Turnip the volume – Alison Healy on the Vienna-based Vegetable Orchestra

They buy their fresh vegetables on the day of the performance and then spend hours turning them into instruments

If you have stumbled across a performance of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra (An Irishwoman’s Diary, March 4th), you may foolishly think that it wins the prize for being the world’s most unusual orchestra. But hold on to your hat because I have news on that front.

There is a vegetable orchestra. Yes, the Vienna-based Vegetable Orchestra has been making sweet (potato) music since 1998, using instruments carved from fresh vegetables.

The orchestra members clearly never listened to their parents’ pleas to not play with their food and have made a virtue out of doing just that. They say the use of the vegetable instruments “creates a musically and aesthetically unique sound universe”.

And if you listen to their music online, I think you’ll agree that it’s definitely unique.

While classical musicians spend the day of a performance polishing their instruments – that’s a wild guess as I clearly don’t know anything about musicians – the Vegetable Orchestra is busily constructing instruments from scratch. They buy their fresh vegetables on the day of the performance and then spend hours turning them into instruments. Knives and a selection of drills are employed, and the first aid kit is often called upon.

They chisel carrots into woodwind instruments, leeks become violins, celery sticks are transformed into guitars and peppers act as trumpets and horns. Pumpkins make for perfect percussion instruments. Then they turnip the volume – sorry, I couldn’t resist – and drop their sweet beats. They say their experimental music is neither electronic nor classical but influenced by both.

And while elite orchestras might look down their noses at this group, I would argue that the Vegetable Orchestra have skills most professional musicians would envy. After all, they have to contend with lumps falling out of their instruments mid-performance, which is more than you can say for someone playing first violin. Has a member of RTÉ's Concert Orchestra ever struggled with a courgette clarinet disintegrating in their hands? I think not. And I bet the classical musicians have never found themselves sweeping up the detritus left by their instruments after a performance.

Not only does the Vegetable Orchestra feed creative minds, it also feeds the audience’s bodies at the end of the concert when the musicians dish up vegetable soup, made from the vegetables saved earlier when the instruments were being prepared. And it’s breaking records – it won a Guinness world record in 2019 for the most concerts performed by a group of musicians playing instruments constructed solely from vegetables.

Admittedly there is not a huge amount of competition in that category but a few other vegetable orchestras have sprung up in recent years so the vegetable patch is becoming crowded.

But it appears that not all vegetables are equal when it comes to music-making. Matthias Meinharter, a founding member of the Vegetable Orchestra explains that the orchestra has given up on the cauliflower. As someone who was reared on mushy cauliflower, I say, who could blame them? The musicians tried to produce a type of vessel flute known as an ocarina out of the cauliflower but it stubbornly refused to co-operate.

Cauliflowers have a well-earned reputation for being the most truculent of vegetables. “And because of their soft structure, they can’t be used as percussion instruments either,” Matthias says with regret.

As an Irish person, it’s my national duty to ask if he has ever tried to coax a pleasing melody from a potato.

But the orchestra takes its name very seriously so spuds are verboten. “In German the name of the Vegetable Orchestra is “Gemüse-orchester”, and the word “gemüse” has a slightly different meaning than vegetables,” he says earnestly. “In this terminology potatoes are not “gemüse”. Therefore, potatoes are not used as vegetable instruments. But, if the season or region or cuisine culture of the country, where we perform, leaves us no alternative, we use them.”

Now doesn’t that sound like an offer to perform in Ireland if the price (of potatoes) is right? The orchestra has travelled widely in the past, from China to Russia to London.

Back in 2008, the New York Times reported that Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk had flown the orchestra to his country to entertain the vegetarian Paul McCartney. This was after the singer had performed in front of a 350,000-strong crowd in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Astonishingly, the Vegetable Orchestra says it has never brought the show to this State. I, for one, would pay good money to see if they can wrestle a harmonious sound from a potato.

And if they are not already using the catchline “Lettuce Entertain You” then they are welcome to it, in exchange for a bowl of that vegetable soup.

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