Horns, Harps, and Hubcaps

The classical orchestra needs some new instruments.

Classical orchestras need more car parts

When the American Composers Orchestra took the stage at Carnegie Hall this spring, they found more than just the typical setup of stands, chairs, and conductor’s podium: Stage-left of the double-basses, there was what looked like a roughly dissected Ford Taurus. The ragtag collection of wheel wells, hubcaps, a fender, metal rods, and a psychedelically painted hood sat quietly on the stage during the first three pieces. Then, before the final work of the concert, a group of musicians emerged from the wings and began to carefully disassemble the heap, part by part.

Wielding a cello bow, one musician caused a dented fender to produce sounds so piercingly lovely that an oboe might have been jealous. Hubcaps, when drawn over with the same implement, released a startling cry. Wheel wells struck with padded mallets created tones deep and resonant enough to challenge the horns for majesty, and gently scraped brake drums transmitted—better than trembling violins—the nervous energy of your fourth cup of coffee.

The piece they were playing, appropriately called Clunker Concerto, was composer Sean Friar’s answer to the question, “How can we make the orchestra new?” The performance was the culmination of a six-month-long series of workshops, rehearsals, and rewrites during which Friar had collaborated with the ACO as part of a project called “Playing it UNsafe.” The goal: reinvent the ways that both composer and listener approach the modern classical orchestra.

Friar’s work focused on introducing new instruments into the centuries-old ensemble—in this case, found car parts as concerto soloists, where a violin or piano might traditionally have been the star. After the concert, I asked Friar why he chose to write such a piece. Instead of merely searching for cool, raucous, or uncouth sounds that would clash with the regular palette, he said, what he really wanted was to show that wildly untraditional instruments can blend meaningfully with the long-established voices of the orchestra—indeed, that a fender might deserve to be featured as much as a flute when one considers the somewhat arbitrary development of the West’s most revered musical institution, the orchestra.

This aim is more controversial than it might seem, for while symphony orchestras do occasionally feature odd instruments in novelty pieces, they almost never treat them as the equals of the venerable old-timers. In Friar’s piece, however, the car parts are truly the leaders of—and, more importantly, the sonic inspiration for—the larger ensemble, and, amazingly, the piece came off sounding both refreshingly new and solidly mature: not a novelty in the least. So why doesn’t this happen more often? If Friar’s piece is any indication, it seems that the classical orchestra could benefit from a few new passengers.

The classical-orchestra instrument family as we know it is essentially a creation of the late 18th century—or more accurately a standardization of a number of competing traditions. Before this time, different instrumental ensembles were used for different events, depending on whether the music was to be played in church, the royal court, or for festive public occasions. The music that most of these groups played was stylistically similar—complicated, multimelody textures in which each instrument (or human voice) was equally important—and included ancestors of many of the instruments we still use today, as well as some that we’ve left behind.

Around the 1760s, taste began to change. Composers had fallen in love with the instrumental style of the Italian opera, which was defined by strings and woodwinds, and wanted to create purely instrumental music in a similar vein. Moreover, they liked the clear style of the music, the way lyrical melodies glided over a regular, recognizable chord progression. (Almost all contemporary popular music works this way.) In terms of instrumentation, this meant that the order of the day was no longer multiline complexity but smooth and elegant blending. Strings, oboes, and horns do this well; the strident, nagging harpsichord, less so. Once major composers like Haydn and Mozart adopted the style, the core members of the orchestra were pretty much set. Instruments such as the violin, flute, and horn made the cut, while the harpsichord and recorder were out.

The funny thing about this consolidation, though, is how unwieldy these central instruments are. For instance, oboes and bassoons are notoriously hard to keep in tune with the strings, and indeed this helps to explain the fact that, to this day, orchestras generally tune to the oboe’s A pitch before concerts. Similarly, 18th-century horns were valveless, meaning that they could only play in a certain set of keys like C, F, G, and D. (Guess which keys almost all early classical pieces are written in.) Given such limitations, one would think composers would not have jumped so readily onto the orchestral bandwagon, but due to the significant popularity the sound enjoyed with patrons and audiences (and the prospect of financial gain through the performance of their music across Europe), they did just that.

Here is the standard symphony orchestra as it took shape in the 19th century. Additional brass and percussion could be added as required by the score.  

