Austria’s Vegetable Orchestra

The World

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.

�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.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.