Instrumental Resistance

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A performance of symphony for broken instruments at the 23rd Street Armory, Philadelphia

“Why didn’t they fix the instruments first, and then have us play the piece,” asked a middle-aged man sitting in front of me. He was fiddling with the third valve of an old trumpet, trying to free it from its stuck position. We were at a rehearsal for the project Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a large civic art project in Philadelphia that went up in the Fall of 2017. As one of the twenty-five section leaders, it was my task to help teach the piece symphony for broken instruments by the composer David Lang to some of the 400 professional and amateur musicians who had signed up to play.

“I’m not sure,” I answered. The man with the trumpet looked a little dismayed, seemingly concerned that the so-called section leader didn’t have a better idea of what was going on. Trying to save face, I continued, “I feel that not knowing how this all works can actually be a good thing. We’re figuring out how to make music in a different way than we’re used to. We’re going to try a lot of different things today, so let’s be open to whatever happens.”

“Trust the process,” my fellow section-leader Ben chimed in, repeating the mantra of Philadelphia’s long-improving professional basketball team. A few of the prepping musicians chuckled.

Although I didn’t have a good reason at the time why we were playing a symphony for broken instruments, rather than a symphony for instruments that used to be broken, but are now fixed and good as new, it’s clear to me now that project’s practical effectiveness and compelling artistry depended on those instruments’ brokenness. The project as a whole, and Lang’s composition in particular, transformed the essential hierarchical relationships of a typical orchestral performance. These relationship transformations turned the instruments into performative agents who could tell their previously-hidden stories of trauma and neglect.

The origin of Symphony for a Broken Orchestra is a singularly traumatic moment in the recent history of the city of Philadelphia. In March 2013, members of the city’s School Reform Commission voted to close twenty-three public schools in an attempt to erase the school district’s $1.35 billion budget deficit.[1] Teachers were laid off, and thousands of students were suddenly shuffled into unfamiliar school communities. In the aftermath of those closings, Robert Blackson, director of the gallery Temple Contemporary at Temple University, went on a tour of a school where administrators were sorting through leftover supplies from the closed schools. The gymnasium had become a warehouse for broken pianos that the district had no idea what to do with, the morass of instruments calling to mind an oversized Rauschenberg Combine. Though those pianos were likely scrapped or sold, Blackson and Frank Machos, the arts director for the Philadelphia School District, began a project to catalog every broken instrument in the district.[2] They ended up tallying over 1000 instruments that could not be fixed due to budget constraints. In 2007, for instance, the district’s instrumental music budget was $1.5 million, while in 2015, it had dropped all the way to $50,000.[3] With all of these instruments unusable by students in the Philadelphia school system, the question became what was to become of them.

As an organization, Temple Contemporary is deeply involved with social practice in art. The organization is run in part by a forty-person advisory board, composed not just of Temple University administrators, but of city professionals and local high school students, striving to accurately represent the makeup of the city at large.[4] Many of the organization’s recent projects—including Funeral for a Home and reForm—strive to break out of the traditional art gallery, recognizing “social engagement and debate as the determining factor of our programming.”[5] Like their previous projects, Symphony for a Broken Orchestra is a multi-pronged work, focusing as much on social discourse as on presentation. One aspect of the work—supported by a grant from the Barra Foundation—involves a fundraising drive where donors can “adopt” instruments to help pay for their repair.[6] In tandem, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang was commissioned to write an extended work for an orchestra of both local professionals and amateurs performing on these broken instruments, a performance funded by a large grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.[7]

Lang’s compositional practice makes him an ideal collaborator on the Broken Orchestra project. Though Lang is perhaps best known for his pieces for small forces (like his austere and haunting Little Match Girl Passion for four singers, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music), in recent years, Lang has composed a series of extended works for very large groups of diversely-experienced performers, including 2014’s crowd out and 2016’s the public domain. Lang’s contribution to the Broken Orchestra project, symphony for broken instruments, builds on the strategies Lang employed in crowd out and the public domain, creating a work that allows for many kinds of instrumental participation.

symphony for broken instruments is sectional in nature, consisting of a sequence of ten contrasting musical worlds. Each world focuses on a distinct kind of musical color, moving from white noise to pitch to harmony to motive to full-on lyrical melody. For the first four sections of the piece, one world bleads into another, creating a slow accumulation of energy moving toward an exuberant climax. The piece begins with quiet, pitchless tapping (which for many instruments is the extent of their sonic capabilities), which then becomes colored by the introduction of pitched plucking (the technique pizzicato) on the stringed instruments. Woodwinds like flutes and clarinets enter next, playing long, quiet tones, moving through an almost-imperceptibly slow melody. Brass instruments join the rest on what Lang calls an “unstable chorale,”[8] a series of simple harmonies made impressively piquant by the broken instruments’ unexpected soundings, growing louder and more agitated until an abrupt cutoff. The second half of the piece features different kinds musical activities, including call-and-response—where members of each section attempt to imitate the sounds and melodic figures of a given leader—ferocious “punching chords” played in unison, a tender, lullaby-like melody, and a final, quiet cadential chord.