Over the following century, the orchestra slowly grew in size but not much in diversity: Instruments like the clarinet, timpani, and piccolo were added by various composers for their ability to augment the sound of the ensemble by adding to its pitch range or depth of sound, and the trombone—which had not been technically improved since the Renaissance—only became standard because Beethoven called for it in the hugely influential Symphony No. 5. Percussion instruments, like the cymbals and bass drum, were only deployed when composers wanted to evoke the Orient or for some special effect. While the 19th century saw a great deal of technical improvement of the orchestral family (valves were added to most of the brass) and sporadic expansions (e.g. the bass clarinet and booming Wagner tuba), not much else changed until the turn of the 20th century.

With the crack in artistic continuity caused by industrialization and WWI, composers of the early 1900s like Schoenberg and Varèse sought new sounds and new forms from music. Unfortunately, the orchestra wasn’t having it. Musicologist J. Peter Burkholder has written that by this point, “the orchestra had been transformed … into a museum for the display of great works of art from the past,” and museums, as most artists know, are rather difficult to get into. Museums create canons and collections that require specific attributes of works in order to gain admittance; they are suspicious of anything new. The best way to get into a museum, then, is to create something that looks like the stuff already on the walls, or, in this case, on the music stands.

In musical terms, this means writing for the orchestral instruments as they currently exist, adding new voices and techniques at the peril of being relegated to special “new music festivals” meant to protect classical fans from scary, unfamiliar noises. Many composers balk at such strictures, preferring to write instead for smaller, progressively-minded ensembles that are willing to accommodate their request for a contrabass flute or some other experiment—whether it is well-considered or not. And so, in the last century, the two parties—composer and orchestra—have parted ways, the former rushing headlong into cerebral intricacies and gimmickry while the latter fetishizes the good old days. (There are some exceptions to this rule, like the neoclassicists and the popular minimalists like Philip Glass and John Adams.)

Meanwhile, the average listener has been largely ignored. It’s not a surprise that most people—even high-brow types—never make it to the concert hall, orchestral or otherwise. Why should they? Either they will hear a musical language that is the sonic equivalent of a Werther’s Original caramel or experience a violent assault of modernism that no one without musical training could hope to be prepared for, much less “appreciate.” Neither is really familiar, nor does either reflect much of anything going on in popular music, particularly with regard to instrumentation.

Indeed, you could argue that the defining characteristic of popular forms is the constant introduction of new sounds and techniques. Jazz rescued the saxophone from obscurity (the orchestra had rejected it as being too distinct when it was created in the 1840s), rock made the lowly folk guitar the sexiest instrument in history, and hip hop made stylized talking a high art form. Even Auto Tune, love it or hate it, represents a kind of instrumental innovation. With this perpetually evolving musical vocabulary filling our ears, the stagnant texture of the classical orchestra begins to sound comically old-fashioned.

Clunker Concerto, however, was anything but. Because of the uniquely progressive nature of the “UNsafe” project, Friar was able to throw open the windows of the orchestral attic, allowing fresh sounds and a wonderfully unexpected musical perspective to rejuvenate the old form. He composed with both the junk parts and the standard orchestral palette in mind and consequently his work drew new characteristics out of the ancient instruments: Flutes jerked around like a taxi in rush-hour traffic and horns glowed not with cold nobility, but with a hardy warmth that befitted the piece’s sense of humor.

To be sure, Friar’s experiment and others like it are not without their own risks. For starters, introducing new instruments into the orchestral toolbox raises questions of standardization—if every orchestra in America suddenly wants to perform Clunker, Friar would undoubtedly have trouble finding hundreds of identical fenders capable of reproducing his score. More troubling is the specter of gimmickry. Pieces that rely on new sounds or concepts as their raison d’être—especially ones that might be funny—risk becoming obnoxious, short-lived showboats instead of serious (in intent, if not mood) works of art. The ACO rejected a piece that was to use guns and live ammunition from the program because it was too, well, unsafe.

Still, if Friar’s piece is any indication, the dangers of a more experimental, inclusive orchestra are worth braving. Other composers of his generation, like the film-music master Danny Elfman, have taken a similar (if less radical) approach, incorporating synthesizers and ethnic percussion into his sweeping Serenada Schizophrana(incidentally also premiered by the ACO).This is orchestral music that anyone can appreciate. Its dialect is new and exciting, but also familiar, rooted in the funky grooves and rock sensibility of our era. It doesn’t take on airs, but instead takes joy in the process of discovery—in the continual experience of suspense and surprise—that good classical music has always championed. This is music that will pull over to give you a ride, and while you’re rolling along, you might just get to hear some of the oldies, too.