complain of classical music’s “stifling ritualism,” this probably isn’t what they have in mind.
For Holsten, the move to Klein Jasedow in late 1997 was a climax in a larger process to escape precisely the stifling atmosphere endemic to classical music. In 1975, when he was just 23 years old, Holsten won an audition with the prestigious Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Hired by the conductor Wolfang Swallisch, he performed under legends like Carlos Kleiber, Karl Böhm, and Riccardo Muti. In the mid-80s, Holsten was promoted to solo flute. “It was a dream come true,” he said. But he couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that there was something missing. It felt strange to be told exactly what to play and when to play it, without any input in the matter; and the “Zeitgeist” of the late ‘80s, with Reaganism and privatization in the air, led to a more competitive atmosphere among his colleagues. In 1977, he had begun living as an “extended family” with Heimrath, Seemann, and the music pedagogue Dr. Christine Simon. The group spent time in Switzerland and Bavaria, where Heimrath, a tall man with bushy eyebrows and a warm accent, so impressed a judge with their wholesome values that she allowed Heimrath’s son to be homeschooled—highly irregular in Germany. By 1984, the community had expanded to include around 15 people, living in three houses. In 1994, Holsten finally quit his job at the Staatsoper for good; the others stepped up to earn a regular income in his place. Holsten became a freelancer, performing early music, new music, and improvisations, and teaching seminars and masterclasses.
In October 1996, Heimrath read an article in Der Spiegel called “Irgendwie am Arsch der Welt,” or “A Little Like the Asscrack of the World,” about the hollowing-out of Klein Jasedow, in the region of Vorpommern-Greifswald, formerly part of East Germany. The entire region was beset by depopulation and high rates of unemployment and desperation. Heimrath called the mayor, an outspoken man with a ponytail called Matthias Andiel, and told him that he wanted to move. Holsten and his wife, Beata Seemann agreed—though, Seemann recalled, she cried when she first saw the village in real life. “We came here and it was a desert,” she told me. “Rundown houses, at least half of them were empty. Just very few people who lived in the village. And we needed to build everything from scratch.” Using money they inherited, the group bought the empty buildings. Then they went to work: performing, teaching, and traveling to finance renovations and construction. The group was seeking “a place to experience the social, the cultural, and nature in equal measure,” Holsten said.
In 2007, the new denizens of Klein Jasedow officially opened their Klanghaus, a multipurpose concert hall and seminar space that looks out onto a romantically foggy lake. Scarred by their brushes with the intermittent brutality of local infighting, the group eschewed public grants, instead turning to a “fan community” of some 3,000 people, built up over decades of performances and masterclasses. (About 1,000 pitched into small donations to help build the Klanghaus.) The inaugural performance was ritualistic, though perhaps not in the black-magic mode that the grumpy Blieses feared; a speaker read passages from Tolstoi, while the musicians performed a work that took place largely inside their inner ears. “We simply imagined a pitch. It was hyper present in our heads—a B-flat,” Holsten said. “We imagined the note, heard it inside us, and then, at certain points in the story, we let it ring out, so that it became audible. It was an incredible experience.”
But, Holsten continued, even after 22 years in Klein Jasedow, it’s still hard to reach the locals with their music. “There’s a zone that’s relatively free of resonance,” he said. “The people who watch TV and shop at [food discounter] Netto, who don’t come into contact with culture and who aren’t much interested in it either. They do perceive us—at the store, in Lassan, they’ll sometimes nod.”
“Oh, that’s unusual,” Seemann said.
“You’re right, it is,” Holsten said. “For them, we remain exotic.”
