Viennese Orchestra Makes Extraordinary Music Out of Ordinary Produce

Musicians of the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra who play music exclusively with vegetable instruments prepare their instruments before a concert for the 100th anniversary of the San Miguel market in Madrid. (Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

Mozart. Schubert. Brahms. Beethoven. Haydn. Strauss.

Home to a world-famous philharmonic, boys choir and more busts of long-dead composers than you can shake an oboe at, the Austrian capital of Vienna has served as the stomping ground — and birthplace, in some instances — of numerous game-changing musical icons. Yet as the self-described “Capital of Classical Music,” some might write Vienna off as being a wee bit stale when it comes to contemporary musical innovation.

That’s not the case at all as one Viennese musical collective goes to prove. In fact, the collective in question — a proper 13-member orchestra founded in 1998 — really couldn’t get more fresh.

Meet the Vegetable Orchestra, a revolving group of musicians who don’t, as you might initially suspect, write and perform original compositions concerning their collective love of gourds, roots vegetables and the odd eggplant varieties. Rather, they play the produce, having carefully selected the fresh veg from Vienna’s open-air Naschmarkt and transformed it, pre-performance, into a range of biodegradable musical instruments using drills, knives and a range of kitchen accoutrement.

And so, a large pumpkin becomes a bass drum, carrots become recorders and marimbas, a radish becomes a bass flute, a calabash becomes a horn, knob celery becomes a set of bongos and through some true wizardry, the humble leek becomes a violin. Even when touring outside of Vienna, only fresh vegetables are procured — plastic-wrapped supermarket produce doesn’t make the cut.

A night of jazz, hip-hop and contemporary music

As for the music itself, Vegetable Orchestra doesn’t perform riffs on compositions conceived by their famous Viennese forbears. Creating what the orchestra refers to as "vegetable-style" music, the plant-borne songs (mostly original compositions with some improvisation thrown in) are influenced by heavyweights in the electronic, noise and experimental contemporary genres such as John Zorn, Steve Reich, John Cage, Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin. The orchestra even mentions Frank Zappa as a key influence.

In 2019, they released their fourth album, entitled "The Green Album," which also coincides with the group's 20th anniversary since the release of their first album. Songs on the album range from jazz and contemporary, modern music to a hip-hop vegetable track played with a water radish and scallion oboe.

This all said, Vegetable Orchestra obviously isn’t some silly novelty act. Although there’s an element of fun ingenuity to the proceedings, the group creates serious music. The manner in which its members select and then painstakingly fashion ordinary vegetables into musical instruments based on the unique sounds that they’re capable of producing is nothing short of brilliant. And, no, being a vegetarian or vegan isn’t required of orchestra members. ("Don’t ask again. We’ve heard this question 3 million times," explains the FAQ section of the Vegetable Orchestra’s official website.")

Recently profiled in yet another delicious short documentary from the folks at Great Big Story, Vegetable Orchestra is hyper-conscious of the food waste created by their musical pursuits. And so, any and all scraps generated during the instrument-making process are thrown into a giant pot and used to make a massive batch of soup that’s served to concert audience members after each performance.

The instruments themselves are given to concertgoers post-show while others eventually land in an organic waste bin.

Due to the desired sound quality that must be produced by each individual vegetable, the orchestra has yet to embrace the ugly produce movement. The veg selected prior to each show must be, as mentioned, fresh as possible and, for the most part, not misshapen.

"All and all it takes two to three hours to build all the instruments for everybody," orchestra member Susanna Gartmayer explains to Great Big Story. "Since we have new instruments each time, we have to have a very long soundcheck."

As for the Vegetable Orchestra’s very first instrument? That would be the tomato. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how exactly one goes about "playing" a tomato but, as Gartmayer explains, "... you can do sound with tomatoes but it will be messy, for sure."

As for vegetables that do not make for good musical instruments no matter how much they are tweaked or manipulated, that would be broccoli. "Well we don’t do anything much with broccoli," member Jörn Piringer recently told CityLab. "As an instrument, it’s just really no good at all."

Made up of a mix of trained musicians, visual artists, designers, poets and others working in a diverse number of creative fields, the ensemble performs — and feeds audiences — regularly in Austria, Germany and further afield. The group has toured extensively, including in the U.S. Vegetable Orchestra has also released three full-length albums: "Gemise," "Automate" and "Onionoise," which includes tracks such as "Nightshades" and "Excess Pressure Symphony."