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The Vegetable Orchestra: roots music from Vienna

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The celery guitar. The leek violin. The carrot recorder.

The pumpkin triangle. The radish bass flute.

The leek-zucchini vibrator.

These are just a few of the instruments of The Vegetable Orchestra, a Vienna-based group that lives up to its name by making music, sometimes quite complex music, almost entirely on vegetables. The orchestra, a 13-strong collective comprised of 11 musicians, one videographer and one sound technician, makes its Midwest premiere Saturday night at the IMA's Tobias Theatre as part of the Spirit and Place festival.

Formed in February 1998 and now on its third album, this year's Onionoise, the orchestra has already given European audiences and critics plenty to chew over — and plenty opportunity to construct terrible turns of phrase like the one I will stubbornly refuse to delete.

"The sensitive microphones on-stage pick up even the softest hint of vegetable noise, and somehow the result suggests that the musicians are more than just people playing with their food." (The New York Times International, March 2003)

"The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra's first concert in the Shanghai Center Theater will undoubtedly be the 'freshest' ever performed in the city." (Shanghai Daily, Dec. 2005)

Our friends in Shanghai have it right — the Orchestra performs on the freshest instruments possible, constructed the day of concert from raw materials purchased at local markets. After each performance, the group's instruments once again become simple foodstuffs, and are used to create a vegetable soup that is served to the audience.

It's a sustainable enterprise, in a certain sense, according to Orchestra member Ernst Reitermaier, who is also aware that some hungry people might put that leek violin to a different use.

"It's a luxury to 'play with your food,' and we are aware of the fact that food has a strong symbolic value. Some people might find it problematic to make music with vegetables," Reitermaier told NUVO last week. "On the other hand, vegetables are renewable resources and, as such, much more ecological than instruments made of plastic or metal."

But it's important to note that The Vegetable Orchestra haven't come to Indianapolis to give a sermon in song about animal rights or sustainable agriculture. Case in point: a Frequently Asked Questions page on the orchestra's website is at its most breathless when replying to the question: "Are you all vegetarians or vegans?"

Answer: "No, we are not. Don't ask again. We've heard this question three million times."

So if the omniverous Orchestra is sometimes willing to discuss their work in a political framework, the group's members are as concerned, if not more concerned, with aesthetic issues. Made up of almost equal parts visual artists and musicians, the group cites John Cage, Steve Reich, Kraftwerk and Pierre Boulez as influences. Indeed, the Orchestra can be filed under electronic music (and the group included a Kraftwerk cover on its last album), or contemporary classical music (of the musique concrete or fluxus school, maybe).

One particularly Cagean idea is articulated on the band's FAQ: ""You can make music out of nearly everything, each thing contains a very specific acoustic quality and represents an intricate universe of sound. Each thing could be a tool to open up that point of view."

And vegetables are that tool because, according to the Orchestra, the sound of vegetables cannot be easily produced by any other instruments.

Many of the group's instruments are modeled after those more commonly constructed out of wood or metal, but Reitermaier says he is most interested in those "vegetable instruments which work totally different than 'traditional' instruments and which produce a very special sound. For instance, the carrot 'feebee,' which consists of a carrot and a leek membrane, and which produces very high sounds which can be pitched by changing the air pressure and the tension of the membrane."

Certainly, some of the orchestra's vegetables/instruments sound like you'd expect -- the pumpkin drum resonates like any hollow drum, and we've heard dried beans percussive skitter across kitchen tables from time immemorial (even if we haven't considered that sound musical).

But, as Vice UK nicely puts it, sometimes the most organic instruments make the inorganic, unexpected sounds: "Their second CD, Automate, manages, with tomatoes and celery sticks, to generate complex ambient hums and drones that highbrow electronic acts like Autechre have spent years developing on mega-advanced super-computers.

And while Vegetable Orchestra members have achieved a certain facility on their vegetable instruments, one doesn't have to attend a concert to hear the music that is all around us, according to the band's Website.

"If you are really looking for a vegetable orchestra in Holland, the UK, USA, Mars, Alpha Centauri etc., go to the next vegetable market and listen very closely. You will hear the delicate sounds all vegetables make. There are millions of vegetable orchestras in the world. And there are also bread orchestras, food-can orchestras, car orchestras, cell phone orchestras, shoe orchestras."

A short documentary chronicling a 2006 Vienna performance, from market to stage:

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