The conflicts of the early 2000s are now largely old news in Klein Jasedow. “It’s yesterday’s snow,” Holsten told me, punning on the white discoloration of the clomazone accident. Some of the rosiness has left Holsten’s cheeks since the turn of the millennium, but in many ways the group’s projects are flourishing. The Klanghaus has amassed an impressive collection of instruments ranging from gigantic gongs to harpsichords, kalimbas and other small percussion instruments suitable for children; outside, on the scenic path beside the lake, a carpenter installed several pieces of instruments-as-furniture, including beautiful chairs with entire, playable monochords attached to their backs. Klein Jasedow now produces a yearly print magazine with a subscriber base of 2,000, hosts a “democratic,” non-competitive, mixed-age elementary school from first to sixth grade, and welcomes an annual circus camp. It is also the center of the European Academy of Healing Arts, which promotes the “synergy” between alternative medicine, the arts, and spirituality. Holsten told me, “In general, we’ve found more than we hoped for here, though things have taken longer than expected.”
The resentments that persist against the group are mainly of the intensely small-town variety. As Holsten drove me to the gong factory, he waved gregariously to a woman walking by the side of the road; in response, she simply stared, expressionless. “She worked for us for a long time, but at some point we had to let her go for structural—as well as personal—reasons,” Holsten said. “She’s still mad about it.”
Klein Jasedow provides a nearly perfect test case for a theory, popular within the classical music industry, which postulates that if we could just tweak the atmosphere in which the work is presented, we could unleash its universal potential. “So many senior figures in classical music say they want to attract more people from diverse backgrounds,” wrote Chi-chi Nwanoku in an op-ed against people who are against clapping between movements, in The Guardian. “Yet the attitude that concertgoers must be educated to behave in a traditional manner is getting in the way.” In a 2019 Medium post, Audrey Bergauer wrote, “When our orchestras do things like, for example, tell patrons to turn their phones off during the concert, it’s like amputating an arm or a leg.” The musicians based in Klein Jasedow are top-notch performers who set little store by the pieties of the traditional concert hall. Alongside high-quality chamber music performances of early and new music and improvisations at the Klanghaus, Holsten, Seemann, Heimrath, and their colleagues perform two-hour gong meditations, structured according to the elements earth, air, water, fire, which audiences can enjoy while lying on yoga mats. Free improvisation workshops are open to the whole family; their popular Summer Serenades attract listeners from as far away as Switzerland. There’s no shushing in Klein Jasedow—but the audience is still, after decades of artistic activity, largely of a higher socioeconomic status than the local norm, from places like the university town of Greifswald rather than nearby Lassan. When immediate neighbors show interest in the Klanghaus, it’s mostly to inquire whether they can book it for family events like weddings. “They are interested, not in the culture, but in the building,” Seemann said. Even given decades, music can’t make rifts in class and values disappear.
Nor can music “speak to all people” or “transcend politics”—a fact particularly worth remembering as we enter the year of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. (Often it’s the opposite: when Heimrath told me that his gongs, tuned to the frequency of 111.24 Hz, had healing properties, it was a statement intelligible to a highly specific audience and baffling to most others.) In Klein Jasedow, music can’t even transcend the divisions between white West and East Germans. “We remain the Westerners even though we’ve been here for 20 years,” Holsten said. Not to mention artists from further afield: a Persian percussionist who was invited to Klein Jasedow in March 2012 was yelled at on the street to “go home” and denied service at the checkout counter of a local supermarket.
Unlike many classical musicians in European capitals, the Klein Jasedow group are no idealists; they know that no art can replace infrastructure, education, development, social security. Their pragmatism is the main reason behind their success. They’ve become active in grassroots politics, supporting left organizations against the far-right Alternative for Germany, which gained nine points in the last local election. (In November, Heimrath was busy serving on a political committee tasked with the implementation of federal grants for high-speed internet access in rural areas: the minutiae of change.) Heimrath hired four local men, “complete dropouts, both mentally and physically,” in his gong factory, making high-quality mallets: good, if somewhat repetitive, jobs in a region with 8.5 percent unemployment, another 11 percent underemployment, and 5 percent “long-term unemployment.” Meanwhile, Holsten and Seemann continue to advocate for “active listening,” a rarity in our musical and political cultures. If there is no utopia without music, there is also no utopia through music alone—if there can ever be utopia, in Klein Jasedow or anywhere. ¶