A Symphony Breathes Life Into 400 Broken School Instruments

By Joshua Barone
December 4, 2017
The New York Times

PHILADELPHIA — As the garagelike door rolled up at the 23rd Street Armory here on Sunday evening, 400 student, amateur and professional musicians paraded in with just a helping of the broken instruments that have spent years languishing in this city’s strapped public school system.

A trumpet was held together with blue painter’s tape. A violin, stripped of much of its body, had been reduced to a silhouette. More than one cello was carried in multiple pieces.

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How To Build an Orchestra From Broken Instruments

by Kriston Capps on December 4, 2017
The Atlantic

Orchestras began tuning to the oboe, in part, because its sound was more penetrating in a performance setting than gut strings. There were also fewer oboes than violins, and in the earliest orchestras, maybe just one or two, making it the right instrument to sort out a dispute over pitch in the violin section.
At a symphony-orchestra performance in Philadelphia this weekend, there may not be many strings to tune. And possibly not a single oboe up to the task. Few of the 400 or so brass, woodwind, percussion, and string players involved in the performance will be handling instruments even close to working order.

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One Way to Fix Broken School Instruments: Call a Composer

By Ted Loos on November 6, 2017
The New York Times
Parents are used to hearing that school budgets are putting the squeeze on activities like music and sports. But rarely has a solution to such a problem been as elaborate and artistic as the “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra.”

The Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning composer David Lang was commissioned by Temple Contemporary, the art gallery at Temple University, to create the symphony to help solve a problem: The Philadelphia school system has more than 1,000 broken instruments and little money to fix them.

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Symphony for a Broken Orchestra: What, exactly, did it sound like?

by David Patrick Stearns on December 3, 2017
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Even before its premiere on Sunday at the 23rd Street Armory, the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra had fulfilled its larger function in the musical ecosystem: By simply writing a major work for 400 broken school instruments, the much-awarded composer David Lang had called attention to the need for more functional musical instruments for the betterment of the educational system and the community at large. But musically? If you didn’t know Lang’s previous work, you might expect something like Professor Harold Hill’s suspicious “think method” in the Broadway show The Music Man.

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What can we learn from an orchestra of broken instruments?

by Nadja Sayej on December 1, 2017
The Guardian

When Grammy award-winning composer David Lang was 10 years old, he tapped his music teacher on the shoulder and said: “I want to play in the school band.”

The teacher handed him a trombone and that became the musical instrument he played all the way through graduate school.

“This musical instrument changed my life and that’s why I’m a composer,” said Lang, who won the Pulitzer prize for music in 2008. “All because of my public school.”

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The Healing Sound Of A Broken Orchestra

Heard on All Things Considered / NPR
Download | Transcript
November 30, 2017 at 4:35 PM ET

In a cheerful rehearsal room at Temple University, a few dozen professional musicians inspect the instruments that they’ll be playing to debut an audacious piece of music by a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer.

The composition is called “Symphony For a Broken Orchestra” and, fittingly, these instruments are all broken.

Over 1,000 damaged instruments are languishing in what are known as “instrument graveyards” in Philadelphia’s public school system, which lacks the funds to fix them. This weekend, 400 of these instruments will be played in performance by musicians ranging from members of the Philadelphia Orchestra to public school children. The goal is to get those broken instruments repaired and back to kids.

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12 Great Stories That Have Nothing to Do With Politics

by Anna Dubenko and Michelle L. Dozoismay on May 5, 2017
The New York Times
After learning that there were over 1,000 broken instruments in the Philadelphia school system, Robert Blackson decided to do something about it. Mr. Blackson collected scores of damaged flutes, trombones and other instruments for an exhibit. In October 2017, hundreds of children and volunteers will play these instruments in a Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, created by David Lang.

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‘This is what broken sounds like’: 800 Philly school instruments awaiting repair to be used for symphony

by Samantha Melamed on February 1, 2017
Philadelphia Inquirer

As a small corps of musicians arrived on a recent morning, Jeremy Thal gathered them into a loose huddle and laid out the day’s mission.

