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Landfill Harmonic: lessons in improvisation

By Siu-Lan Tan


On the first day of class in my ‘Psychology of Music’ course, I often ask students to create their own musical instruments. The catch is… they have to make them out of whatever they happen to have in their backpacks and pockets that day!

They scrape the spiral spines of notebooks with pencils; blow into pen-caps and rolled-up folders; attach keys to jangle from ankles; drink just the right amount of water from water-bottles to strike out the tones of a scale… and create music in many inventive ways.

They then divide up into small goups to form small bands and perform a short piece together. Two memorable examples: Katy Perry’s “Firework” played on water bottles and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a marimba of pencils.

Recycled violins made from discarded materials. © Landfill Harmonic

The Recycled Orchestra

The makeshift bands serve as more than just an ice-breaker on the first day of class. I also want my students to open their ears to sound – and discover that pitch and rhythm and timbre reside in everyday things.

So imagine how moved I was to watch a recent episode of 60 Minutes and discover the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay. I learned that Cateura is a village built on a landfill and one of the poorest areas in Latin America. Most of the residents make a living by sorting garbage in the landfill for the recycling industry, dragging bags for miles on foot to deliver for a few cents.

Some years ago, a man named Favio Chávez opened a music school in Cateura with the hope of giving the children a sense of purpose, and keeping them off the streets. As the students owned no instruments, Favio and a resident of Cateura known as ‘Cola’ Gómez began to handmake each instrument out of pieces of discarded trash – creating what they call the ‘Recycled Orchestra’.

Flutes, guitars, violins, cellos, clarinets, saxophones … all made out of trash?! I was riveted.

Girls playing instruments made of recycled parts © Landfill Harmonic http://www.landfillharmonicmovie.com

Girls playing instruments made of recycled parts. © Landfill Harmonic

The astonishing story is captured in a forthcoming documentary entitled Landfill Harmonic. I found the trailer on their website, as well as uploaded by Landfill Harmonic on YouTube (length 3:27 mins). Apparently, it has gone viral!

YouTube Preview Image

Flexible Thinking

This story beautifully illustrates resistance to a cognitive bias known as ‘functional fixedness’. Identified by Karl Duncker in 1945, functional fixedness refers to our tendency to see objects only in terms of their typical use. Most of us would not think of using coat buttons, bottle-caps, and door-keys, to make the keys of a flute.

Flute keys made from discarded materials © Landfill Harmonic http://www.landfillharmonicmovie.com/

Flute keys made from discarded materials. © Landfill Harmonic

Infants are not yet susceptible to functional fixedness. They naturally use their senses and motor actions to explore all the possibilities of an object. Gradually children learn ‘what objects are for’, and with this gain comes a loss in flexible thinking. By about six years of age, children succumb to ‘functional fixedness’.

How would you do on this test? German and Defeyter (2000) gave five, six, and seven-year-old children this puzzle: A puppet has to reach a high shelf but is not tall enough. Nearby, there is a box containing these objects: a coin, pencil, eraser, bricks, and a toy car. What should the puppet do? (And by the way, the bricks themselves are not tall enough to boost the puppet.)

Answer: Turn over the cardboard box and use it as a platform for the brick tower. When the problem was presented in this manner, the five-year-olds were more likely to solve the problem correctly than the six- and seven-year-olds (who were more likely to be primed to think of the box only as a ‘container’, as the other objects had been packed inside the box).

If you didn’t think about using the box as a stepstool, or didn’t even really notice the box in the description as you assumed it was just housing the objects of interest — you also fell prey to ‘functional fixedness’. (Don’t worry- this would be typical of adults and it doesn’t mean you’re not creative.)

Life Requires Improvisation

The Recycled Orchestra is a sparkling example of how resisting ‘functional fixedness’ opens up a new world of possibilities. Forks anchor violin strings. A discarded pipe — and a handful of old buttons, bottlecaps, and door-keys — takes the shape of a saxophone.

Saxophone made of recycled parts © Landfill Harmonic http://www.landfillharmonicmovie.com/

Saxophone made of recycled parts. © Landfill Harmonic

A rusty oil-can, some discarded wood, a meat tenderizer, and a tool for shaping pasta makes a cello with a rich tone, on which Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 can be played with great musical sensitivity.

'Bebi' plays a cello made of recycled parts © Landfill Harmonic http://www.landfillharmonicmovie.com/

‘Bebi’ plays a cello made of recycled parts. © Landfill Harmonic

Beyond mere functional fixedness, objects that have been labeled as ‘trash’, ‘useless’, ‘without value,’ are re-imagined and re-assigned as meaningful, functional, and vital. This requires another kind of flexibility beyond functional fixedness — a significant shift of perspective and reframing of meaning.

The word ‘bricolage’ — the construction of something from whatever happens to be at hand — comes to mind. Out of necessity, Favio and ‘Cola’ used whatever happened to be available to fashion musical instruments. Not having access to the parts they needed, they improvised, and created something magical.

Tania playing violin made of recycled parts © Landfill Harmonic http://www.landfillharmonicmovie.com/

Tania playing violin made of recycled parts. © Landfill Harmonic

As I read more about the story behind the documentary, I learned that the film-makers too had improvised. Initially, they had set out to make a documentary about the ‘underserved children of Paraguay’ and only later found out about the Recycled Orchestra. Imagine if they had stuck to a fixed plan, rather than taken the paths that opened up along the way.

Perhaps, I began to think, life requires this sort of flexibility and improvisation from us — a spirit of ‘bricolage’. Maybe it’s not a matter of waiting for everything to come together in complete sets, but about cobbling something useful and beautiful together from whatever comes our way.

The people of Cateura transformed trash into musical treasures. And with this alchemy, there comes social transformation and renewal. Music-making by the youth of Cateura is giving a voice to a population that has toiled quietly for so long. I was thrilled to learn that the Recycled Orchestra has traveled abroad to perform in great concert halls, and received tutoring by top musicians, and that a world tour is currently being planned. This is a story that lifts the human spirit and reflects the power of music and creativity for enriching the lives of youth and a whole community, and in turn, all of us.

Siu-Lan Tan is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College, where she has taught developmental psychology and psychology of music for 15 years. She is co-editor and co-author of the recently published 2013 book, The Psychology of Music in Multimedia. It is the first book to consolidate the research on the role of sound and music in film, television, video games, and computer interfaces. A version of this post also appears on Siu-Lan’s blog, What Shapes Film: Elements of the Cinematic Experience on Psychology Today. Read her previous OUPblog articles.

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4 Responses to “Landfill Harmonic: lessons in improvisation”
  1. Kligula says:

    The human being is amazing in your creativity. Even before the scarcity, the deep desire to learn and feel the music overcome the most powerful barriers. Great post!

  2. Kligula,

    Very beautifully expressed! Thank you!

  3. [...] Kodaly’s phrase is more actual nowadays. Here is Siu-Lan Tan’s highly recommended article on recycled instruments and [...]

  4. Siu-Lan Tan says:

    Adam Bosze,

    Thank you for your enthusiasm for this post! I have great respect for Kodaly. One of my favourite courses during my Music major days was a Kodaly workshop, and his philosophy and techniques still shape me today.

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