Why Isn't Inventing Instruments Considered Normal Anymore?

In a Slate concert review, J. Bryan Lowder (yes, a musican ) examines one answer to the age-old question “how do we keep classical music new?” For composer Sean Friar, the new answer is “used auto parts.”

Wielding a cello bow, one musician caused a dented fender to produce sounds so piercingly lovely that an oboe might have been jealous. Hubcaps, when drawn over with the same implement, released a startling cry. Wheel wells struck with padded mallets created tones deep and resonant enough to challenge the horns for majesty, and gently scraped brake drums transmitted—better than trembling violins—the nervous energy of your fourth cup of coffee.

Unfortunately, the tongue-in-cheek title of the “Clunker Concerto” is itself a signal that nobody really expects to diversify the orchestra. The question is, why is the modern configuration (essentially from the mid-19th century) sacrosanct? Lowder goes on to remind us of something any orchestral musician (student or pro) already knows: that they used to invent and upgrade instruments all the time. Just look at the evolution from the harpsichord to the grand piano. The clarinet wasn’t standard until Mozart’s maturity so those guys never showed up for the earlier music.

While the 19th century saw a great deal of technical improvement of the orchestral family (valves were added to most of the brass) and sporadic expansions (e.g. the bass clarinet and booming Wagner tuba), not much else changed until the turn of the 20th century. With the crack in artistic continuity caused by industrialization and WWI, composers of the early 1900s like Schoenberg and Varèse sought new sounds and new forms from music. Unfortunately, the orchestra wasn’t having it. Musicologist J. Peter Burkholder has written that by this point, “the orchestra had been transformed … into a museum for the display of great works of art from the past,” and museums, as most artists know, are rather difficult to get into.

The piece isn’t online yet. In this video we learn that Friar composes  regular chamber music but wishes to expand the percussion palette. He  has no dreams of supplanting the violin with found junk (they obviously  lack agility) but sees no sense in the arbitrary boundary between  official and unofficial percussion instruments.

But for me, this example falls short of the “answer” that Lowder seems to be setting up. Intrusions into the standard orchestral palette seem permissible in three forms. “Crossover” sounds like ethnic instruments and arguably the saxophone; special effects; and (brake drum roll…) the percussion section! Overwhelmingly, the exploration of new acoustic sounds for orchestra happens in an ad hoc context, or it’s “only” a percussion instrument. And many are used by multiple composers?

See also: American Composers Orchestra