Scrapheap Orchestra

Some life experiences are unforgettable, especially those that your colleagues and clients will never let you forget. One of these was a lecture I gave at the British Violin Maker’s Conference at Dartington the morning after the workshop staff from Guivier’s had made sure I had far, far too much to drink. The other (at least as far as I remember – or am willing to admit) was my stint as a reality television star with Charlie Hazlewood, the BBC Concert Orchestra and nine other musical instrument makers for the BBC documentary, Scrapheap Orchestra. The film has been shown all over the world, and is aired on long-haul flights by certain airlines. I even have my own listing on IMDb, a distinction amongst violin dealers which (as of 2011) I uniquely share with Charles Beare: See here.

Having been set the collective challenge of creating an entire orchestra from scrap, I divided the strings with Rob Cain who teaches at Newark School of Violin Making. The surprise was that he made the violins as well as the violas from discarded sewage pipe. For me the challenge of making cellos and double basses provided the kind of large-scale project I like to get my teeth into. The instruments had to work, and the culmination of the project was to achieve an orchestra capable of giving a ‘serious’ musical performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at the Royal Albert Hall for the 2011 Proms.

Scrapheap OrchestraThe project was made infinitely more difficult because there was little opportunity to think about the materials from which the instruments were made. The time constraints of working with a camera crew hampered things, and the production team had a habit of arranging unexpected places to forage for instrument parts. It never occurred to me to ever make instruments from car parts, at least not until the film company delivered me unexpectedly to a car breaker’s yard at seven in the morning. A Jaguar car bonnet eventually made it onto the stage riveted to a copper water tank as the soundboard of a Maggini-inspired double bass, whilst a sci-fi cello evolved from the fuel tank of a 1950s Land Rover: Doctor Who would be proud of it. Other things took shape: I chopped up an old filing cabinet to make another cello, with Bauhaus-inspired soundholes and entirely held together using bicycle inner tubes. Another was made from plywood, with papier-mache to stop it from splintering and impaling the musician half-way through the performance. The triumph was a double bass lashed together with parts of an old chest of drawers, a dinghy mast and an old zinc washtub. Overlooking minor playability issues – the neck was too thick, it’s a yacht mast: go figure – it made a phenomenal sound and hearing it solo in the opening bars of the overture brought tears to my eyes (and just about the rest of the audience, but for other reasons). Nevertheless, after the musicians had figured out how to play these instruments and the audience had got over their surprise, the success of the experiment was measured in their instantaneous standing applause. I’ve never seen quite such an ovation, and neither had many of the musicians in the orchestra.

Over a thousand hours of footage went into creating the film, and the producers had the unenviable task of finding the best parts for a 90 minute documentary. It was a shame that the sense of purpose with which we entered the project got lost. We had been inspired by township orchestras in South Africa which make do with home-made substitutes when necessary instruments were unavailable – could we do the same with our scrap? Despite our misgivings (and it is terribly easy to have them when you have trusted your soul to a bunch of reality TV producers) when the program aired before Christmas on BBC4 it got the highest viewing figures of any BBC classical music program in history. If it inspired one more person to listen to classical music or to learn an instrument that’s something to be proud of.

Watch the entire film on YouTube here: Scrapheap Orchestra