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Hong Kong contemporary musicians experiment with fruit and vegetable instruments

Reporter: Krizto Chan Ho Ying

William Lane drills vertically through a carrot, starting from its tip. Then, after boring three 2mm-holes into it, he puts the carrot to his mouth. Not to eat it – but to blow it.

What comes out of the ‘refined’ carrot is a sound resembling that of a clarinet. “The only difference between a carrot and a clarinet is that a carrot only lasts for two days, before it moulds,” says Lane, artistic director of Hong Kong New Music Ensemble (HKNME) and a professional violist.

The HKNME formed a Fruit and Vegetables Orchestra comprising seven musicians last year, devoted to performing the ‘fruit music’ on organic instruments.

The carrot clarinet is only one among the many musical instruments made from fruit and vegetables that the Orchestra plays. Watermelon drums, eggplant clappers, and peanut maracas all featured in the Orchestra’s debut concert at k-11 art mall in Tsim Sha Tsui last September. Since then, the Orchestra has staged four more public performances.

The idea of exploring various dimensions of sound using fruits and vegetables originates from the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra founded in 1998.

“They (the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra) have been setting an example for making strange sounds, from whatever they can find,” says Lane, “and they would add electronics and cut the vegetables on stage, which is part of the performance, it is quite exciting.”

Lane gets his inspiration from constant experimentation and YouTube fruit music enthusiasts. For instance, there is a Japanese Youtuber heita3, who avidly showcases how to make music from a wide selection of fruits and vegetables.

One of the most interesting sounds Lane has come across is made by scraping celery. “You can scrape that [celery] very slowly, then put a microphone really close, then you would get this ssssss [hissing] sound. Like scratching a disc,” explains Lane.

The sounds produced by the vegetable instruments are incredibly multi-layered as they can be enhanced by electronics. The addition of amplification, looping, distortion and echo effects can help create texture and variation to the original organic sounds. For instance, the celery-scraping sound, when looped, produces what sounds like sampled disco beats.

The fruit and vegetables can create a variety of musical styles: contemporary music, beat-oriented house tracks, experimental electronica, free jazz, Clicks and Cuts – the scope of fruit music keeps expanding.

To make sure the audience hears the music, microphones are attached to the ‘instruments’. “Like when we’re cutting the vegetables, we put microphones under the chopping board, that helps amplify the sound very strongly,” explains Lane.

Most of the music played at the k-11 performance was improvised by chewing, beating, grating, ripping and shaking the vegetables. But the Orchestra also played written pieces like Clapping Music composed by Steve Reich, an American minimalist composer.

Unlike other conventional orchestras, the members of the Vegetable Orchestra must remake their instruments every time they perform.

At their studio in Fo Tan, Lane and fellow orchestra member, percussionist Louis Sin showed Varsity how to make some organic musical instruments.

Lane and Sin both seemed satisfied with the fruit and vegetables they had procured earlier at a nearby supermarket. “The fresher the better,” contends Sin, “get it an hour before the performance, or just pick what you have on hand.”

They lay the fruits out on a table on which a bowl, a chopping board, an electric drill, and several knives with different blades had been placed.

Lane first demonstrated the making of a carrot ocarina a.k.a. the Japanese flute. He switched the drill on and took it to a carrot. As soon as the center of the carrot had been hollowed out, Lane drilled a few holes in the front and a hole in the back of the carrot, just as he would for making any other woodwind instruments. Finally, he added a mouthpiece at the tip of the carrot.

Lane blew on it, and a tune that sounded in between a clarinet and a bassoon filled the room. He noted that it does not matter how big the holes of the carrot are, but the kind of mouthpiece used does.

Sin warned that it is sometimes dangerous playing fruit music, especially when working with tools like drills and knives.

While Lane was perfecting his ocarina with a curved knife, Sin had already been playing with the watermelon drum. It is made simply by holding the shell of an emptied watermelon upside down, immersed in a bucket of water. Sin hit the watermelon shell with a carrot drumstick. The pitch is varied by adjusting the amount of water inside the shell. More water in the shell will produce a higher pitched sound. “We try to explore sounds that we do not know or hear,” says Sin.

Fruit music also comes alive by creating rhythms through banging, squishing and ripping fruits and vegetables. Lane and Sin demonstrated the point as they peeled bok-choy and shook a bowl of peanuts with joy.

Another almost ritualistic element of fruit music is eating the fruit. For instance, fruit musicians can create different beats by munching on apples rhythmically. “There are a lot of sounds and textures when you are eating,” says Lane, “eating is a rhythm. So if you have seven people, you can create quite a nice rhythm.”

Bits of fruits and vegetables flew across the studio as Lane and Sin were performing. “It is usually very messy after the performance,” Lane chuckled. He made his point as he pulled out a score sheet the Orchestra used at a k-11 concert last year – it was stained with carrot juice.

Lane admits that his fellow violist friends do not take fruit music seriously. However, he is determined to take the music form to a higher level by introducing it to school children.

“I mean kids don’t worry about what people would think. They just do it,” says Lane, “in fact we want to encourage the kids to play with their food, and make them eat their vegetables.”

Lane is planning to get the message of eating vegetables across by organizing kids’ workshops at schools. He mentions that the Vienna Orchestra would put their instruments into a big pot of soup after their performances. Participants would then eat it together. Lane has been preparing some proposals, and hopes to contact some primary and secondary schools by next year.

However, not everyone believes that fruit music can be played by just anyone. Music producer Francis Li insists that those who lack musical sense cannot play fruit music because they would go off beat. Therefore, they would not be able to coordinate well with the other orchestra members.

Li does not see fruit music going mainstream, and he thinks it is hard for professional musicians to recognize fruit music. “It is not a standardized music [form], and it cannot be categorized as any music genre,” Li says.

That is unlikely to deter Tang Lok-yin, creator of HKNME and a music composer. Tang is optimistic about the future of fruit music. She has experimented with fruit music and believes it is a special genre that cannot be replaced by traditional ones.

“Fruits can stimulate all five senses in you. You can play with them, smell the fruits while you are playing them. And you can eat them. But as for a real violin, you can’t smell it, and you can’t eat it after the performance,” says Tang.

Tang sees fruit music as a means to exploring unique and original sounds, like A Cappella. It is not about mimicking existing sounds, but about searching for some undiscovered original sounds other than traditional instrumental ones. “If we want to mimic sounds (of conventional instruments), why don’t we just use a violin? It is because we are searching for new sounds,” says Tang.

Tang thinks it is the exploratory and experimental aspects of fruit music that draw musicians to it.

“Decades ago, musicians started making their musical instruments, and composers love to explore their own sounds,” says Tang, “so we will keep finding new sounds. Maybe in the future, there will be a carrot concerto.”