Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Scrapheap Orchestra (Love Productions/BBC, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched an intriguing BBC documentary I’d just downloaded: Scrapheap Orchestra, a film about a weird project conductor Charles Hazlewood embarked on in 2011: he hired major instrument makers to produce al fresco instruments out of garbage, literally, to see if they could come up, using exclusively discarded and recycled materials, with instruments that sounded, if not exactly like professionally made ones from first-rate resources, at least close enough that he could lead a group of experienced symphony musicians in a popular piece at one of the BBC’s Proms concerts. He gave the instrument makers 11 weeks to manufacture 44 instruments for his “Scrapheap Orchestra” and decided that the work the group would perform would be Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — a good choice, as it turned out, because it’s a) familiar, b) a fun piece of music if not necessarily an enduring masterwork, and c) sufficiently vulgar (in both the good and bad senses of the word) that it wouldn’t suffer much from any deficiencies in the scrapheap instruments. (About the only other piece of music I could think of that would have served equally well would have been the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — which was actually the subject of a somewhat similar experiment done by Brian Eno in the early 1970’s. He recruited a group of experienced musicians to record the movement, but instead of making them play instruments made from garbage his gimmick was that none of the musicians could play an instrument they had ever played before. The result, as I recall, was a serviceable but pretty cacophonous performance of the movement, all too revealing of the musicians’ awkwardness at manipulating unfamiliar instruments to produce familiar notes.)

The result was an hour-and-a-half long movie that introduced us to a lot of quirky people — my favorite was Paul Jefferies, the rather owl-like man in charge of making the percussion instruments (and the queeniest-looking guy in the film; I know at least two Gay men in San Diego who look quite a lot like him) — both the instrument makers and the orchestral players who had to figure out how to manipulate these instruments and try to get at least halfway beautiful sounds from them. In general, Hazlewood and his crew got the most convincing sounds from the percussion instruments (though the makeshift cymbals — made from automobile hoods, or “bonnets” as they’re called in English English instead of American English — didn’t have anything like the resonance of real brass cymbals), then from the woodwinds (though they “cheated” a bit by allowing the reed players to use their normal reeds and mouthpieces instead of having to use ones made from trash — clarinet and flute maker Andy Wheeldon tried to make a reed from one of those little wooden spoons that come with pre-packaged ice cream sundaes so you can eat them on the road, but it didn’t work), then from the brass and least from the strings. At one point they tried to make stringed instruments from old drainpipes (there were a couple of lame jokes about what usually goes through pipes like that, and at the concert itself Charles Hazlewood said, “Don’t worry, they’ve been cleaned”), with a serving spoon stuck at the end so the violin and viola players could clench the instruments between their chins and their shoulders the way they do normally — but violist Tim Welch said it was literally too exhausting to play the instrument that way, and he also said that it sounded … well, like shit (he didn’t use the word but the parallel between the crappy sound he was getting and the literal crap that had passed through those pipes before was too irresistible).

Eventually violin maker Rob Cain figured out a way to heat the plastic pipes in an oven, then use tools to bend the partially melted pipes into a flatter shape that made them more closely resemble normal violins and violas. He also did a bit of cheating by carving bits of wood for bridges and sound posts to add resonance. Cello and double-bass maker Ben Hebbert was proud of himself for discovering an old zinc tub that worked surprisingly well as the body of an al fresco double bass — though what he came up with, four strings and a neck made from a sailboat mast, the whole thing lashed together with blue twine, was far advanced from the so-called “tea-chest bass” used by jug bands and skiffle groups in both the U.S. and U.K., which was one string fastened to the base of the tub, tied to a broom handle, with the player changing the tension by moving the broom handle and thereby being able to play more than one pitch. It was amusing to see how some of the smaller parts for the instruments were made — the tuning pegs for the strings were bent nails (there’s a weird shot of one of Rob Cain’s assistants hammering deliberately bent nails into the wooden rods that were supposed to be the necks of the instruments) and the keys to finger the woodwinds were made out of old flatware (with some of the fork tines clearly visible and the rounded business ends of the spoons actually serving the musicians surprisingly well). The trumpet bells were made out of red plastic lamps and the trombone (only one was used) was essentially a bunch of old plumbing pipes — which, when you think of it, is not that different from a real trombone, which is just a lot of brass tubing with a slide to alter its length and therefore its basic pitch (though when I saw the trombonist in the movie moving his slide all over the place I couldn’t help but recall the 1952 film The Strip, which featured extreme close-ups of the great jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden, who was famous for playing with the slide close to his face and making most of his notes with his lips rather than the slide; he did that because he’d learned trombone as a child and when he started out his arms hadn’t been long enough to reach the farthest slide positions).

The film’s director, Paul Bernays, way overdid the talking heads — he even had people talking over the final performance of the 1812 Overture, which both Charles and I thought should have been shown “straight,” with no talking over the music — but on the whole Scrapheap Orchestra was a quite good documentary, and it did offer some of the promised insights into “the history of instrument making and the science of music, why different instruments are made the way they are, why some designs have not changed for hundreds of years and why, when played together, the sound of an orchestra is like nothing on earth.” One striking aspect of the documentary is it shows how, as the instrument makers tinkered with their scrapheap constructions, they began to look more and more like standard professional instruments — there’s a reason why a violin body is oblong instead of tubular (at one point both Charles and I were reminded of the Stroh violin, an invention used in the first two decades of the 20th century to record violin music via the acoustic process; a Stroh violin was played like a normal one and had a normal neck and bowed strings, but instead of a soundbox it had a miniature horn that could project the sound out to the similarly shaped horn that recorded the sounds before electrical recording was developed) — and one point the show made was that while there were a lot of innovations in instrument design in the 18th and much of the 19th century, from the late 19th century since musical instruments — at least the ones used in classical music — have hardly changed at all.

The major instruments invented in the 20th century were all offshoots of ones that had existed before: the electric organ, electric guitar, electric piano and synthesizer (which was really an electronic version of the pipe organ, since both pipe organs and synthesizers attempt to reproduce the sounds of other instruments — the giveaway is how many organ stops have names like “trompette” and “floete” — though they also have distinctive timbres and capabilities of their own). The attempts to use electricity to generate entirely new sounds rather than reproduce those of previously existing acoustic instruments — things like the theremin and the Ondes martenot — have had niche applications at best (I doubt if Professor Leon Theremin realized when he was working on the instrument that bears its name that its most common use would be to provide sound effects for science-fiction movies!), and though the electric guitar has been harnessed to create a range of sounds far beyond those possible from its acoustic forebear (there’s only a distant family resemblance between the sounds created by Andrés Segovia and those from Jimi Hendrix!), there’s been surprisingly little evolution in the design of instruments and even the saxophone, a 19th century French invention, has mostly been consigned to the jazz world. (Part of the problem with classical saxophone is that classical saxophonists tend to play with light, thin tones that would get them laughed off the stage at any jam session.)