Jonas Engel im blauen Licht
Jonas Engel is a member of Cologne's Impakt collective and an active improviser and composer on the young European music scene. Photo: Patrick Essex

Stepping out of the comfort zone: Jonas Engel of the Impakt collective on improvisation in Cologne

Jonas Engel is a member of Impakt, a collective of 14 young musicians from Cologne who share a passion for free improvised music and are on a mission to make it more visible in the city. What started out as a newsletter and a concert calendar has developed into an in-house label that stages regular gigs. This year, Impakt are celebrating their tenth anniversary and they’ll be marking the occasion with a small festival at Loft in the district of Ehrenfeld on 3 and 4 November.

Jonas joined Impakt two years ago. He’s also an improviser and composer on various band projects, primarily in Cologne and Copenhagen. In our interview, he explains how Impakt came about, how the city of Cologne influences the collective and why improvised music still has a tougher time of it than other musical styles.

An interview with Jonas Engel of Impakt

Jonas Engel has toured the globe both as a soloist and with his multi-award-winning bands.  Photo: Patrick Essex

What’s the story behind Impakt?

Jonas Engel: In 2013, a group of people from Cologne got together with the aim of forming a collective to raise awareness of improvised music and make it more visible. It all started with a newsletter and a concert calendar designed to give people an opportunity to get a taste of this type of music. Niche music still has difficulty finding listeners in Cologne. And Impakt’s main job today is still to provide a platform for improvised music and bring it to a wider audience.

We’ve been around for 10 years now so we’ll obviously be celebrating. There’ll be a small Impakt festival at Loft in Ehrenfeld on 3 and 4 November.

Lots of people tend to have a specific sound in mind when they think of improvised music from Cologne.

Jonas Engel

Impakt focuses on “improvisation and current” music. What does that mean?

It’s a bit blurred. Improvisation is a key part of what Impakt does, how our music evolves and how we see music. Lots of people from outside tend to have a specific sound in mind when they think of improvised music from Cologne. Because this music has a long tradition here. But I think it’s important not to limit ourselves to that particular sound and aesthetic. The term “current music” is intended to reflect musical styles that are contemporary and evolving now. The music has something new, something creative and experimental to it – it’s newly invented music. And the improvisation brings it all together.

You even have your own label now. Can you tell us about that?

We started our in-house label, Impakt Records, in 2016. We regularly release work by musicians from our collective and by other musicians who work in the field of new music.

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What’s your role at Impakt?

I only joined Impakt two years ago. Before that I was living in Copenhagen and I ran a project that brought musicians from Cologne and Copenhagen together to share ideas. The focus was always on improvised, experimental music. At some stage, Impakt approached me and suggested we should team up. Since then, I’ve been responsible for organising the collective’s concerts and festivals.

You organise regular Bruitkasten concerts on Ebertplatz square. What happens there?

The name Bruitkasten is a play on the French word bruit, meaning noise, and the German word Brutkasten, which means “incubator”. It’s meant to reflect the improvised musical noise that our concerts can produce.

These concerts are a platform for music that’s a work in progress. Sometimes existing ensembles come together, sometimes it’s ad hoc meetings between musicians who’ve never met before.

They meet on stage with their instruments and the outcome is completely open. They’re very well-trained musicians as you can tell from the quality of the music. Improvisation can be practised, just like composition. We know as musicians how we want to react at certain moments on stage. It’s actually a bit like cooking. If you want a stronger garlic flavour, you just add more garlic. It’s similar with composing. And improvisation is just ad hoc composing on the fly.

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Why do the concerts take place on Ebertplatz?

Ebertplatz is a central square in Cologne. It’s actually what they call a “trouble spot”. But lots is being done to make it an attractive place again. We got involved too because we were given the opportunity, over a year ago now, to use a gallery there. It’s called Gemeinde. We stage the concerts there twice a month, on the first and second Wednesday.

What sort of people come?

Gemeinde is a space in a display window. You can see from outside that there’s music being made. Sometimes, people who just happen to be passing stop and come in during the concert. Some of them are locals, some come from other parts of Cologne because they know a little bit about the music and already have some experience of the scene. Age-wise, it’s a mixed audience too, which I really like. On top of that, the location means we get a lot of people dropping in. And that also means that we engage with the subcultures that exist around Ebertplatz. We want to have everyone there and welcome them all.

Cologne is a city that makes it easier for collectives and communities to develop.

Jonas Engel

Why do you think Cologne specifically is the right city for a collective like yours?

There are a lot of musicians in Cologne. That’ll be due to the training opportunities here – almost everyone in the collective studied at the Cologne University of Music and Dance. The musicians come from all over the place. So there’s a sufficient level of interest in contemporary forms of music but sometimes there aren’t the structures in place to satisfy that interest. We’re trying to remedy that through Impakt.

I’m not from Cologne myself but I do feel it’s a city that makes it easier for collectives and communities like these to develop. People often say Cologne is a very open city: the people are outgoing, they know each other, listen to each other and so on. That’s why the community principle usually works very well here in Cologne.

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Why does improvised or experimental music still have such a tough time then?

To me, the reasons are obvious. We all tend to be poorly educated, musically speaking, right from childhood and we don’t get much exposure to modern, creative things. If I think back to my music lessons at school, access to that sort of music hardly ever happened. So our musical knowledge and curiosity remain extremely basic.

We make music that aims to provoke and play with people’s listening habits. Some people might think improvised music sounds too edgy or maybe not even like real music if it’s not in 4/4 time, for instance, or doesn’t have a beat based on the human pulse. People who go through life with an inquisitive and open mind will be excited by this music but for many it definitely means stepping out of their comfort zone. The music we make is very much outside the mainstream.

Impakt’s Bruitkasten concerts are held at Gemeinde Köln on Ebertplatz every first and third Wednesday of the month. For dates, see Jonas Engel’s own concert dates can be found on his Instagram channel.

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