Arts, Culture & Media

Austria's Vegetable Orchestra

Vienna, Austria is one of the great musical cities of the world. It's been home to Beethoven and Schubert, Mozart and Brahms. And now: the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra.

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�It happens that sometimes people come to see a funny show, and they expect Mozart on vegetables�, says Tamara Wilhelm, a member of the orchestra.

�But that's not what they get. What they get is the results of a lot of experiments and a search for new sounds in this new sound universe of vegetables.�

Wilhelm and her ten colleagues are backstage at a theater in Schenectady, New York. It's a few hours before their debut performance in the United States, and they're building their instruments.

They do this before every show. Drill carrots into recorders; carve clarinets out of squashes; slice grooves into eggplants to make percussion.

Their version of a saxophone is the �cucumberphone', a hollowed-out cucumber, with a red bell pepper stuck at one end, and a reed made from a carrot at the top.

Tamara Wilhelm told me that in the beginning they concentrated on replicating the sounds of regular instruments. Since then they've moved on. Now they're a group of sonic explorers discovering the innate musical potential of each vegetable.

Orchestra member Jurgen Belakovich, according to his official biography, is the co-founder of a �music and literature-performance project'.

�We have people who are musicians, people who are multimedia artists, people who are fine artists. All these different concepts come together in this project: Vegetable Orchestra�, he said.

Many of his colleagues in the orchestra are members of something called The Institute for Transacoustic Research.

They all dress in black.

As we talk, all I can think of is Mike Myers on Saturday Night Live, and his parody of a pretentious German T-V show: Sprockets.

Is that what the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra is, I ask Berlakovich and Wilhelm? Overly-serious Austrian performance art?

Berlakovich says, �It is full of aesthetical ideas that have to do with fine arts and whatever, and that's the interesting thing.�

�Are you launching a revolution?�, I venture. �Is this is first stage?�

�It's possible�, offers Wilhelm. �Our instruments are now shown in school books. You never know what can happen.�

The Vegetable Orchestra's latest CD is called �Onionoise'.

One track features�among other things�a pumpkin bass drum, a �carrot overblow flute', and a leek zucchini vibrator.

Like much of the orchestra's output, it's a veggie version of the kind of music you'd normally make using a computer.

To be fair, Jurgen Berlakovich and the orchestra agree that playing vegetables is odd.. humorous even. Only that's not all it is.

�A lot of times people hear �vegetable orchestra' and they think �ho ho', so funny, so cabaret�, he says.

�We're not cabaret. We're doing quite serious music; we see ourselves in a tradition of experimental music, of using everyday sounds. But we don't want to be seen as comedians.�

Fair enough.

I asked another orchestra member, Ulrich Troyer, if they have a rider�a list of what each venue must provide in advance.

He said, yes, firstly a technical rider�what microphones they need, for instance.

�And a vegetable rider, and on this vegetable rider we have photos, and measurements, units: how big the carrots should be, how big the eggplants should be and so on.�

They ask for spares, too, in case the vegetables break apart during a show.

�Backup vegetables.�

There's one other thing. The orchestra makes something else besides their instruments: soup.

�The last piece is serving the soup to the audience more or less from the stage�, says Jurgen Berlakovich.

�This is also part of the whole performance. It's always vegetable soup.�

It goes down big with the crowd in Schenectady. So does the music.

�I remember a group called Stomp that used to use pans and garbage cans and play like that�, says local resident Julie Tammer.

�I especially like the eggplant,� she adds, �Flappin', slicin' it the way that you did. That was great. I can't wait to go home and try it with all the kids.�

The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra says its central objective is �the continued exploration and refinement of performable vegetable music'. That may be entirely true, but they're also just playing with their food.

It's fun.