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Beautiful Symphony Uses 400 Broken Instruments

On December 4, 2017, 400 musicians gathered in the 23rd Street Armory of Philadelphia to perform "Symphony for a Broken Orchestra" by David Lang. The orchestra included amateurs, professionals, and even members of the storied Philadelphia Orchestra. The youngest performer was a nine-year-old cellist; the oldest, an 82-year-old oboist. It might have been the most diverse orchestra in America.

The 400 brought with them broken instruments: a trumpet held together with blue painter's tape, a violin with no A string, a bow that had lost most of its hair, a cello carried in multiple pieces. You see, the government had cut funding for music programs in public schools, and many school instruments fell into disrepair. But Lang made something beautiful of them.

As the musical piece opened many of the instruments were silent, but gradually they found their voices—while a trumpet might not be capable of a sound, the keys could tap a rhythm; the scraping of a bow over the silhouette of a violin body could add an unusual element. At one point, a cellist made noise by turning a stringless peg. As the 40-minute symphony progressed, the instruments roared to life. Some musicians struggled, like a clarinetist who could get out only short spurts of sound and a French horn player who kept losing his mouthpiece. But together, the orchestra produced rich harmony. The music was playful and joyous. As the performance wound down each section bowed out one-by-one, until all that remained was the humble squeal of a broken clarinet.

In the church each broken instrument adds its own voice to the symphony. The best that some can do is simply tap or squeak, but with each other the orchestra produces a joyful song of praise under the hand of the Director.

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