There are a lot of unusual orchestras out there: New Zealander composer Graeme Revell’s The Insect Musicians; New York-based composer Adam Rudolf’s Go: Organic Orchestra; the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra; the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain; the Landfillharmonic of Paraguay; the Congolese jungle Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste; and the list goes on. I’m fascinated by the creativity and resourcefulness of these DIY orchestras.
The Vegetable Orchestra of Vienna takes it one step further. This 12-member Viennese ensemble fashions its own musical instruments from fresh produce purchased from the local naschmarkt or farmers markets. Comprised of musicians, visual artists, architects, designers, media artists, and writers, this comestible collective grows its ever-expanding repertoire of experimental electronic, free jazz, dub, beats, and noise, performing an average of 20–30 concerts a year.
Founded in 1988, The Vegetable Orchestra has released three albums to date: Onionoise (2010); Automate (2004), which features Kraftwerk covers; and Gemise (1999). Drawing their inspiration for beats and sampling from artists like Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Steve Reich, Christian Fennesz, and Aphex Twin, the musicians seek to discover and explore the inherent acoustic properties of vegetables. Carrots are transformed into recorders or marimbas or purposed as drumsticks. Eggplants are halved and re-fastened as castanets. One fresh leek is played against another cross-wise as a violin. A dried butternut squash is strung up as a bass, and a calabash hollowed out to function as a horn. One of the most inventive things I’ve seen is their sound technician spinning records using a green bean in the place of a turntable cartridge!
It all seems laughable, but there are underlying political statements being made here. By the sheer nature of their process (pre-packaged supermarket produce has proven substandard and unreliable), The Vegetable Orchestra has begun to rethink cultivation practices and performs benefit concerts to bring awareness to the working conditions of farm workers in southern Spain, where much of the produce the musicians source for their instruments is grown. Every performance is followed by a communal meal, where artists and members of the audience enjoy a hearty soup together made from all leftover edible scraps. The instruments and all other usable vegetable parts are given to the audience to take home, while any other remaining organic materials get composed.
The Vegetable Orchestra performing at TEDxVienna.