Fascinating documentary about making music from garbage — literally!
Scrapheap Orchestra is a film about a weird project conductor Charles Hazlewood embarked on in 2011: he hired major instrument makers to produce al fresco instruments out of garbage, literally, to see if they could come up, using exclusively discarded and recycled materials, with instruments that sounded, if not exactly like professionally made ones from first-rate resources, at least close enough that he could lead a group of experienced symphony musicians in a popular piece at one of the BBC's Proms concerts. He gave the instrument makers 11 weeks to manufacture 44 instruments for his "Scrapheap Orchestra" and decided that the work the group would perform would be Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture — a good choice, as it turned out, because it's a) familiar, b) a fun piece of music if not necessarily an enduring masterwork, and c) sufficiently vulgar (in both the good and bad senses of the word) that it wouldn't suffer much from any deficiencies in the scrapheap instruments.
The result was an hour-and-a-half long movie that introduced us to a lot of quirky people — my favorite was Paul Jefferies, the rather owl-like man in charge of making the percussion instruments (and the queeniest-looking guy in the film) — both the instrument makers and the orchestral players who had to figure out how to manipulate these instruments and try to get at least halfway beautiful sounds from them. In general, Hazlewood and his crew got the most convincing sounds from the percussion instruments (though the makeshift cymbals — made from automobile hoods, or "bonnets" as they're called in English English instead of American English — didn't have anything like the resonance of real brass cymbals), then from the woodwinds (though they "cheated" a bit by allowing the reed players to use their normal reeds and mouthpieces instead of having to use ones made from trash — clarinet and flute maker Andy Wheeldon tried to make a reed from one of those little wooden spoons that come with pre-packaged ice cream sundaes so you can eat them on the road, but it didn't work), then from the brass and least from the strings. At one point they tried to make stringed instruments from old drainpipes (there were a couple of lame jokes about what usually goes through pipes like that, and at the concert itself Charles Hazlewood said, "Don't worry, they've been cleaned"), with a serving spoon stuck at the end so the violin and viola players could clench the instruments between their chins and their shoulders the way they do normally — but violist Tim Welch said it was literally too exhausting to play the instrument that way.
Eventually violin maker Rob Cain figured out a way to heat the plastic pipes in an oven, then use tools to bend the partially melted pipes into a flatter shape that made them more closely resemble normal violins and violas. He also did a bit of cheating by carving bits of wood for bridges and sound posts to add resonance. Cello and double-bass maker Ben Hebbert was proud of himself for discovering an old zinc tub that worked surprisingly well as the body of an al fresco double bass — though what he came up with, four strings and a neck made from a sailboat mast, the whole thing lashed together with blue twine, was far advanced from the so-called "tea-chest bass" used by jug bands and skiffle groups in both the U.S. and U.K., which was one string fastened to the base of the tub, tied to a broom handle, with the player changing the tension by moving the broom handle and thereby being able to play more than one pitch.
The film's director, Paul Bernays, way overdid the talking heads — he even had people talking over the final performance of the 1812 Overture, which both Charles and I thought should have been shown "straight," with no talking over the music — but on the whole Scrapheap Orchestra was a quite good documentary, and it did offer some of the promised insights into "the history of instrument making and the science of music, why different instruments are made the way they are, why some designs have not changed for hundreds of years and why, when played together, the sound of an orchestra is like nothing on earth."
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