“Why didn’t they fix the instruments first, and then have us play the piece,” asked a middle-aged man sitting in front of me. He was fiddling with the third valve of an old trumpet, trying to free it from its stuck position. We were at a rehearsal for the project Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a large civic art project in Philadelphia that went up in the Fall of 2017. As one of the twenty-five section leaders, it was my task to help teach the piece symphony for broken instruments by the composer David Lang to some of the 400 professional and amateur musicians who had signed up to play.
“I’m not sure,” I answered. The man with the trumpet looked a little dismayed, seemingly concerned that the so-called section leader didn’t have a better idea of what was going on. Trying to save face, I continued, “I feel that not knowing how this all works can actually be a good thing. We’re figuring out how to make music in a different way than we’re used to. We’re going to try a lot of different things today, so let’s be open to whatever happens.”
“Trust the process,” my fellow section-leader Ben chimed in, repeating the mantra of Philadelphia’s long-improving professional basketball team. A few of the prepping musicians chuckled.
Although I didn’t have a good reason at the time why we were playing a symphony for broken instruments, rather than a symphony for instruments that used to be broken, but are now fixed and good as new, it’s clear to me now that project’s practical effectiveness and compelling artistry depended on those instruments’ brokenness. The project as a whole, and Lang’s composition in particular, transformed the essential hierarchical relationships of a typical orchestral performance. These relationship transformations turned the instruments into performative agents who could tell their previously-hidden stories of trauma and neglect. Continue reading