Squash that music ambition

The Long Island Vegetable Orchestra members include (from left) Solomon Elyaho, Daniel Battaglia, David Elyaho and Dale Stuckenbruck.
The Long Island Vegetable Orchestra members include (from left) Solomon Elyaho, Daniel Battaglia, David Elyaho and Dale Stuckenbruck. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
The vegetable instruments are fashioned anew before a performance.
The vegetable instruments are fashioned anew before a performance.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • On a muggy day in July, in a Long Island backyard, a group of musicians gathered for rehearsal, with a butternut squash, a snake gourd and two carrot flutes.

The group rehearsing, the Long Island Vegetable Orchestra, plays instruments made from vegetables. It was created more than a decade ago by Dale Stuckenbruck, a classically trained musician from Germany who teaches music on Long Island.

It is not the first of its kind. The Viennese Vegetable Orchestra has been around for years and there is a London Vegetable Orchestra too.

But it may be the only orchestra of its kind in New York. Over the years, it has performed at schools, galleries, libraries and at an environmental conference in Geneva. It even appeared in a film.

On this day, Stuckenbruck, 63, and his four players were rehearsing for their annual performance at the Oyster Bay Music Festival.

Because vegetable instruments do not last, fresh ones have to be made every time they play. They had spent the hour before rehearsal carefully drilling into carrots and hollowing out squashes with an ice-cream scoop. The table before them was covered with pulp and broken carrots. The air smelt like carrot juice.

"I went through seven before getting one," said one of the carrot flautists, David Elyaho, 20.


The Long Island Vegetable Orchestra members include Solomon Elyaho, Daniel Battaglia, David Elyaho and (above) Dale Stuckenbruck.

His identical twin, Solomon Elyaho, had made the long green snake squash into the vegetable version of a reed instrument.

The instruments had been kept in ice water to stay crisp.

"Feel it, it's wet," said Daniel Battaglia, 37, holding out his butternut squash French horn.

But the warm temperature persisted and, as they played a Bach chorale, they were racing against time. In this climate, the instruments would soon grow soft and the mouthpieces gummy or they might dry out.

Stuckenbruck's daughter, Erin, the fourth player, was trained on traditional instruments. In comparison, she said, playing vegetables was "very unpredictable".

The 23-year-old added: "You troubleshoot with a knife. You're shaving holes down, making holes bigger, shoving stuff in to make the pitch different."

The elder Stuckenbruck was born in Stuttgart, Germany, the son of a saw player. He attended a Waldorf school - which favours hands-on learning - and moved to New York in his 20s to play violin and saw; he played the saw with the New York Philharmonic this spring.

He created the first Vegetable Orchestra at the Waldorf School of Garden City around 2005. He had been asked to create a music programme for students who were not musically inclined, he said.

After failing to capture their interest with drumming and music theory, he stumbled across the Viennese Vegetable Orchestra on YouTube. "Everything looks easy on YouTube," he said.

Making playable vegetable instruments turned out not to be easy, but once he got the hang of it, the concept caught on. Broccoli and potatoes made melodious flutes. A daikon made a deep, honking sound like an oboe. Peppers, with their seeds, were natural maracas.

Then there were the "squeakies" - cabbage leaves, eggplants and brussels sprouts, which, rubbed together, created a sound like a DJ scratching a record.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2017, with the headline 'Squash that music ambition'. Print Edition | Subscribe