Prague’s sirens become part of new concert series

Illustrative photo: Petr Veselý / Czech Radio

The Prague based Berg orchestra, known for its unique approach to contemporary music, has come up with a new project, called ‘Hudba k siréně’ or ‘Music for the Siren.’ The series of micro-concerts, performed live every first Wednesday of the month, incorporate Prague’s regular testing of sirens in the music.

Illustrative photo: Petr Veselý / Czech Radio
Visitors to the Czech capital may be a bit alarmed if they happen to visit the city on the first Wednesday of the month, when sirens around Prague suddenly go off at noon. But for most Prague locals, the sound has become so common that that they barely pay attention to it.

The monthly testing of the city-wide emergency siren system, designed to inform residents of city or national emergencies, was introduced back in 2002 by the Ministry of Interior. The siren test occurs, without fail, at exactly 12:00 on the first Wednesday of every month.

While for most Praguers, the siren is just a part of the city’s noisy soundscape, musicians from the Berg orchestra regard it as an unusual sound that could be used in music, either as a backdrop or as an instrument of its own.

In their new project, called Hudba k siréně, or Music for the Siren, they approached a number of contemporary Czech musicians, asking them to compose a piece that would include the sound of a siren in one way or another. The compositions are performed live every first Wednesday of the month at various locations in Prague.

The first concert of the series Music for the Siren took place in March. Musicians performed a piece by Miroslav Pudlák to a packed auditorium of the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague.

Eva Kesslová, head of the Berg orchestra, says they have been discussing the idea for the project for several years. But it was only when they heard the news that the monthly testing of sirens could soon be abolished that they decided to finally make it happen.

“We understand it as, let’s say, promotion of contemporary music or promotion of unusual sounds. It is a catchy concept to make a very short concert together with the test of sirens. We thought it could attract attention and it really does.”

What kind of role does the sound of the siren play in the music?

“Every composer has a different concept. For one of the composers it might be a musical instrument that sounds together with other instruments. For another it is some kind of final touch to his own work.

“This happened at the very first concert, when there was a composition leading towards the sound of sirens. So every composer treats the siren in his own way.”

Every concert takes place at a different location. Is the location important in the whole concept?

Eva Kesslová,  photo: archive of Eva Kesslová
“Yes, the location is very important but we choose the location according to the concept. We approached almost two dozens of composers and each of them was free to choose their own concept and a place fitting to that concept.

“So when the composer wants to hear not only one but a few sirens we have to search for a location that enables that. Or if the composer needs the siren to be really close, then we have to look for such a space. So the concept really leads everything.”

Was it difficult to find composers who would cooperate with you?

“For us it is not really difficult because the Berg orchestra has been here for quite a long time. We have been working with contemporary composers. We know most of them in person so it wasn’t really difficult to choose the composers because we knew which of them would like to work on such project.

“It is very unusual and it gives the composer the chance to think differently, to think out of the box and to try out something new. So we only had I think one or two “no”s from our composers.”

What kind of feedback have you received so far?

“I was really personally overwhelmed by the great reactions so far. So I am crossing my fingers for the future. You never know, but I hope it will really open people’s ears, people who don’t usually listen to contemporary music.”

The most recent in the series of concerts took place this Wednesday, on May 1, at Prague’s Bastion, which is part of the city’s New Town Gothic fortifications. The performers were stationed on an iron spiral staircase leading to the Bastion, while the visitors were seated in a small yard below.

The author of the concert called May Siren with a Walk was a young Czech composer - Ian Mikyska. I spoke to him right after the concert and I first asked him why he decided to take part in the project:

“From when I went to school the siren has always been a special event. Every first Wednesday it would be during the same lesson, when the siren would go off. It was so loud that there was nothing to do except open the windows and listen for a few minutes.”

“And actually one of my best experiences with the siren happened here. I had a friend staying with me from the UK and we went for a long walk for about two hours and we ended up here just before midday, just by coincidence.”

“We were up on the bastion on the top of the staircase, where the sirens went off. It is a really fantastic combination of several sirens. You have a few in Nusle, a few here in Albertov, at the University complex, and a few in Vinohrady that you can hear. It is a big cloud of sirens and the sound is really intoxicating in a way, so that’s why I wanted to do it here.

So when you were composing your piece you already had this particular location in mind...

“Definitely. We had a few options for where it could be. I had an idea of what I wanted the piece to be like but that also changed considerably. First we wanted to do it in a place in Malá Strana, where there would be a different siren. There is a church bell, a really prominent church bell, which is the source of a lot of the guitar material.

Ian Mikyska,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio
“There are lots of church bells here but they are further away so the whole thing has to be set up a little differently. So I was thinking about the place when I was composing but I was also delaying decisions based on the final confirmation of where the piece would actually take place.”

What does the sound of a siren mean to you? Do you regard it as an instrument of its own?

“I think not so much an instrument as a sound event, something that involves pretty much everyone within earshot. I also think what is important about it is that it means something. It means that we are testing a system that is created to esure safety in crisis situations.

“At the same time I think a lot of listening and a lot of work in sound from John Cage onwards focuses on listening as a way to go beyond meaning, listening to the texture of the sound, to the experience or perception of it. And I think the siren is an excellent opportunity for that.

“It is something you immediately connect with references in your mind. But it lasts for so long and it doesn’t change and that it kind of forces you to listen, to go beyond that danger signal and to go into the sound.”

And finally, this is not just an ordinary first Wednesday of the month, it is May 1. Is this just a coincidence or did you know that your composition would sound on this day?

“I knew that I wanted to do it somewhere not so urban. I didn’t want to do it in the midst of buildings, in the midst of Prague. We talked with Eva Kesslová, the director of Berg about where we could do it, how it could make sense. That it has to be somewhere people have to go a little further and we needed to create something to take them there.

“The way it was presented right from the beginning was that if we were going to make it outside, we should make it a trip, and if we were going to make it a trip, it shouldn’t be on a working day. And the only Wednesday that isn’t a working Wednesday is the 1st of May.”

What do you want people to take away from this event?

“I think really the very basic fact of just noticing it a little differently next time and hearing it knowing that there are people like me and others, who think it is worthwhile to spend those 220 seconds listening.”

The project currently includes at least 16 concerts. Eva Kesslová says they have already approached other organisations that could develop on the idea or could take a chosen composition and bring it to local audiences.

The next concert in the series, this time composed by Martin Klusák, will take place on Wednesday, June 5 at Prague’s Jan Kepler Gymnazium.