At the time, that was the strangest way to make music I had come across. But this week, not one but two other musical groups will vie for the title of Most Unlikely Orchestra. Which one takes the cake (or possibly, in this case, the carrot)? Let me know your pick in the comments.
Playing with their food
Making instruments out of vegetables sounds like an activity devised for bored kids during the school holidays. But later this year the Viennese Vegetable Orchestra will celebrate twenty years of doing just that.
Members of the orchestra, many of whom are also more conventional musicians, thump pumpkins, stridulate with cabbages and leeks, and coax haunting woodwind notes from carrots, cucumbers, and parsnip. They stress that they are a collective, with every member given an equal vote in the orchestra’s creative vision, and nowhere is that more evident than in the eclectic range of influences behind their original compositions: everything from classical to jazz to house music. Their website provides their mission statement: “The further exploration and refinement of performable vegetable music“.
Leaving aside their three albums – the latest of which is playfully titled Onionoise – the Vegetable Orchestra regularly goes on tour around Europe and the world. Which, as you might expect, is a challenge when playing perishable instruments.
Each evening performance takes a full day to prepare. The morning is spent at produce markets, where orchestra members meticulously test the local fare until they find just the right vegetables for their needs. Turning raw produce into finished instruments takes two to three hours and a lot more power tools than you would see in a conventional orchestra.
Some instruments are simple enough – thumping a pumpkin takes no preparation at all – but others are complex feats of construction, such as the trumpet-like affair that combines a fusion of cucumber, carrot, and capsicum. Since the instruments are brand new for each performance, the sound check is no simple affair either.
Their music is a joyful affair, full of percussive rhythms interspersed with moments of startling elegance. And for live audiences, the sensory experience doesn’t end with sound. After a performance, audience members are invited to try out the instruments for themselves – and to partake of vegetable soup cooked up from the materials that didn’t make the final cut.
Explore the Vegetable Orchestra further in this delightful video narrated by orchestra member Susanna Gartmayer.
Taking music to a whole new medium
In case making instruments out of ice or vegetables didn’t seem challenging enough, Danish band Aquasonic set themselves an even tougher goal: making instruments they could play underwater.
Some of their instruments are adaptations of familiar ones. A violin played underwater produces beautiful sound, but the ordinary violins the band tested disintegrated after three days of use. So the band commissioned new violins constructed out of carbon fibre with synthetic bowstrings, able to survive the band’s aqueous environment.
Other instruments are the products of past inventors, perhaps finding for the first time their natural environment. The hydraulophone was created in 1985 by Steve Mann, better known as “the father of wearable computing” (think smartwatches and Google Glass), and was the first instrument to produce sound using water instead of air. Submerging it, as Aquasonic have done, seems like only the logical next step.
The beautifully-named crystallophone (or glass harmonica) dates back all the way to Benjamin Franklin, who in 1763 created the first known example of the instrument, inspired by the sound made by a wet finger circling the rim of a drinking glass. The band worked with modern musical inventor Andy Cavatorta to adapt the crystallophone to be played underwater.
Cavatorta also collaborated with Aquasonic to create the rotacorda, a brand new, crank-operated instrument that combines strings and brass and was designed specifically to produce its best sound underwater.
Performing underwater, mind you, comes with a whole set of unique logistical problems. Because of the way sound travels through water, the tones produced by the instruments varies not only with the size of the water body they are submerged in, but with the instrument’s positioning within that body and even with the temperature of the water.
So each performer is submerged in their own, individual tank, with their instruments carefully aligned and the water kept consistently between 34-37°C. They have to wear headphones to hear their fellow performers – and they have to synchronise by sound, because light refraction means they can barely see each other. And, of course, they have to breathe, which they do by surfacing in carefully coordinated turns, each one accounted for in the composition so as not to interrupt the music.
Wearing breathing equipment would mitigate this last issue, but Aquasonic’s deeply eerie music makes heavy use of vocal performance, which is a feat unto itself. Aquasonic co-founder Laila Skovmand, whose idea for the band originated in her own experiments singing into water, has had to invent an entirely different singing technique in order to produce a clear underwater sound and not just a stream of bubbles. Talking to the BBC, she explained:
“[T]o sing underwater I open my mouth as much as I can, and I let water run as far down as I can, and then I have this little air bubble coming up, and I try to keep that air bubble [in] my mouth.”
If the idea of putting your head underwater and letting water run down your throat sounds nerve wracking, you’re not alone: “it is very frightening,“ says Skovmand, “because if we don’t close [our throats strongly enough], we get water into the lungs.”
For air-beathing human beings, making music underwater seems like a particularly fraught exercise. And yet, there is something uniquely compelling about Aquasonic’s sound. In the words of co-founder Robert Karlsson, “We think that water is something we have in common – all humankind and life has something in relation to water”.
If you’ve ever wondered what kind of music mermaids would make, this is it.