Horns, harps, and hubcaps: The classical orchestra needs some new instruments.

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July 19 2011 10:19 AM

Horns, Harps, and Hubcaps

The classical orchestra needs some new instruments.

An orchestra. Click image to expand.
Classical orchestras need more car parts

When the American Composers Orchestra took the stage at Carnegie Hall this spring, they found more than just the typical setup of stands, chairs, and conductor's podium: Stage-left of the double-basses, there was what looked like a roughly dissected Ford Taurus. The ragtag collection of wheel wells, hubcaps, a fender, metal rods, and a psychedelically painted hood sat quietly on the stage during the first three pieces. Then, before the final work of the concert, a group of musicians emerged from the wings and began to carefully disassemble the heap, part by part.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

Wielding a cello bow, one musician caused a dented fender to produce sounds so piercingly lovely that an oboe might have been jealous. Hubcaps, when drawn over with the same implement, released a startling cry. Wheel wells struck with padded mallets created tones deep and resonant enough to challenge the horns for majesty, and gently scraped brake drums transmitted—better than trembling violins—the nervous energy of your fourth cup of coffee.

The piece they were playing, appropriately called Clunker Concerto, was composer Sean Friar's answer to the question, "How can we make the orchestra new?" The performance was the culmination of a six-month-long series of workshops, rehearsals, and rewrites during which Friar had collaborated with the ACO as part of a project called "Playing it UNsafe." The goal: reinvent the ways that both composer and listener approach the modern classical orchestra.

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Friar's work focused on introducing new instruments into the centuries-old ensemble—in this case, found car parts as concerto soloists, where a violin or piano might traditionally have been the star. After the concert, I asked Friar why he chose to write such a piece. Instead of merely searching for cool, raucous, or uncouth sounds that would clash with the regular palette, he said, what he really wanted was to show that wildly untraditional instruments can blend meaningfully with the long-established voices of the orchestra—indeed, that a fender might deserve to be featured as much as a flute when one considers the somewhat arbitrary development of the West's most revered musical institution, the orchestra.

This aim is more controversial than it might seem, for while symphony orchestras do occasionally feature odd instruments in novelty pieces, they almost never treat them as the equals of the venerable old-timers. In Friar's piece, however, the car parts are truly the leaders of—and, more importantly, the sonic inspiration for—the larger ensemble, and, amazingly, the piece came off sounding both refreshingly new and solidly mature: not a novelty in the least. So why doesn't this happen more often? If Friar's piece is any indication, it seems that the classical orchestra could benefit from a few new passengers.

The classical-orchestra instrument family as we know it is essentially a creation of the late 18th century—or more accurately a standardization of a number of competing traditions. Before this time, different instrumental ensembles were used for different events, depending on whether the music was to be played in church, the royal court, or for festive public occasions. The music that most of these groups played was stylistically similar—complicated, multimelody textures in which each instrument (or human voice) was equally important—and included ancestors of many of the instruments we still use today, as well as some that we've left behind.

Around the 1760s, taste began to change. Composers had fallen in love with the instrumental style of the Italian opera, which was defined by strings and woodwinds, and wanted to create purely instrumental music in a similar vein. Moreover, they liked the clear style of the music, the way lyrical melodies glided over a regular, recognizable chord progression. (Almost all contemporary popular music works this way.) In terms of instrumentation, this meant that the order of the day was no longer multiline complexity but smooth and elegant blending. Strings, oboes, and horns do this well; the strident, nagging harpsichord, less so. Once major composers like Haydn and Mozart adopted the style, the core members of the orchestra were pretty much set. Instruments such as the violin, flute, and horn made the cut, while the harpsichord and recorder were out.

The funny thing about this consolidation, though, is how unwieldy these central instruments are. For instance, oboes and bassoons are notoriously hard to keep in tune with the strings, and indeed this helps to explain the fact that, to this day, orchestras generally tune to the oboe's A pitch before concerts. Similarly, 18th-century horns were valveless, meaning that they could only play in a certain set of keys like C, F, G, and D. (Guess which keys almost all early classical pieces are written in.) Given such limitations, one would think composers would not have jumped so readily onto the orchestral bandwagon, but due to the significant popularity the sound enjoyed with patrons and audiences (and the prospect of financial gain through the performance of their music across Europe), they did just that.