A few years ago, Rob Blackson, the director of the Temple Contemporary art gallery at Temple University, was standing in a shuttered school district building in South Philadelphia. While waiting to be sold, the Bok Technical School building had become a temporary warehouse for district surplus, including many hundreds of broken musical instruments.
Blackson had an idea: What if we rallied the city to give those broken instruments one chance to sing their broken song together, in a concert filled with squeaks, rattles, and crunches? Afterwards, the instruments would be repaired and put back into the hands of students.
It was a tough sell.
“Even my own mother said this was a bad idea,” said Blackson.
He found some important backers, though, most notably the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and the Barra Foundation, which offered financial support, and the Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang, who did not have to think twice when asked to write a piece for these instruments.
Lang saw a roomful of broken instruments as a community of misfits, no longer able to do what they were originally designed to do. Some could be played, albeit warped and untunable. Many cellos had broken bridges, rendering their strings useless; trumpets had broken valves, making them little more than pieces of brass tubing; more than one violin was presented as nothing more than a bag of wooden pieces.
“I saw a rehearsal where an ensemble of about 20 people were asked to hold a single pitch,” said Lang. “All the instruments had a different answer to what that pitch was. Some instruments were squeaking, some were making weird noises because they are not capable to doing ordinary things anymore.
“They are capable of doing extraordinary things,” he said. “That’s what this piece depends on.”
Lang’s score for “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra” is more a set of written instructions than notes on a staff. The piece, about 40 minutes long and involving 400 players ranging from rank amateurs to world-class professionals, begins with the musicians tapping their instruments rhythmically.
Every instrument, regardless of condition, can be performed percussively. Those the worse for wear will be tapped the entire performance.
“Then pitch comes in, but it says, ‘In any octave, in irregular and unpredictable rhythm. Random repetition,’” said Jay Krush, reading the score. He is a tuba instructor at Temple University who will act as a section leader during the concert.
“It’s an evocative sea of sound rather than a strict, ‘Play this note, play this note,’” he said.
The Broken Orchestra is as much a music experiment as a social one. Lang designed the composition so it could be performed by players of any skill level. Many of the volunteer players came only because of the low bar for entry: They would have been too spooked to join if they were expected to be competent with a properly functioning instrument.
Some of the players are professionals, including Joseph Conyers, assistant principal bassist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Lang found he had to dumb them down a bit to fit into the piece.
For example, sections of the composition feature call-and-response exchanges, where a section leader plays a line and the section repeats it. Those musicians who had training were a little too good.
“They all played the response at exactly the same time. That’s a very classical music thing, a very orderly thing,” said Lang, who had to change his instructions to get a more chaotic sound.
“I wanted the idea that, at that moment, someone is presenting an idea into a little community, and the community explodes in response,” he said. “Instead, it was very police. I had to ask them to be less polite.”
Many of the volunteers came because they had a public school education and remembered playing on borrowed instruments as kids.
“I was a student in Philly schools,” said Raphael Schneider of Mt. Airy, holding a trumpet with a Champagne cork where one valve should be. “I started on a district trumpet. It’s nice to see one again.”
That was Lang’s experience has a kid growing up in Los Angeles. While his parents were very committed to his education, he said they had no interest in music. His only exposure to classical music was in school, when, in elementary school, he asked to borrow a trumpet — or maybe an oboe. His teacher had already handed out all the trumpets and oboes. Would he like a trombone?
Lang accepted, and continued to play trombone through graduate school.
“The presence of these instruments in my life changed my life,” he said. “All these instruments have the capability of changing lives of students in schools. The music is going to be beautiful, the event is going to be amazing. But to me, the greatest thing about this project is that, the day after it’s over, these instruments are going to be fixed.”
The concert on Sunday at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia, with 400 players and about as many spectators, is merely grandiose icing; the cake itself is an ongoing program to keep school district instruments in repair. With a grant from the Barra Foundation, a repair fund will be established, augmented by individual donations. The concert is meant to stir the public’s interest in music education, offering a chance to “adopt” an instrument and donate cash toward its repair.
Blackson has already lined up several area companies to begin repair work after the concert. He also wants to put resources for basic repairs into schools so simple fixes can be done on-site and instruments quickly put back into use.
“A lot of these repairs, like a trumpet with a mouthpiece stuck — that’s easy to repair,” he said. “But these simple repairs go into the same heap as a crunched bell or a broken bridge. Minor repairs are put in with major repairs.”
There are well over 1,000 instruments in the Philadelphia schools that cannot be played for various reasons. Sufficient public funding for their upkeep — and for music education, generally — is not expected anytime soon.
“I think there are lots of things in our society that are community-based things hurting for money, that people need to come together to take care of,” said Lang. “The people we are supposed to depend on to take care of them will not do that. We have to take care of it ourselves.”