The Vegetable Orchestra Onionoise

[Transacoustic Research; 2010]

Styles: vegetable style, experimental, electronic, musique concrète, noise, improv, pop
Others: Matmos, Radian, Franz Hautzinger, Harry Partch, Raster-Noton

Music and food have always enjoyed an intimate relationship in the human imagination, from the bacchanal festivals of ancient times to our own era in which globalized sounds are served up with global fusion foods at restaurants and festivals around the world. The use of food as a visual representation also has a history, from Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s famous paintings to contemporary work by artists such as Carl Warner and Ju Duoqi.

The Vegetable Orchestra of Vienna takes a step beyond the everyday temptation of laying out one’s dinner in a pictorially humorous manner by looking to the sounds lying dormant within vegetables. The group makes instruments out of whatever fresh produce they can source at Vienna’s Naschmarkt and then perform or record partly composed, partly improvised pieces while the goods are still fresh. Typical instruments include the calabash horn, the radirimba (yes, a marimba made from radishes), and the celeriac cymbal.

The apparent weirdness of the orchestra’s modus operandi arguably stems from its location in what has been, for at least a couple of centuries, a major center for Western art music, whether classical or avant-garde, “acoustic” or “electronic.” This is made more notable by the fact that the group performs pieces written by classical composers (Johann Strauss), electronic music pioneers (Kraftwerk), and more recent experimental electronica artists (Radian), and that they claim inspiration from avant-garde, free jazz, noise, and dub.

In contrast to such cosmopolitanism, it is tempting to use words like “organic,” “earthy,” and “watery” to describe the Orchestra’s work and to speak of this as “roots music” (the group themselves use some of these terms). Indeed, it’s possible that this is all a conceptual joke, possibility aided by the names of some of the instruments (radi jazz vibrator, celeriac bongo, pumpkin triangle) and their rather rude appearance (especially as displayed in the slide show on the group’s website). The impression becomes even stronger when one hears a member of the orchestra telling an interviewer, deadpan, about the challenges of playing the carrot recorder or telling an audience that “the next number is dedicated to cabbage.”

However, The Vegetable Orchestra maintains that theirs is a very serious project, and there is no denying that it raises a number of interesting issues, not only about the relationship between music and food, but also about the supposed dichotomy between the organic and the technological in music. It has been suggested, for example, that groups such as Kraftwerk eschewed any sense of organicism in their pursuit of the machinic. The clean lines of their electronic signals are contrasted by many commentators with the heavy (earthy) rootedness of “real” instruments so beloved by rock groups. This supposed difference is a fallacy often supported by rock musicians themselves, for whom there is a long established history of declaring their music authentic due to its avoidance of “commercial” sounds such as synthesizers. It’s a silly argument that is easily disproven, but that doesn’t seem to reduce the frequency of its appearance.

In fact, as shown by the excellent compilation released by Soul Jazz earlier this year, many groups involved with “Deutsche Elektronische Musik” displayed a sustained interest in notions of the organic, from the rural retreats they retired to in order to produce their music to an emphasis on pulsating life within the music itself. It is no surprise that, at the more theoretical end of popular music discourse, the terminology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari came to be attached to electronic music. The notion of the rhizome fitted the self-generation, endless arpeggios, and potential for infinite lateral growth that could be found in such music.

But none of this does away with some key facts. Musical instruments have always been made from natural material. Technics is based on process, not objects; technology is not best represented by the simple contrast of a piano with a synthesizer, but rather by considering the thought processes, needs, desires, and experiments that went into the development of both instruments. Perhaps it is an emphasis on process rather than objects that allows The Vegetable Orchestra to describe laptops as “traditional” instruments on their website. Their point, it seems, is that the use of computers to create and perform music has become a kind of tradition, one that they want to move beyond. Their project then becomes about how to return the creation of music via discrete sound samples back into a “live” process.

After all this, it’s a bit of a shame that the music on Onionoise does not always live up to the concepts behind it. It’s not that the music is bad; in fact, much of it is excellent, with notable highlights being the bouncy, driving bass and minimalist techno flourishes of “Transplants,” the screeching noise that brings “Le Massacre du Printemps” to its logical conclusion, or the retro exotica of “Malang.” The skill in combining and balancing a variety of little sounds into larger patchworks is impressive and the results are intriguing, catchy, and challenging. It’s just that the music would be excellent whatever its source; it’s not always as clear, as The Orchestra claims, that these sounds could only come from vegetables.

Perhaps “music” is the key word here. Perhaps the closer the group comes to performing music, to making their sound consonant, the further they move from the sonic specificity of the vegetable world. As with food, the cultivation of vegetables is a sign of civilization, but civilization comes via the turning of the raw into the cooked. The rawer pieces on Onionoise, those closer to pure sound/noise than music, seem to hold a truer imprint of their origins, or at least to force us to ask what those origins might be. “Pocket Stampede” and “Regen” are both abstract pieces that do away with the lulling comfort of the more melodic numbers and seem to demand explanations. (There’s an interesting comparison with the work of Matmos here, another group whose concepts determine their sound sources and yet whose more melodic work does away with a need to know about the source.)

What this all boils down to is that The Vegetable Orchestra’s work is probably best savored in a live setting, where the freshness of their produce is intimately connected to the transience of the music they produce. Recording it and housing it in lovely digipacks that resemble seed packets will certainly help to propagate the group’s fame, but, as with preserving any foodstuff, there is the danger that the freshness will evaporate, the flavor will be altered, and the organic feel-good factor of sampling locally-sourced ingredients will be gone.

Onionoise may be a little like an instant noodle snack, where the dried ingredients don’t quite seem to match their fresh counterparts. However, if you’re happy to add your own water and stir, there’s plenty of fascinating sonic material to explore on an album that moves confidently among the worlds of lush exotica, techno-funk, noise, and ambient. And, if you want to make the most of the concepts behind it all, hang up the rather gorgeous poster that comes with the CD, check out the online video footage of The Vegetable Orchestra performing, and, next time you’re preparing a meal, try fashioning your own celery guitar.

Links: The Vegetable Orchestra - Transacoustic Research

Most Read