“We know what one broken tuba sounds like,” he said. “Now, we’re kind of curious what four broken tubas sound like. So, everyone grab a horn that has a leak — a sizable leak like this one, that’s missing a valve.”

A half-hour later, a quartet was assembled: a French horn, approximately one-and-a-half trombones, and a French horn-meets- trumpet Frankenstein they were calling a French hornet. “We’ll do two normal notes, and two notes of weirds,” Thal suggested. Then they played — a sound that was a little bit Billie Holiday, a little bit pack of feral cats.

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A Symphony Scored from a School District’s 1,000 Broken Instruments

by Allison Meier on May 4, 2017
Hyperallergic
When Robert Blackson learned about the broken instruments in Philadelphia’s public schools, he turned them into a creative opportunity: the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra.

The School District of Philadelphia has over 1,000 broken musical instruments, from flutes with bent keys to trombones missing slides. Some of their fixes are easy, others complex, yet due to funding cuts in the city, the district doesn’t have a budget for either. Each broken instrument represents a student who’s unable to participate in music programs. When Robert Blackson, director of exhibitions and public programs at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, learned about the issue, he saw an opportunity to draw attention to the struggle of music education, while also raising money for repairs.

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Music Written for the Broken Instruments That Public Schools Couldn’t Afford to Fix

By Annabel Graham
December 6, 2017
Garage Magazine

With “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra,” David Lang and Temple Contemporary are bringing new hope to arts education in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s 23rd Street Armory is an awe-inspiring venue: vaulted four-story-high wooden ceilings and exposed brick walls, generous arched windows, polished-concrete floors, all housed within a medieval fortress-style granite structure in the heart of the city. It’s the kind of place you can easily imagine strung with bistro lights for an industrial-chic wedding. This past weekend, however, the Armory was transformed into an unconventional concert hall for the singularly unique, transient musical experience that was “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra”—a piece imagined by Robert Blackson, director of Temple Contemporary at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, and written by Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. The Symphony was composed specifically for 400 of the broken instruments owned by the School District of Philadelphia—instruments which the district previously could not afford to repair due to drastic budget cuts in arts education.

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Hidden City / Broken Symphony

Radio Times / WHYY
Air Date: November 27, 2017
Listen

We’ll hear about the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a new project in Philadelphia aimed at highlighting the underfunded city schools which cannot afford to repair their musical instruments. Temple Contemporary director Robert Blackson will tell us about the project and we’ll some of the broken instruments that will be used in the symphony when Celina Valez, music teacher at the Pan American Academy Charter School gives us a demonstration.

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‘A desperate cry for help.’ 400 busted Philly school instruments revived for Symphony for a Broken Orchestra

by Samantha Melamed on November 15, 2017
Philadelphia Inquirer
Su Spina normally plays kettledrums. But when she went to pick up the instrument she’d be playing in the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra — a new composition for 400 amateur and professional musicians all playing broken instruments from the Philadelphia public schools — her options were limited.

“Would you prefer a violin without strings? Or an autoharp?” Andy Theirauf asked her.

Spina, 22, a recent college graduate who studied music at Franklin & Marshall, said if knocking on a broken violin for 40 minutes is what it takes to get these instruments fixed, she’s in.

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After hundreds of broken instruments unite in symphony, they’ll be repaired for Philly kids

By Peter Crimmins on December 1, 2017
WHYY

A few years ago, Rob Blackson, the director of the Temple Contemporary art gallery at Temple University, was standing in a shuttered school district building in South Philadelphia. While waiting to be sold, the Bok Technical School building had become a temporary warehouse for district surplus, including many hundreds of broken musical instruments.

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Temple Contemporary + David Lang’s “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra”

By David Graver
Cool Hunting

In the first week of December at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia, 400 or so instruments recovered from some 1000+ in a musical graveyard united in the hands of hundreds of professionals and students to perform a work by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang. Known as the “Symphony for a Broken Orchestra”—there will never be a performance like those two ever again. The epic piece and its world premiere, however, were only a part of the masterplan envisioned by Robert Blackson, director of Temple Contemporary at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. In fact, these performances may have been a sonic gift to those in attendance, but the longstanding impact of the charitable events will help Philly youth retain musical education. Over $247,000 was raised (double the goal) through the effort, and it will go to repair those broken items and put them right back into the hands of students.

