It was the famous Italian composer, Antonio Vivaldi, who produced the works, Le Quattro stagioni, a set of four violin concertos each depicting one of the four seasons. In this composition, each changing season is wonderfully forged through change of tone, style, tempo and timbre. But there's one orchestra that's taken Vivaldi's seasonal approach to composition to a whole new level.
The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra is a collective of 11 musicians, who as the name implies, produce music using only vegetables as instruments. The group buys produce on arrival at each venue and forge their instruments only hours before a gig. Carrot horns, xylophones replaced with cucumber-phones and even a celery guitar. The instruments, style and sound of every gig change depending on where in the world the orchestra perform.
As the band's spokeperson, Denice Fredriksson, said «We tend to have different favourite instruments at every performance. Since our instruments are organic, a lot of different elements have an influence on our sound - it depends on the quality of the vegetables, the space and the temperature.» Contemporary, beat-oriented House tracks, experimental electronic, free jazz, noise, dub and Clicks'n'Cuts are all hammered out on freshly made vegetable instruments for willing crowds all over the world.
And it's this fresh and unique sound created at every gig that makes the orchestra stand out. There aren’t many musicians who buy and create their instruments a few hours before a set, a style in which buying the wrong vegetable can have a huge effect on the overall performance. «The vegetables have to be fresh and juicy, and also have the right shape and size. We are looking for freshness but one has to keep in mind that they are for building and playing and not for eating... It's actually happened that we've invented new instruments on the road because we found a vegetable that we'd never seen before - this happened in Asia.»
They have an ever-changing musical style and influence that's dictated by what's on offer and what's fresh at the markets they visit. No different to the way the award-winning chef, Juan Mari Arzak may change his menu to include the local fresh catch of the day or the perfectly ripe strawberries on offer that morning.
It was way back in 2007 when I first saw the Orchestra perform. There've been lots of musical performances since then but this one remains much more than the distant memory that many gigs have become. It was a harshly cold evening in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire in England. Fog, cold and rain had set in so it was with reservation that I accepted the invite to sit within a large, cold warehouse listening to a group of Austrians play vegetables.
I remember the strong smell of produce in the air as I took my seat. It was not the pleasant smell created from a homely bowl of soup, but a strong, pungent, raw vegetable smell, a mini organic bomb for the nostrils. But once I acclimatised to the aroma, what followed was certainly an experience like no other.
The style of music is hard to define, but the one thing that amazed the sceptic within is just how musical vegetables can be. Instruments can’t be pitch perfect and the rigid, precise style of play that can be found in conventional orchestras is not an option when you're playing a potato. However the group creates exotic sounds, as each member hurriedly interchanges between their chosen veg of the day - the carrot flute player alone can change her instrument as much as three times during a show as it dries up in the atmosphere.
Strong rhythmic dance beats are the bedrock of much of the music - with a dance influence prominent throughout. Pumpkin drums and eggplant claps all provide strong driving percussion sounds that give the orchestra's music its stylistic bounce.
One of the members says «it's a dirty sound» - and I have to agree – but it's more than that. It's as if the vegetables have come alive, the carpentry and alterations done before each gig has given them a “voice”. It's like stepping into a world where vegetables can speak and you're visiting the happiest, most organic, allotment on earth. There's a fun character to the songs and one that makes listening to the music all the more enjoyable.
And the group, who have been going since 1998, show no signs of running out of steam. They have gigs booked until October this year and have a fan base that grows faster than the carrots they use to perform. They even have dreams of building a vegetable keyboard for future performances and have run classes and workshops showing people how to develop their own vegetable instruments.
There isn't the huge statement attached to the music that you may expect. The group are not all raving vegans or vegetarians on a mission to convert – and to be honest, they say they have had enough of being asked about a so-called “statement” they may have. To me, and I hope this interpretaion is correct, they are musicians on a journey to discover new sounds, perform exciting gigs for their fans and, more importantly when music is involved, have some fun.
So if you find yourself in the “Naschmarkt” fruit and vegetable market in the heart of Vienna anytime soon and see a group of people suspiciously banging pumpkins to test their timbre or measuring a carrot for depth and size with a strange glint in their eye - then it's probably the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra buying instruments for their next big performance. You never know: If you ask them nicely they may let you in on a vegetable jam with them - but just make sure you've perfected your C major scale on the cabbage first.
To see a video of the group performing click here.
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