Mom always said: ‘Don’t play with your food!’ . . . Maybe she was wrong

What do carrots, artichokes, leeks and squash have in common? It’s simple: music. “I’m the world’s b

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For Gazette music writer Geraldine Freedman’s review of this show, click here.

What do carrots, artichokes, leeks and squash have in common? It’s simple: music.

“I’m the world’s best celery violinist,” Matthias Meinharter, a member of the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, said last week from Vienna, followed by a big laugh.

The 12-piece orchestra will make its U.S. debut at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at Proctors.

Music with vegetables? It’s true that biting a carrot or piece of celery might yield a crunchy sound, and asparagus snaps when broken in two. But that’s only a kind of percussive sound.

Think again. Try hollowing out a large carrot part way and put in a few holes. Voila. A recorder.

“In the first rehearsal, I chose leeks,” Meinharter said. “I like leeks and wondered what I could play with a leek. So I made a leek violin.”

That was in 1998, when he and a bunch of friends were invited to participate in a student festival. Although all of them had studied music and some played musical instruments during their high school and college days — Meinharter played a little guitar — none of them were classically trained musicians.

“We’re all artists,” Meinharter said. “I’m an interior designer. Ulrich [Troyer] is an architect. Nikolaus [Gansterer] is in an experimental electronic music group. Juergen [Berlakovich] does radio broadcasts.”

Pondering materials

As they sat around trying to come up with what to do for the festival, they began to wonder what was needed to make an instrument, he said. Making music from objects is an old idea. Cave men used bones to make whistles. So, why not vegetables?

“It was kind of weird,” Meinharter said. “How wet would it have to be? How would it break or not be too stiff?”

After exploring their grocery store, they initially settled on carrots, zucchini, celeriac, celery, cabbage, dry beans, French beans, artichokes, eggplants, peppers, onions and cucumbers.

“We’re tried them all. We invented our own acoustical field, our own universe,” he said.

They discovered that carrots could be made into everything from mouthpieces and recorders to what Meinharter calls a lotus flute, which makes a kind of swooning sound when a finger is inserted into the tube (like a real flute’s head joint) at various lengths, which changes the pitch. A cabbage became an instrument to make rock music on when it was wrapped with paper and then had a distortion pedal attached to it. When the paper was crushed it became a distorted guitar sound. Cucumbers became a kind of trumpet.

With sounds that included actual tones as well as crackling, ripping, whooshing and slurpy sounds that can be shrill, dark or have other qualities, they decided it was best to write their own tunes rather than try to imitate actual songs. They also added various utensils, such as power drills or record players to the mix for unexpected textures and to create hypnotic, funky or groovy rhythms. To date, they have written 30 pieces, which they perform at up to 40 shows a year.

Gradual response

Audience response to their first project has become typical at many venues where they’ve never played.

“At first they laugh and think it’s like a cabaret show,” Meinharter said. “Then they become curious as to how it works and then they realize it’s a musical project and start to listen.”

What has become particularly gratifying for him and the rest of the ensemble is that the group has shown flexibility, he said. They’ve played at prestigious classical music festivals and rock music in large theaters across Europe and the Far East, which often attract audiences of up to 3,000 people. The U.S. tour is a quick sampler: Proctors on Wednesday, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Friday and Saturday, which also includes a workshop on making veggie instruments.

“It proves we’re unique,” Meinharter said.

Instrument longevity is an issue. None of the veggies last past the concert. Before every concert, the players hit the local grocery stores and evaluate whether what they find will work. Usually they need up to 15 eggplants, six cucumbers, four cabbage, 100 carrots in various sizes, and now that it’s fall, one pumpkin. In some places, like Singapore, they’ve found vegetables they’d never seen.

“There was a garlic or lemon grass that was good for a string instrument,” Meinharter said. “But it only grows in Malaysia, so we could only use it there. And in early spring we can’t find vegetables that are a good size. So we’re a seasonal orchestra.”

Once they have the veggies, they go to the concert hall and spend up to three hours making the instruments and doing a sound check with their own sound engineer who is used working with their delicate and often low sounds.

Music as food

After a few hours’ break, it’s show time. An hour later, soup is offered. A cook, who’s been backstage, has turned the pieces of vegetables left over from the instrument making — as well as the used instruments themselves — into soup, which is passed out to the audience.

“We like to talk to the audience after the show and answer questions,” Meinharter said. “Giving food is an invitation to talk.”

After 12 years, the orchestra has achieved some celebrity, especially in Vienna, but people still do double takes at parties when they ask him what he does. Interior designer, yes, but a vegetable orchestra?

“It’s a serious thing for us,” Meinharter said. “I never imagined I’d be where I am today. What’s nice is that we never planned to do the student festival project beyond that one time. I’m having the most fun.”

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