Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
First songs, then soup.
You learn a lot from talking with people who spend their spare time playing instruments made out of vegetables. As Jörg* Piringer, a musician in Austria’s Vegetable Orchestra, tells CityLab, there’s almost no corner of a grocer’s stock room that can’t be carved and coaxed into making some sort of note.
“A pumpkin works very well on its own as a bass drum, and you can make all sorts of instruments—like flutes, recorders and xylophones—from carrots,” he says. “Rub two leeks together like they were a violin and a bow, and you get a sort of squeak that can be really very loud. Onion skins rubbed together also make a nice maraca-like rustle.”
The idea of raiding a store cupboard to make music is cute enough, but the 10-person-strong Vegetable Orchestra has taken it to an extra level. The band, formed in Vienna in 1998, now has three albums and numerous international tours under their belts. The performers have really run with the idea that anything and anyone can make music with a little effort.
“You don’t need to have tons of money or training—all the things that people think are so important for making music,” says Piringer.
All you need, Piringer says, is a little ingenuity. Want a trumpet? The Vegetable Orchestra’s musicians will simply hollow out a cucumber, and add a carved carrot mouthpiece. They’ll create an amplifier from a bell pepper with its top cut off. Fan of the more psychedelic end of the musical repertoire? You might enjoy the orchestra rubbing a single waxy-surfaced cabbage leaf on a cabbage head, the latter attached to a distortion pedal. The resulting sound comes across like the feedback squeal of an electric guitar.
The whole thing sounds more than a little mad, but it’s a madness that people clearly enjoy. Over the past 18 years, the orchestra has engaged audiences across the world, playing at gallery openings, museum exhibitions, community events, and pretty much anywhere where they’ll find a receptive audience. The orchestra’s shows are something between a musical recital and a piece of performance art. Much of that performance actually takes place offstage, as orchestra members carefully whittle, shave, and tune their instruments, made fresh for each show. Onstage, they try to get the audience involved: first as listeners, then as musicians, and finally as diners.
“Many of us are artists during the rest of our lives,” explains Piringer, who also works solo as a musician, artist, and poet. “The performance aspect is vital for us. Making the instruments takes too long to do as a performance—about two to three hours—but we include the audience by getting them to try the instruments after we have played.” The unused vegetables go into soup.
Despite the, well, rawness of their materials, the Vegetable Orchestra’s sound is surprisingly rich and varied. Granted, the range of sounds tends to be more percussive than resonant, but if you browse through their musical cache on soundcloud, you’ll find an impressive variety, ranging from tracks influenced by Stravinsky to tributes to Krautrock, that most German of experimental music genres. The orchestra has even managed to gain some famous fans along the way, including German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, whose song they covered:
The orchestra’s globe-trotting performances—in the U.S., they’ve played both New York City and Indianapolis—are a cultural exchange for the musicians, too, even when it comes to the produce. “Whenever we go to different continents, there are always different vegetables,” Piringer says. Different produce translates to different instruments and sounds.
With all this range to choose from, is there anything Piringer and his colleagues won’t make music with?
“Well we don’t do anything much with broccoli,” he says. “As an instrument, it’s just really no good at all.”
The Vegetable Orchestra’s Album, Onionoise, is available for download on iTunes.
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Jörg Piringer’s name.