The joy of ‘broken’ music

Joshua Barone struck a chord for me in today’s arts section of The New York Times, and that’s an intentional pun with no apologies. Barone wrote about broken musical instruments, David Lang, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of music, and the project he shares with Robert Blackstone, director of Temple Contemporary at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.

We would be correct to consider Philadelphia one of the nation’s leaders in great music and the arts in general. It is home to one of the world’s leading orchestras, outstanding museums, great theater and opera,  and the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Yet, as Barone’s article points out, its funding for arts education, not counting salaries, has plunged from $1.3 million in 2007 to $50,000 this year. Philadelphia is not alone in this.  As we know only too well, cutting back on funding for arts education is happening all across the nation. How foolish. How short-sighted.

This means that students in Philadelphia and elsewhere often must provide their own music books and supplies and must share what overused instruments remain intact. Many instruments do not, and thereby hangs this tale. Wear and tear by generations of students has damaged hundreds of students’ musical instruments. Here is a trumpet held together with blue painter’s tape, there a violin stripped of much of its body, over there a cello in multiple pieces.

Composer Lang ‘s fertile imagination drew on this mess to create a Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, whose goal is to raise funds to repair the more than 1,000 damaged instruments that had been languishing in storage, silenced by budget cuts. Lang, who says he attributes  his successful career to music education in public schools, calls the broken instruments “over 1,000 missed opportunities,” according to Barone’s article.

So far, the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra has raised about $237,000 from donors who “adopt” the instruments to finance their repairs and start a fund for future servicing.

A diverse aggregation of musicians was assembled to perform Lang’s new symphony, including grade school students, amateurs and professionals. Youngest, Barone, wrote, was a 9-year-old cellist, the oldest, an 82 year-old oboist. Some players came from the ranks of the city’s famous orchestra. The music was unusual, to say the least. Lang was making a point of the condition of the instruments. But it was playful and harmonious, too. After the concert, the broken instruments were sent to repair shops so they could be ready for eager students to use them next year.

After the performance, Lang noted that the project was an example of art solving a problem that shouldn’t have been a problem to begin with. Sad  but true.




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