The Schloss-Schule school for the visually impaired and blind in Ilvesheim opens its doors for a special performanceonce a month: The lights are switched off for the events performed in the Kultur im Dunkeln (culture in the dark) series of events. It is an evening of challenges and sensory experiencesat the same time, for artists and spectators alike; as well as for our author Sarah Weik.

Better not move. I’ve stayed put since I pulled the blindfold over my face. I know there are lots of people around me and I don’t want to bump into anyone or step on their toes. I am surrounded by a cacophony of voices. One voice emerges more and more clearly, sounding young and friendly: “Hello, I am Sidney. I’d like to show you in.” I feel Sidney’s hand reaching for mine. He walks off slowly and I follow. I feel a few shoulders and arms along the way. The place is crowded. But then the acoustics change. The many voices disperse. They become quieter and reverberate a bit. “Oh, I must be in the assembly hall,” I am thinking. Sidney is now walking a little faster. I’m stumbling along behind him. My feet don’t quite trust the tour. Sidney stops. “We have arrived at your seat.” He puts my hand on the backrest. I touch and feel the chair and sit down.

Putting on a blindfold—an unusual start to a concert.

The Kultur im Dunkeln (culture in the dark) series of events has been held at the school housed in Ilvesheim Palace since 2003. Lothar Friedrich von Hundheim, first minister of Elector Johann Wilhelm, once resided in the beautiful baroque building in the centre of the municipality. Today, it is a place where blind and visually impaired children learn. It is the only public school of its kind in Baden-Württemberg. Gunter Bratzel has been teaching here for over 30 years. It was his idea to hold this extraordinary series of events. “We had a café in the dark a few years ago. Both the pupils and the guests really liked it.” Bratzel was convinced that “what works on a culinary level would also work on a cultural level.” He knew a few artists and simply asked if they would like to perform without lights. “They all were enthusiastic about the idea straight away.” Since then Kultur im Dunkeln events have taken place every year and have offered a varied programme from September to March offering mainly concerts from pop to jazz, but also improvisation theatre and comedy. In complete darkness.

The Kultur im Dunkeln volunteers take the spectators to their seats.

I start to get used to not seeing anything and concentrate on what I can hear. Two women are talking to each other next to me with one of the voices sounding very close. Someone must be sitting in the chair next to me. Gunter welcomes the guests and announces that he is now going to switch off the lights. Not everybody in the audience has opted for a blindfold; wearing one is voluntary. But everyone experiences the event itself in the dark. The lights go out—I can hear it in the murmur that goes through the hall. “If you want to leave, please say so out loud,” Gunter adds. “Don’t think you can do it on your own. We pulled a spectator out from behind the piano last month.”

If you need help, you’ll get it from pupils, who are members of the Kultur im Dunkeln team, just like Sidney. Gunter set it up when it became clear that the event would not remain a one-off experience. About ten pupils help him organise the series every year. Sidney and his friend Paul, as part of the team, are passionate about music anyway. They have even founded a school band. They joined Gunter’s team “for the love of music,” as Paul puts it. The team’s main task is to look after the audience.

Music is just as great in the dark; maybe even better, because you listen all the better when you can’t see

Paul, member of the Kultur im Dunkeln team

“I really enjoy taking people to their seats,” says Emily. “You have to be polite and also really take care, because some people are so disorientated when they have their blindfolds on.” She laughs. It makes her and the team proud that they are always able to see despite the dark surroundings and help other people with this skill. “And the spectators realise that music is just as great in the dark; maybe even better, because you listen all the better when you can’t see,” says Paul.

Emily really enjoys accompanying people to their seats.

A door slams shut. Then you can hear a voice from the back of the hall. “Hello! Can you please applaud until we get to the front?” The members of John Beton & the five Holeblocks who perform at today’s Kultur im Dunkeln event have entered the school’s assembly hall. The audience laughs and starts clapping rhythmically. Enthusiastically at first, but much quieter after a few minutes. “Hey, we’re not there yet,” a voice informs us. The clapping gets louder again. Now there is rumbling, the five singers have arrived on stage. Their voices are sounding right in front of me. Am I sitting in the front row? The group performs a cappella comedy without any electronic amplification, because “every microphone, every mixing desk comes with lights,” as Gunter explained beforehand. “That would only spoil the experience.”

The Kultur im Dunkeln team keeps a record of past events in a guest book for archiving purposes.

The performance is a special experience for the artists as well—and a challenge. Not only because they have to find their way to the stage in the dark. “We sing a cappella. Ideally all in the same pitch, of course,” explains Sebastian Müller, member of the group. Bass voice Matthias Kunkel usually sets the tone with a small horn that indicates the starting note on a small display. “Useless in the dark,” says Sebastian. That’s why he has brought his ukulele. The group has dispensed with elaborate costumes and costume changes for today’s performance. “It’s actually quite relaxed. If only you didn’t have to memorise the whole set list!”

The John Beton & the five Holeblocks singers just before the performance. Who will lead the way? Who will set the tone and how?

“Throughout the entire history of Kultur im Dunkeln there have only been one or two artists who said that their performance simply wouldn’t work in the dark,” Gunter explains. “Everyone else took to the idea straight away.” This is despite the fact that the fee the Schloss-Schule pays them is somewhat lower and the effort involved is significantly higher in many cases. “But the experience is quite unique.” And everyone pitches in: “the principal, the colleagues, the building management, the pupils. This series could emerge only because everyone is behind the idea,” says Gunter.

Teamwork—Gunter Bratzel with assistants and Kultur im Dunkeln volunteers before the performance.

Gunter is actually a trained industrial clerk, but took a completely different direction from attending night school. “This suits me much better,” he says. He became a youth and home educator and then a specialist teacher for mental development. He came to the Schloss-Schule in Ilvesheim rather by chance. “I used to think in stereotypes and admittedly had reservations in the beginning,” he says. But he quickly realised that these—as well as pity—were totally misplaced here. “These young people showed me straight away that their world is not poorer, just different, and that they are just as cheeky, audacious, interested in music and open-minded as all young people.” With Kultur im Dunkeln, he wants to help break down prejudices and fears of contact. In order to achieve this, “you have to get to know each other first. And that’s exactly what we do here. Kultur im Dunkeln opens spaces for encounters.”

Kultur im Dunkeln provides insights into the lives of blind people.

The concert is over. The room is gradually flooded with light during the final applause. How bright it is! And the assembly hall is large! It is bursting at the seams, as almost always during this type of event. There were some 80 people in the audience today. It felt much smaller in the dark, though, more like an intimate living room concert. The music and the voices sounded much closer and more intense than they do in the spotlight. This is part of the unique appeal these concerts have, Gunter thinks. As is the fact that you can only experience the events at the Schloss-Schule. “These are one-off performances. All of them are essentially premières.” On which there is nothing to see, but a lot to experience.


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