Zaki Hagins said that through his education in the School District of Philadelphia, he encountered a lot of broken instruments.
“I remember seeing one particular closet that was just full of instruments that apparently did not work,” said Hagins, who graduated from Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School on Spring Garden Street near 17th in 2015. It’s really disheartening.”
Temple Contemporary and the school district are collaborating on a two-year project that began last year, Symphony for a Broken Orchestra to shed light on the lack of arts funding in the school district.
Hagins, who is now studying music composition at the Community College of Philadelphia, played a broken violin in a concert on Sunday. This was the second of three phases that manifested in a public performance by 400 musicians at the 23rd Street Armory, an event venue on 23rd Street near Chestnut. All of the instruments the musicians played in the performance, like clarinets and harps, are broken, highlighting the lack of resources in the school district’s music programs.
Musicians in the performance included students and teachers from the school district, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia Mummers and music Ph.D. candidates from the Curtis Institute, a music conservatory on Locust Street near 17th.
Temple Contemporary received a $300,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to fund the concert.
“What really got it started was when I got an understanding of just how many broken instruments there were in the School District of Philadelphia,” said Robert Blackson, the director of exhibitions at the Tyler School of Art. “It’s pretty safe to say that there are over 1,000 instruments in disrepair.”
Blackson was initially inspired to organize the effort when he found a room of abandoned pianos at the Edward W. Bok Technical High School in South Philadelphia, which was shuttered in 2013.
“I was hoping there was a way we could…expand the awareness of this challenge in a way that was not simply a fundraising solution, but to get people to really care about having more art and music within the public schools in Philadelphia,” Blackson said.
Last fall, Temple Contemporary received hundreds of donated broken instruments from schools in Philadelphia as part of the first phase of the project. The broken instruments were on display at Temple Contemporary until October 2017.
Within the past year, audio specialists recorded sounds made by each of the broken instruments. The sounds made by the instruments were sent to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, David Lang, who developed a composition for the musicians to perform on Sunday.
As a product of Los Angeles public schools, Lang said he feels a connection to this project.
“Without music within the public schools, I would not be a musician today,” Lang said.
In the last decade, the School District of Philadelphia’s instrumental music budget has decreased drastically. In 2007, the program was supported by a budget of $1.3 million. In 2017, the budget for arts programs was $50,000.
Composing a piece for broken instruments wasn’t easy for Lang. He wanted to form a piece that was possible to perform with the instruments, which were in various levels of disrepair.
“Every instrument in the orchestra is unique, so the problem we needed to confront is how to form a piece that plays nicely together and also honors the fact that everything the instruments do [is] different,” Lang said. “So if you give everyone one simple job, to play the notes as simply and purely as they can, you get this very complicated, changing buzzing sound that shows that the musicians are trying to play together, but the instruments don’t let them.”
As some of the instruments emit only the sounds of the clanking keys, while others produce only a limited range of notes, Lang and the musicians within the orchestra were forced to creatively incorporate these instruments within the performance. This was accomplished by altering the method in which the instruments are commonly played.
Hagins’ violin didn’t have a bridge, a device that transmits the vibration from the string to the instrument to produce the resonating sound, so he had to put his finger underneath the string and pluck it to create a note.
“[The composition] is not a piece that just depends on melody and harmony,” Lang said. “It does not work the way we expect an orchestra piece to work.”
The Barra Foundation, a Philadelphia organization that provides grants to projects, will support the final phase with $180,000 to fund the repairs of instruments and the distribution of music repair kits to teachers in Philadelphia public schools.
The repaired instruments will be returned to the school district by Fall 2018.
“You are taking people…from a variety of backgrounds,” Blackson said. “But all of those differences disappear when they’re just trying to make music together.”