Philadelphia's Broken Orchestra : Deceptive Cadence Philadelphia's public school system has over 1,000 broken instruments.
NPR logo

The Healing Sound Of A Broken Orchestra

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/567064772/567573034" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Healing Sound Of A Broken Orchestra

The Healing Sound Of A Broken Orchestra

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/567064772/567573034" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Here is what a symphony of broken instruments sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN ORCHESTRA MUSIC)

MCEVERS: The instruments belong to Philadelphia's public school system. It has over a thousand altogether. This weekend, musicians ranging from schoolkids to members of The Philadelphia Orchestra will play some of them, and the goal is to get the instruments fixed. NPR's Neda Ulaby went to a rehearsal.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The instruments are truly a mess.

BRENT WHITE: (Playing trombone).

ULABY: Brent White got a busted up trombone.

WHITE: Oh, man, this thing is so beat up. It looks like it's been thrown all over the place.

ULABY: It doesn't even have the right slide.

WHITE: This slide is to another trombone, so they took one slide from one trombone and one from the other and they put the two together.

ULABY: That means this horn is a little out of tune all the time. White's a professional jazz musician. He's toured with famous bands, including the Sun Ra Arkestra, but he started off playing music in Philadelphia's public schools.

WHITE: You know, I remember some of the broken instruments I had to play in elementary school and middle school, and it's coming full circle now.

(APPLAUSE)

ULABY: When the composer enters the rehearsal room, everyone breaks into applause.

DAVID LANG: Let's dive in.

ULABY: David Lang has won a Pulitzer. He was invited to compose "Symphony For A Broken Orchestra" the same day he was nominated for an Academy Award. Less glitzy, he says, but...

LANG: I really thought of this whole thing as a kind of healing exercise, and from the very beginning, I made everyone here refer to these instruments as wounded instruments.

ULABY: About 1,500 wounded instruments were catalogued by Lang's assistants. Many were too wounded to play at all. Lang looked for flutes that could still gasp, cracked cellos with a few pluckable strings and horns with broken valves.

LANG: I am trying to make the brokenness kind of the foreground. I don't want to avoid the things that are broken. I don't want to make these instruments sound like we don't notice how changed they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DAVID LANG'S "SYMPHONY FOR A BROKEN ORCHESTRA")

ULABY: This piece involves a lot of call and response - makes sense when you consider it's getting played by seasoned professionals and young school kids. Only the pros are at this rehearsal. Lang tells them the kids are going to get the best instruments.

LANG: It's probably only fair that you have a worse instrument than they do.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Because the music's hard, and the kids will need all the help they can get.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DAVID LANG'S "SYMPHONY FOR A BROKEN ORCHESTRA")

ULABY: David Lang co-founded the acclaimed avant-garde collective Bang on a Can. He likes weird projects. This piece, he says, is like being in a freaky-sounding forest.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DAVID LANG'S "SYMPHONY FOR A BROKEN ORCHESTRA")

ULABY: The musicians have to play their wounded instruments in any way they can, and the score allows for problems - like, what if your instrument cannot make the asked-for note?

LANG: It may take them several tries to find a way to get their instrument to deliver that note. And all of those tries and all of those attempts that we hear through the ensemble is what makes this piece work.

ULABY: Creativity, improvisation and chaos are by necessity part of the score.

LANG: If you put your finger where the C is and you get a C, that's great. And if you don't get a C, that's also OK.

ULABY: "Symphony For A Broken Orchestra" was not composer David Lang's idea. The person who came up with it works at Temple University. Robert Blackson runs the contemporary museum at Temple's Tyler School of Art. He's a visual art curator. He's never done a musical project before.

ROBERT BLACKSON: Not at all.

ULABY: Blackson was invited a few years ago to visit a Philadelphia public school being used as a warehouse for discarded school materials. In one room, he had an epiphany.

BLACKSON: It was a gymnasium that was full of broken pianos, and the school district at that time didn't know what to do with them.

ULABY: The broken symphony project came too late for those poor pianos. But on its website, you can adopt wounded instruments still in the Philadelphia public schools. You can even hear them on the site.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN INSTRUMENT)

ULABY: The project's more than doubled its original fundraising goal. Foundations have pitched in, and now, says Blackson, they're working on a maintenance fund.

BLACKSON: As these instruments eventually may get broken again, there will always be a budget to fix them.

JAYCE OGREN: That was great.

ULABY: Back in the rehearsal room, conductor Jayce Ogren is helping the musicians nail an especially tricky passage.

OGREN: I was sort of thinking a little bit of a phrasing of (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DAVID LANG'S "SYMPHONY FOR A BROKEN ORCHESTRA")

ULABY: Composer David Lang says working on this symphony has reminded him of something fundamental about playing music in a group, a belief in something very hard to find in our world right now.

LANG: Which is you have to believe that you are going to accomplish something powerful regardless of the race or nationality or religion or political views of the people next to you.

ULABY: And that's exactly what happens when you play music in the public schools.

LANG: This is the lesson you are learning. You are learning I have a connection to the person next to me, and our connection is based on our ability combined to build something beautiful. And that's something we really need.

ULABY: The day after "Symphony For A Broken Orchestra" is performed, all the instruments will be shipped off to be repaired. Next fall, children in the Philadelphia public schools will open the cases of their flutes and violins and find a note telling how these wounded instruments were healed. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DAVID LANG'S "SYMPHONY FOR A BROKEN ORCHESTRA")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.