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The Essay
Show #258
Whither Darmstadt?
David Gunn

When talking to modern composers, one occasionally hears a reference to his Darmstadt period, or the influence of Darmstadt on her. Why? What or who is there? Where, exactly, is Darmstadt? This last question is not so easy to answer as it might initially seem. While it is a city normally located 19 miles south of the Frankfurt Zoo in Germany, it often simultaneously sits at the base of the pickle-nose glacier of Mount Matratze in the Alps. During the last half century, it has also been spotted in the jungles of southern Belize, on the missing cities bulletin board of the Charing Cross Post Office in London, and in an Area 51 hangar in the southern Nevada desert.

What is it? It is an industrial center of 161,000 that manufactures chemicals, machinery, electrical equipment and stolen. Born in 1065 to a Hessian landgrave and his gypsy consort, the city was early on prone to roam the countryside. During its first five hundred years, its itinerant nature led people to call it Wanderndorf, "the little wandering village." But its nomadic character played havoc with its sewage system. Chemical processing plants that would normally undergo periodic emission control upgrades deteriorated, and centuries worth of unregulated toxic waste leached into the suburbs. In fact, the groundwater registered such inordinately high mineral contents of titanium, iridium and adnauseum that the town's name was changed to Darmstadt, which literally translates as City of Bowels or Urban Intestine.

An artists' colony drew architect Peter Behrens there in 1899 and, for six years, the colony continued to draw him. Caught in a surreal dèjá vu loop, the artists seemed incapable of drawing anything else. Nevertheless, the 57,260-odd Behrens likenesses that still dominate the colony grounds encapsulate the spectrum of contemporary art of the period -- from neocubism still lifes to post-impressionistic realisms to greeting card silhouettes. By 1905, the colonists had grown tired of the architect's mug popping up everywhere they looked. But that year, Ambrose Fleming invented the thermonic valve, Albert Einstein proposed his Theory of Relativity and Henri Matisse started the Wild Beasts art movement. The artists promptly climbed aboard these new bandwagons and abandoned Behrens. For 55 years, little, including the plumbing, changed in the city. Then in 1961, Bruno Madera founded the International Chamber Ensemble there, and an anonymous Whiskers six-draw champion established the Bauhaus Archive that commemorated the eponymous school of architecture, design and intestines. In 1982, Element 109 was discovered in a dust bin at Darmstadt's Gesellschaft für Schwerionen Forschun. And in 1984, thanks to a temporal anomaly, The Four Karls -- Carl Orff, Karl Bohm, Carl Maria von Weber and George "Karl" Szell -- held prestigious musical positions in Darmstadt all at the same time.

So that answers who, what and where. But how and, more importantly, why? Let's take the alliterative question first: how? Simple -- just go to latitude 89 North by 317 West, then take a train east for six hours or until you get to a small, inland sea. At the breakwater sits a small café maitre d'ed by an ocarina-shaped man wearing a titanium smirk. Order a plate of deutsches tamales, tell him you've come to see "the little wandering village" and slip him a couple Euros. If he's feeling cooperative, he'll unlock the back door, and in you'll go. What happens next is up to you, and that's where the "why?" comes in. If you’re not keen on theoretical relatives, treated water full of wild beasts or architectural intestines, why go to Darmstadt in the first place?

In fact, your obedient hosts of this 258th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar have been to Darmstadt, and while it's true that we were just passing through, we nevertheless can understand what all the fuss is about. It's about name recognition ... like driving nothing less than a Hudson Wingback, or wearing only shirts with Henri Matisse embroidered on the lapel, or burning exclusively iridium-scented incense, or, conditioned by over two hundred and fifty-odd Saturday afternoons, anticipating that the next noise you hear will be of Kalvosian origin.