Fasnacht Adventure

Tod Machover, February 23, 2015

I had been planning for months to attend Fasnacht in Lucerne, knowing that it was an essential part of the character and “sound” of the city, and that it would be an adventure that I had to experience as part of the Eine Sinfonie für Luzern project. I had no idea how much of an adventure it would turn out to be!

I was scheduled to fly from Boston (where I live) to Zurich on the night of Sunday, February 15th, in order to experience Fasnacht on Monday and Tuesday, the 16th and 17th. Boston has been undergoing a hellish winter of historic proportions, and sure enough, another blizzard was scheduled for the weekend of February 14/15. On Saturday afternoon, I learned that my flight to Zurich the following day had been canceled due to the expected snow and that no other flights were leaving out of Boston for at least a few days. What to do?!? I knew that I couldn’t miss Fasnacht. I discovered that there was a late flight from New York to Zurich that very Saturday evening which had one space left, so I called a rental car company, booked a one-way rental from Boston to New York, and drove 5 hours in the snowstorm to Newark Airport, making my flight to Zurich just in time. I had a bit of time to rest in Zurich on Sunday the 15th, and arrived in Lucerne on the morning of the 16th. What a different city Lucerne becomes during Fasnacht.

And how the Lucerne mood changes every hour of the day during Fasnacht. Monday morning, February 16th, was quieter than I expected, but that changed quickly as crowds started to assemble, costumes started to appear, and drums started beat and boom as the 2pm start time for the Umzug, or big parade, approached. With friends – and wearing my borrowed costume of a jockey with giant horse head – we found a good place along the Umzug route and – incidentally – right across the street from the Lucerne Festival offices. The crowds got larger and larger with brilliant costumes everywhere, and finally the parade of Guggenmusik groups began. I had been prepared for the spectacle and the wild masks, but was totally blown away by the diversity of costumes for each group, the individual care that had been taken to create the theme and then the identity for each group and float, and by the fierceness of the musical performances, pounding bass drum and blaring brass, punctuated by many overlapping loudspeaker systems playing wild music both very familiar and extremely strange. The force of the music, the loud chatter of the crowd, the squeals of children, and the sustained energy for almost three hours, contributed a powerful, edgy sound which I had never heard before in Lucerne, and was quite unique in any case.

After the Umzug, I wandered through the city that afternoon and late into the night, got a little sleep, and then headed out again to explore starting at about 11:00 am on Tuesday the 17th. It was astonishing to see the quiet, delicate Lucerne I have come to know turn into a giant stage for exhibition, performance, exploration, exuberance and surprise. My favorite thing to do during Fasnacht was to keep walking, zigzagging through tiny streets, along the river, by the lakeside, over the bridges, up the hills to the city walls, and back down again to the Reuss. By doing this, I could make my own mix (and record it on my binaural digital audio recorder) of the contrasting rhythms from different Guggenmusik bands, dive into the middle of chaos where multiple rhythms and chords could be heard at once, or climb to a high promontory where the blend of the – literally – hundreds of different sound sources became somewhat gentle and dreamlike, reminding me of something that my compatriot Charles Ives might have imagined. When in the middle of the city – and more and more as night fell – every step or head-turn revealed a new sound, reverberating around a corner, blasted from a bandstand, rolling by on portable speakers, squealed vocally by young and old. I was astonished at how Fasnacht attracted people of all ages – from youngest to oldest (some of the most startling costumes and floats were about aging, decay and death) – and also created both pockets where each age-group had their own celebration (i.e. teens and preteens seemed to be attracted to the riverside in the Old City), but also how often people of every age and background were attracted to the same place, dancing wildly to a group of Toucan-dressed drums or skull-encased brass. Small groups were everywhere, from families themed and exploring together, to couples sharing a costume and a sound, to the famous Guggenmusik ensembles that work all year to prepare – musically and visually – for these few explosive days.

I was lucky to have been introduced to one of these Guggenmusik groups – the Barfuss Fägers – in November when I attended one of their first musical rehearsals. So it was a special pleasure to find them again at Fasnacht, to discover their remarkable “full sack” costumes (all hand-made, of course), to hear how their heartfelt brass, wind and percussion renditions of standards such as Hello Dolly had progressed and blossomed, and to feel the deep camaraderie that had developed since we had last met. I followed them to a group dinner, a restaurant performance, some street playing, an amazing multi-band session in my favorite Lucerne hotel (the Wilden Mann, which – as I had been forewarned – turned from a dreamlike medieval haven into incredibly-noisy carnival-central during Fasnacht) and then to a celebratory dinner performance for their closest friends, family and sponsors. I felt like a member of the band, part of the family, happy to be at Fasnacht.

What struck me most about Fasnacht is how organic and natural it felt, as everything in Lucerne feels to me. I am sure that some group is in charge of organizing the basic logistics, the timings, the parade routes, the vendors’ licences. But the overriding feeling is that this fantastic festival is created by the people who live in Lucerne, by and for themselves. It did not have a touristy feel, nor did it seem exhibitionistic in any way. Everyone was there to have fun, to share the pent-up energy of a year of being safe and sane and careful, to both perform and receive, to experience without judgment, to submit to sensory overload, to create a “stage” out of the entire city, to let go, to listen, and to feel totally at home in the transformed city, simultaneously so strange and wild yet also so welcoming and familiar.

Only in Lucerne. I felt so fortunate to be there. As crazy as the city was during Fasnacht, it felt – and sounded like – home.

Tod Machover



  1. Lucerne Festival: Fasnacht Adventure | Opera of the Future - […] out Tod Machover’s post on the official Symphony for Lucerne blog about his recent Fasnacht adventure, during the annual…

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