The sequence of these ten musical worlds is just about the only fixed parameter of the work. There are a few, loose specifications of time length, and some sections have a fixed collection of pitches, but compared to most pieces of music in the western classical tradition—which specify almost every parameter of every musical event through notation—symphony for broken instruments allows for a huge amount of performer agency. In a way, each section of the piece is reducible to a single musical idea that can be carried out in myriad ways by the performers, evocative of the creation of Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings.[9] The ideas in the piece are relatively simple to execute—they’re not dependent on the ability to coordinate different kinds of physical movements on an extraordinarily exact time scale, which is the goal of traditional training on a musical instrument. This does not mean that the piece sounds simple or is even simple to put together. Instead, the piece resists the typical challenges of performing western classical music and creates new challenges that transform the relationship between performer and instrument.

From the standpoint of an individual performer, the challenge of playing the different musical elements of symphony for broken instruments comes from the fact that in their current state, these instruments are resistant to their intended design and function. The designs of these traditional orchestral instruments have developed over time in order to play music from a specific culture—that of the global West. For example, the complex key mechanisms of flutes and clarinets compared to their non-western cousins reflect a desire to accurately and consistently play the pitches of the western equal-tempered musical scale, rather than the myriad scales from other musical cultures. In their brokenness, the instruments are resisting their typical roles in a piece of western art music, and thus upend the many hierarchies embedded in western art music practices.

The first traditional hierarchy that instruments upend is the notion of virtuosity and its relationship to training. In a traditional orchestral context, the principal players—those with the most skill—play the most demanding and conspicuously-featured parts, which frequently include very fast runs of notes. In their broken states, the instruments prevent even the best-trained musicians from playing these traditionally-virtuosic parts. Instead, the instruments ask for their own kind of virtuosity, one that rewards creativity and experimentation rather than pure speed and instrumental facility. This virtuosity of experimentation is predicated on openness rather than trained coordination, as it forces the performer to meet the instrument on its own terms, and figure out how the instrument wants to be played, rather than how the performer wants to play the instrument. One of the other section leaders in the ensemble figured out that his saxophone could not hold a stable pitch for a long period of time due to air leakages. However, the player discovered that if he overblew—a technique that is usually discouraged while taking lessons because it creates an “ugly,” honking sound—the instrument had a clear sense of pitch and a powerful resonance. In the context of the piece, the ability to let the instrument unleash its unique sound was much more vital than playing a fast lick.

This different kind of virtuosity—learning how to let the instruments make their distinct, personal sounds—had a strong impact on how I approached playing my own instrument. I was given a forty-year-old snare drum. Its drum heads had never been replaced, and its lugs—the mechanisms that keep the heads tight to make a crisp sound—had rusted and left the heads loose and flabby. I couldn’t make the traditionally beautiful snare drum sounds that I had learned through my training—the satisfying snaps, crackles, and pops, the bright and delicate ornaments. So instead, I ended up experimenting with using different hitting implements, especially ones that were not designed to be used with a snare drum. I used heavy-gauge, wire brushes to create rough sandpaper sounds on the top head. I turned the drum over and used a metal triangle beater to scrape the snare coils and make sounds reminiscent of tennis balls being tossed into a metal hopper. Because of the loose heads, I realized that I could easily use one implement to push into the head and change the drum’s pitch while hitting it with another, similar to a Yoruba talking drum. During one of the performances, the mechanism holding the snare coils to the drum snapped in one place, leaving them dangling. I took that opportunity to make a new sound—shaking the snares to make a gentle murmur reminiscent of a rain stick. Throughout the rehearsal and performance process, I had to listen to and work with the drum in order to best perform my part for symphony for broken instruments, rather than control the drum to make the sound that I believe the composer intended for it to make.

What is interesting about this different kind of virtuosity is that it inspired communal music making, rather than quieting those with less formal training. The different strategies for letting the instruments speak in their unique ways were passed between players—as the rehearsals went on, I noticed more and more woodwind players overblowing to make the striking sounds like the saxophone section leader. In a more traditional orchestral context, those with greater technical proficiency take on an outsized musical role. Flashy soloists tend to differentiate their sounds from the rest of the ensemble in order to create an aural pedestal. A notable aspect of the rehearsal process for symphony for broken instruments is the fact that I encountered far more skepticism about the piece and how to perform it from professional musicians than from students. The change in musical hierarchy that stemmed from the resistance of the instruments themselves created an uncomfortable situation for performers used to occupying a place of privilege within a group of music-makers.

