The rustling of plastic bags is not usually a sound that is tolerated in an otherwise silent concert hall. On this occasion, the noise was coming from the musicians, rather than the audience.
The unmistakable timbre is featured throughout Gregor A Mayrhofer’s Recycling Concerto, a new work recently premiered by percussionist Vivi Vassileva and the Britten Sinfonia at Snape Maltings as part of Aldeburgh Festival.
Composers have a habit of incorporating unlikely items into their orchestration: Mahler famously added cowbells to his Sixth Symphony, Malcolm Arnold’s parodic A Grand, Grand Overture is scored for four rifles, three vacuum cleaners and an electric floor polisher and Laura Bowler’s Houses Slide requires the pianist to ‘play’ a crinkly high-vis jacket. Mayrhofer included the plastic bags for their symbolism as well as their tone – the Recycling Concerto is a powerful aural and visual statement about our impact on the environment.
A distinctive tinkling dances over the orchestra. Vassileva is pouring Nespresso capsules and bottle-tops on to the xylophone, merging old and new soundworlds. She moves between ‘proper’ percussion and newly invented instruments, such as hanging ceramic flower pots, each painstakingly tuned. While the water-bottle marimba and kitchen utensil kit look like something from Blue Peter, they are capable of surprisingly complex music. Vassileva’s virtuosic cadenza – in which the percussionist taps, flicks and drags two plastic bottles – has everyone, including her colleagues in the Britten Sinfonia, on the edge of their seats.
The Recycling Concerto will sound different in the next place it is performed. Mayrhofer asks his soloist to build new percussion in situ, using local rubbish. Although the piece is about waste in general, it also highlights the cost of musical instrument manufacture, something that is slowly revealing itself as an industry sore.
Many instruments are made from scarce materials, and the use of rare trees such as African blackwood (for clarinets) and rosewood (guitars) is a particular concern. A collective of musicians including cellist Steven Isserlis and violinist Tasmin Little are campaigning to raise awareness of the plight of the pernambuco (also known as brazilwood), which has been favoured by bowmakers for centuries due to its unusual ability to hold a fixed curve. Illegal deforestation has meant that pernambuco is now an endangered species and Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, the tree’s native and only habitat, has shrunk to just six per cent of its original size.