Natural History

Natural History

With a splash of conjecture

It is abundantly clear that by-products of the feast have been put to tuneful use down through the ages.  Horns of animal horn and flutes of bone have survived hundreds and even thousands of years from their ancient days of creation to the present.  Conversely, the origins of edible musical instruments are, sadly, shrouded in mystery — obscured immutably by the triple veils of time, digestion and decomposition. Indeed, no antique, much less ancient example of a carrot or other vegetable flute exists today.

The depiction in ancient art of harps, lyres and other antique instruments clearly proves their, well, antiquity. This editor is not aware, however, of any historical or prehistorical scene of either man or woman in juxtaposition with any foodstuff over which the scholar might objectively prefer a musical interpretation to, say, a culinary or religious/ritual one.

But does this prove that ancient humans did not make music with their supper?  No, it does not!  As the late noted scholar Stephen Jay Gould so sagely and conveniently observed:  ”Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

An adventurous theorist of musical anthropology might apply the famed maxim: “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny” to the case (This is a fancy way of saying that the growth and development of an individual organism mimics the evolutionary progression of the species).  Observation of any two-year-old human could not but lead to the conclusion that few are the foodstuffs ancient man would not have used as a percussion instrument, from wild pork chop to watermelon.

When the leap from rhythm to melody may have transpired is purely a matter of conjecture, though paleo-anthropologists are continually increasing their appreciation of the dexterity of the early tool users. Can we rule out the possibility that some Australopithecine Edison did not hollow out and toot on some tuneful tuber or other?

Perhaps we will never know.

Broad and persistent investigation has, so far, yielded no hard documentation of any early vegetable-based musical instrument.  However, there is one rumor that bears note: that native people in South America play instruments made from a sweet potato.  Some say this the source for that term as a nickname for the small, roundish, hollow-bodied flute also known as the ocarina — others have claimed this innovation arose, perhaps independently, in Italy.  So far all evidence has come in the form of verbal testimony arising in response to the editor or an accompanist playing upon a tuber.  Written documentation, alas, has yet to come to our attention.

So let’s start nearer the other end of history:

Many readers may be aware of the First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra.  This group was founded in January of 1998 and has toured widely. Material on their web states that they are not sure where the concept came from, though the inference may be drawn from their rather coy and veiled statements that their first musical vegetable was a splattering tomato…

The earliest precise documentation for vegetable instruments known to this editor occurred late in 1998.  Australian Linsey Pollack described a method for making a carrot flute in his article “Hybrid Winds” in the journal Experimental Musical Instruments (Vol. 14 #2, December 1998).  Internet research determines that Pollak has been playing carrots in performance since at least as early as 1994, but not exactly where or when Pollack came upon or invented the idea.  Recently a video of Pollak making and playing a carrot clarinet at Ted-X Sydney has been making the rounds on the internet.

An Australian group, Flute ‘n’ Veg, featuring Alain Thirion and Kerry Fletcher make remarkable panpipes and recorders out of carrots.  Their publicity cites events they have played at going back to 1996.  It is not clear from their website where they came up with the concept, but it seems unlikely that they never crossed paths with Linsey Pollack.  Which direction the pollination may have gone is as yet an open question.  The editor would like to acknowledge Pollack’s article as the seed of inspiration from which all the rest of his own exploration in the field has grown.

The editor has been engaged in that exploration since reading the EMI article back in 1998.  While for the reasons brought forth above, there is no certain way of claiming first ever, but the author independently developed (ca 2003), recorded (2005) and does have the earliest YouTube posting of the slide potato (2007).  The Hydrophonic Yam (2006) and the Pickle-O (constriction slide variant-2006) are also innovations he claims.

Over the past decade or so the YouTube artist Haita3* has populated his channel with a dizzying array of vegetable variants of the ocarina.  This is just one example of the cornucopia of vegetable music that has sprouted in the current millennium.

The blog on this website is open for discussion.  Please get in touch if you have any information on the history of this fascinating subject!

–Jonathan Crocker, editor

*The editor notes that Haita3 follows him on YouTube and that slide instruments appeared on the former’s channel only after the posting of Danny Boy on Slide Potato.  Just sayin’.