This transformation of hierarchical relationships stemming from the challenges of performing with broken musical instruments carried over into other relational aspects of the work as well. The means of making symphonic music in the western classical tradition has a strikingly pyramidal structure. At the top, a (typically white male) genius composer composes a “Great” piece, specifying the color and timing of every sound through written notation. A similarly-genius conductor is able to understand all of the concurrent working parts of the piece, and make sure a group of well-trained musicians can execute them properly. These musicians use their specially-designed instruments to carry out the vision and expression of the composer via the conductor and communicate it to a receptive audience. In symphony for broken instruments, composer David Lang specifies comparatively little musical information, as the instruments themselves cannot respond in the way that he as a classical composer has been trained to hear and understand them. By itself, this act elevates performers to the level of the composer, as they have much more of a say in how the piece sounds—they take Lang’s basic ideas and draw them in their own artistic hand.

On another level, the scope and setup of the performance—with the 400-person orchestra surrounding an audience of about 600—also gives the audience greater agency in their experience of the piece, rather than just as passive receivers of artistic “genius.” The performers and listeners were seated on the same level of a flat, open drill hall, placing everyone on an equal plane. I was as close to the audience as I was to the other performers, meaning that my own experience of the piece had as much to do with my perceived relationship to listeners as it did with the other performers. The intense spacialization of the piece also invited listeners to composer their own listening experience, shifting their focus from the sounds of individual instruments that were closest to them, to the larger musical gestures that ping-ponged from group to group around the circle, to the composite sound-mass of all the distinct, broken instruments uneasily blending together.

These relational transformations that upend the traditional experience of western symphonic music do not, however, create a completely flat power dynamic that place the music makers and listeners on the exact same plane. Lang, of course, is not completely abdicating his traditional role as composer, as he circumscribes the musical performance parameters for each section of the piece. However, if there is a single central force that defines the resultant sound-experience of symphony for broken instruments, it is not Lang’s musical parameters, but the parameters enforced the workings of the broken instruments themselves. The way that these instruments resist their design to play a certain kind of music result in them developing a very powerful form of performative agency. Because of their resistant workings, the instruments cannot express what the composer or performers want them to express. Instead, the composer and performers can express only what the instruments allow them to. In the case of the Symphony For a Broken Orchestra as a whole, these instruments express unique and deeply personal histories—histories of poverty and trauma and neglect.

Clarinet #279 from Allen M. Stearne Elementary School in Frankford is not just a clarinet.[10] Because it is leaking air from a couple of cracks near the bottom of the barrel, it cannot play its lowest notes, letting out complex, unstable, squawking sounds instead. The physical trauma and neglect that the instrument has experienced parallels the trauma and neglect of its school and neighborhood. From 1999 to 2013, the number of people living below the poverty line in Frankford increased 35.6%,[11] while in 2013, Stearne Elementary was reclassified as K-8 school in order to accommodate students moving from other closed middle schools.[12] The design of symphony for broken instruments embraces those sounds rather than covering them up, allowing them to tell their own stories. Instead of appropriating the instruments and their sounds for the composer’s own, singular aesthetic statement, the piece instrumentalizes the players (most of whom, like myself, had the privilege of receiving formal instrumental music training ins school) to communicate the greater social injustices reflected in the instruments’ sounds. In this way, the piece is not like a traditional requiem, which as scholar Jay Winter writes, “is a means of forgetting, as much as of commemoration.”[13] The piece challenges its listeners to confront the traumas and neglect that not only led to the breaking of instruments, but also continue to harm the lives of hundreds of thousands of people throughout Philadelphia. The transformation of the traditional hierarchies of classical music performance provide a stark reminder of how these received hierarchies led to this trauma and neglect in the first place.

I now have a brutally clear answer to the trumpeter at the first Symphony For a Broken Orchestra rehearsal of why we were playing broken instruments. If the instruments were fixed before we played the piece, their stories and traumas would be erased, the social ills undergirding them would be minimized—it would all just be a little problem that could be solved with a quick band aid. The project is not and should not be a celebration. Even though these more than 1000 instruments are being fixed and returned to schools throughout the city, the performative record of the project should not be a joyous coming-together of straight-from-central-casting diverse musicians that hollowly reflects social progress. It is a call to vigilance, a resistance to the social hierarchies that can break lives as well as musical instruments.

[1] John Hurdle, “Philadlephia Officials Vote to Close 23 Schools,” The New York Times, March 8, 2013, A16.

[2] Kriston Capps, “How To Build an Orchestra From Broken Instruments,” The Atlantic, December 3, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/12/symphony-for-a-broken-orchestra/547307/

[3] Robert Blackson, Note from symphony for broken instruments, musical score, 2017.

[4] “FAQ,” http://symphonyforabrokenorchestra.org/faq/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Capps.

[7] “Temple Contemporary,” https://tyler.temple.edu/temple-contemporary

[8] Score citation.

[9] The musical collective Bang on a Can, of which Lang is a co-founder, puts on a music festival each summer at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, which is home to the largest installation of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, perhaps suggesting a lineage for the practices in symphony for broken instruments.

[10] “Adopt an Instrument,” http://symphonyforabrokenorchestra.org

[11] “Income and Poverty in the Philadelphia Region,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com/philly/infographics/medianincome.html.

[12] “Philly School District’s Proposed Closings,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com/philly/education/Philly_School_Districts_proposed_closings.html

[13] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 115.

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