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Happy International “Crip” Day, 2017

By Diane Wiener, Contributor
The Huffington Post

International Day of Disabled Persons is today. December 3, 2017. Happy Day of the Crips. I celebrate this day, every day, not just on the 3rd of December. For those of you unfamiliar with this coinage, “crip,” the noun, as I am using it, here (also true of “crip,” the verb), is reclaimed.

Instruments are not people, but this music initiative and its related projects are replete with disability discourses. Do these instruments need to be “healed”? Yes, they do, if they are to be “wholly” played in most “typical” ways…and, yes, these Philly kids deserve to have the same *access* to instruments and musical orchestration as might anyone in a far more socioeconomically privileged school district. Class, race, and disability intersect in deep ways in this story.

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Meet The Disruptor: Rob Blackson


by Dave Kyu on November 22, 2016
The Philadelphia Citizen
The Temple Contemporary director radically rethinks the art gallery by taking his cues from the city around him.

Nine neon signs hum and glow in the front windows of Temple Contemporary. They tell you if the gallery is open or closed, if there’s a lecture that day, or if it’s sun or rain outside. You walk in, but can’t find the title of the exhibition, nor the curatorial statement. Instead, you’re invited to take a sip of water that was distilled from Coca-Cola. Or observe bees in an artist-designed beehive. Or take a seat, from any of the 75 mismatched chairs off the walls, each one representing a cultural organization in Philadelphia. Let’s assume you’re confused, so you take a closer look at a gallery label. But even the label is unconventional, hand-drawn with ink recycled from the soot produced by the glass department down the hall.

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A Symphony of Broken Instruments

NBC 10 Philadelphia
Published Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Symphony For A Broken Orchestra had its first performance Sunday night in Philadelphia. NBC10’s Matt Delucia has the story of 400 musicians playing so that broken instruments will be repaired and returned to students of the Philadelphia School District.

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Group hopes to bring the arts back into Philadelphia schools

November 29, 2017
Fox 29 News

PHILADELPHIA (WTXF) – Bringing the arts back into our schools is the goal for a group in Philadelphia. It has formed its own symphony orchestra.
FOX 29’s Bill Anderson has the story.

Robert Blackson works with young people daily in his role at the Temple University Contemporary Art Gallery. His concern for their development was recently piqued as he looked into the funding of arts programs in the city.

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Anna Drozdowski Produces Symphony for a Broken Orchestra


February 22, 2017
NYU – TISCH
Performance Studies alum Anna Drozdowski (MA ’03) will produce Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, with with David Lang and the Temple Contemporary Gallery next Fall.

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How One Composer Is Using Broken Instruments to Make Underfunded Music Programs Heard

by Rebecca Milzoff on September 19, 2017
Departures
David Lang’s symphony incorporates some 1,000 of the Philadelphia public school system’s instruments, all in need of repair, to call attention to programs in need of funding.

What’s the sound of a broken trombone?

For composer David Lang, that’s not a Zen koan but a very real question, one with a surprising answer. It all began last year, when Robert Blackson, director of Temple Contemporary in Philadelphia, asked Lang to compose a symphony utilizing some 1,000 of the city public school system’s instruments, all in dire need of repair, to draw attention to underfunded music programs. “I immediately got excited,” Lang says. “You have to investigate each to figure out what they can do.”

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Building a Symphony and a Future from Broken Instruments

By Brian Lauritzen
KUSC

We’ve all been in this situation. Maybe the transmission goes out on your car. Maybe you drop your phone and the screen shatters. Maybe a pipe bursts and floods your kitchen. A repair is necessary and so you have to dip into your emergency fund.

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Make a Joyful Noise

Briefly Noted from Fall 2017 issue of Philanthropy magazine
These instruments had seen better days. A Jupiter trumpet with a bent second valve. A Safran violin with a dislocated soundboard. A Bundy clarinet missing corks. They’d been living in basements and closets of various Philadelphia public schools, waiting for repair or spring cleaning.

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