German installation explores urban soundscapes

An innovative new sound installation project in Berlin is connecting cities worldwide in an attempt to challenge the way people interact with their aural and urban surroundings, writes Matt Robinson.

German installation explores urban soundscapes

A lead car of Berlin’s U6 underground train drags carriages underneath the German capital’s traditional shopping boulevard of Friedrichstrasse. While travelling between the stations of Stadtmitte and Kochstrasse, the train passes a short pipe-shaped object connected via cable to a computer terminal in a nearby gallery, which records and interprets the motion of the passing train.

So sensitive is the sensor that it can also detect the footsteps of shoppers on the pavement above. These signals not only record the spontaneous rhythmic activity of the immediate urban surroundings but also their intensity. The high-tech device is part of the Sound of Cities installation at the Magix Multimedia Gallery on Friedrichstrasse – just metres away from the former Cold War crossing point Checkpoint Charlie.

Conceived by Croatian sound artist Henry Stag, the project is being supported by some of the biggest names in music production software, including not only Magix, but also Arturia, Max MSP, and Applied Acoustic Systems. The installation uses a custom-built, microphone-style receiver system to register vibrations and sounds from subterranean Berlin, which are then used to trigger preset instruments simulated by computer software. This means the music is actually being performed and lead by the city itself. For example, the louder the U6 train is as it trundles along underneath Berlin, the louder the installation’s instruments in the gallery will be played.

Nursing a winter cold with a frothy glass of Hefeweizen beer at a bar in Berlin’s eastern Friedrichshain district recently, Stag enthused about his aural urban baby: “The purpose of this project is to be on the cutting edge, to use the technology we have to the full extent of its capability. I call it terrestrial symphony – the artist provides the colour, but this is the music of the earth.”

The first instrument presets at the Berlin gallery were configured by some of the biggest names in German experimental music. Joachim Irmler from Krautrock pioneers Faust, Dieter Moebius from Cluster, Markus Detmar from Klangwart and John Weizierl from Amon Düül 2.

But the project is not limited to the gallery on Friedrichstrasse. It will also be broadcast live online at, from where web surfers will soon be able to access the Berlin stream and play around with the existing presets to create their own audio just as visitors can at the actual exhibition. Gallery openings are also planned for Zagreb, Paris, Los Angeles and Tokyo in order to connect the urban audioscape streams from other cities.

In each city, the sensors will be placed in different locations. For example, in Tokyo it may be placed against or inside a window and tuned so it is sensitive enough to respond to gentle rain against the glass. In Los Angeles the receiver might be cast into the foundations of a building and capable of recording and processing the musical makeup of seismic activity in the earthquake prone city.

The project is currently in the process of being linked with the Theremin Institute in Moscow, where a gallery full of Theremins – an early electronic instrument working on a similar principal to the Sound of City’s sensors – will be used to detect and interpret the motion of visitors.

“With this project, we can further define the way we interact with sounds, by further making the sounds interact with us and our surroundings,” said Andrei Smirnov, director of the Theremin Institute at the Moscow State Conservatory, in a telephone interview from the Russian capital.

The audio product of each Sound of Cities stream will be saved for the entirety of the project, meaning that any moment in the installation can be retraced, reheard and rediscovered. Any profits from the project will go to charitable donations to both UNICEF and the International Campaign for Tibet.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.