They’ve played 300 shows around the world – and most of their instruments don’t make it through the set.
by Eliot Stein
Despite covering a few Kraftwerk and classical pieces, the Vegetable Orchestra mainly composes original material, which can range from dark and hypnotic electronic sounds to beat-oriented house tracks. To do this, they attach tiny condenser microphones and little pickups to the veggies to amplify their natural tone and, as Berlakovich said, “to make them come alive”. But when they first set out, learning how to play the parsnip wasn’t the only challenge: there was no way to write music for food.
Because veggies are shaped differently from crate to crate and country to country, they can sound different, too. So instead of notes, the group developed a sort of timeline showing when the instruments come in and a graph of high and low pitches. “No-one else could read it,” Berlakovich said. “It’s like a secret code.”
At the end of their sound check, the orchestra descended from the abbey’s outdoor garden stage and quickly re-wrapped their instruments in moist towels. The show was set to start in 90 minutes, and the veggies were in trouble. “It’s unusually hot today, which makes the vegetables brittle and break,” said founding member Barbara Kaiser, holding up the severed head of a cabbage. “But they like to die dramatically on stage.”
When the sun descended under the abbey’s spires, a team of tuxedo-clad ushers lit fire torches around the complex’s manicured courtyard and opened the doors. Soon, hundreds of well-heeled Germans were strutting through the vaulted walkway, many asking one another if they had ever heard of this Gemüsegruppe (‘vegetable group’) on the way to the Champagne bar and their seats.
As the all-black-clad troupe took the stage and steadied their water radishes, a few nervous giggles echoed through the garden. Berlakovich soon kicked into the warbling root prelude with a thumping bass pumpkin beat, two members tapped wooden spoons on dried squash, and the carrot section looped in a fluted melody, sliding the song into a trance-like tribal rhythm.
By the third song, the audience was tuned in to the texture of the ambient compositions: the crackling of celery stalks, the rumbling urgency of onion skin, the groovy claps of aubergines and the wind-like effect of rubbing two parsley bouquets together like pompoms. By song four, nearly everyone at the 500-person show was bobbing their heads along – except for one serious, older-looking woman wearing a black dress in the front row.
Towards the end of the set, bits of dried veg-struments were flying off the stage with each tap, clap and pluck. The group shook the abbey’s foundations with a take on German Krautrock, hooking distortion pedals and microphones into heads of cabbage and strumming their waxy leaves like guitars as shredded greens littered the stage. By the time the orchestra culminated their final song by rolling a legion of legumes and potatoes down a ramp, the once-clean stage looked like an exploded farmers’ market. The orchestra then bowed to a standing ovation and began mopping it all up.
“For me, this is still multi-sensory performance art,” Meinharter said. “The audience can hear the music, smell the music, see the music and then taste the music.”
After the show a swarm of people surrounded the musicians, eager to buy CDs, snap pictures with the group and taste what they’d just heard. In keeping with a 21-year tradition, the performers offered their instruments to anyone who might want to go home and practice jamming on the produce themselves.
Gartmayer asked if anyone was interested in her pepper trumpet, and the older woman in the black dress reached out her hand, stuffed it in her purse and walked briskly towards the exit. When she thought she was out of sight of everyone, she pulled the pepper from her purse, put it to her mouth and gave it a good, long hoot.