Stringed-instrument students Pooja Shah, left, and Mohinur Kilichkulova pose at George Washington High, Philadelphia.

Behind the Music: Talking to Broken Orchestra’s Charlie Tyrell & Julie Baldassi

The producer and director describe how they came across the story of the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra project, and the men and women who championed it.
Stringed-instrument students Pooja Shah, left, and Mohinur Kilichkulova pose at George Washington High, Philadelphia.

Charlie Tyrell first heard about the Philadelphia-based project called Symphony for a Broken Orchestra—which helps repair and redistribute broken instruments to students in the economically struggling Philadelphia School District—in late 2017, when he read an article about it in the Atlantic. The Toronto-based filmmaker says the process of building a documentary around the idea started “kind of uneventfully”: “At the time, you could adopt an instrument on the Symphony’s website, provide the funds necessary to repair it, and then your name would go on the tag when it goes back to the schools,” he explains. “It was right before Christmas. And my sister-in-law is a violin and piano player and teacher for children, and I never really know what to get her. So I adopted her a violin, and it went over well. I kept thinking about this project—that there would be something cool to do there visually, with animation and broken instruments.” This month, Tyrell is celebrating the release of his new Topic documentary short, Broken Orchestra, which tells the story of the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra project through the words and memories of those who made it happen, including George Washington High teacher Colin Chen, French horn player Valerie Gay, and Rob Blackson, the director of exhibitions at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, who came up with the idea for the project in the first place. In early May, Tyrell—who also made the critically acclaimed short My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes (2018) and Topic’s short series The Book of Dog—and his producer, Julie Baldassi, talked with Topic about making the film, the defunding of arts education in both the United States and Canada, and how hard it is to get one’s hands on tube TVs nowadays.

The music classroom at George Washington High.

Tell me about Rob Blackson.

Charlie Tyrell: He's kind of the guy who created it. He's a bit hard to explain. He's the director of exhibitions at the Tyler School of Art at Temple, but he has an arts background, a curatorial background. He's a non-musician. He’s just kind of one of those people who likes to put the right people in the room together to make a creative project happen. On January 2, 2018, I reached out to Rob at Temple, and I was like, "Hey, I'm a filmmaker. I'm not sure if people have already approached you to talk about this as a documentary project, but here's some of my work I've done previously, and if you're interested I'd love to maybe take a swing at this." Rob was very receptive, and that conversation went on for about a month or two, and then we went into development. He was pretty up-front about it: “Hey, there's a lot of talk about this project right now. It might take me a little while to get back to you, and there's a lot of interest right now.” And at the time, he was clear to point [out] that there was not only a feature documentary in the early stages about this project, but also a narrative feature possibly in the works.

  How did you approach the development of the project and end up landing on the version that we see now?

Tyrell: I kind of like to keep things loose off the top. [I was like,] Okay, I know I can do something with this subject matter, and the media that's available, and the materials that exist within the story. I was still very much in kind of the headspace of My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes, which was: “If you give me a lot of physical objects, I can be playful with those and make it look like this endless sea of instruments." It's kind of funny, because we didn't end up going anywhere near that direction. The pitch package that we ended up putting together told the story about these instruments that were discovered and the funding that wasn't there to fix them. The thing that was so intriguing about this project, that we all dialed into early on, was that you can look at this whole thing as one night—and not only as one night, but as one single performance. It brought a whole community together and didn't just find a problem, where it was like, “Hey, let's have a fund-raiser and fix it”; it created its own unique piece of art and piece of music out of the project. That was something that I really appreciated early on. And for us it was like, OK, how do we not explain this project as a socioeconomic issue, a political issue, a budget issue? You know—naming names and really getting a more internalistic approach. How do we explain this issue with an art-appreciator approach, and how do we tell this story through this one—cheesy word for it—this one magical night?

I like to approach filmmaking, and art in general, as a problem-solver. Give me a challenge that has to be solved in a creative way, and hopefully it will work out.

Julie Baldassi: Charlie has a ton of ideas that could make weird little docs or weird little pieces of fiction. Sometimes it's about a hotdog, or something weird that a teacher did in 1980, but they're not usually as clear as this one was in terms of it just really working. Not only as a story that people want to hear and that is worth telling—it offered something toward Charlie's approach: the weird broken instruments and their strange sounds and squeaks and taps, and things like that. And just the images of the instruments themselves. I could see very clearly that it would be a great project for him. Tyrell: I mean, we aren't in Philadelphia. We aren't even close by. We had to look at this completely as outsiders. But more than that, we weren't down there filming the performance. I didn't even know about the story until two weeks after it happened. We weren't down there getting institute footage of instruments being repaired and going back to classrooms. Very early on it was, OK, we're probably only going to be able to tell this story through interviews and whatever other supplementary material we create. Which in this case became the school, and the set pieces, and that big installation piece that we ended up making for this.

  You said that you didn't want to approach it from a journalistic point of view—the who, when, why, what, where, how. Or at least not approach it directly that way ... but, instead, somewhat obliquely. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tyrell: The reason for that is, as it says in the film notes at the end: this is something that is happening in Philadelphia, but it happens everywhere. To identify people who might be cutting that budget down, and more specific people and places unique to Philadelphia, would isolate the story and make it less relatable. If you keep things a little bit open and don't really address them, then it allows for someone to go, "Oh, yeah, this is happening in my city as well." Once you get more into the detailed naming, it would allow people to say, "Oh, that's over there. That's not happening here. Too bad for them." And that was one of the very immediate things I read from this story: I know that this is a problem everywhere. What kind of city has a complete, bountiful, and supportive arts system for young people, right?

  Are arts education and the funding of it a problem in Canada as well? Or do you see it as more of an American issue?

Tyrell: That's a whole other story that we could get probably talking to for hours. I kind of explain it this way. Remember how Toronto had a crack-smoking mayor? For whatever reason, we elected his brother as premier of Ontario. As of very recently, he's been making some pretty dramatic cuts within not only the whole education system, but within arts and music education. At the school that we shot out, the music teacher there loaned us many of the school's instruments for use as props in the film. There's been a lot of media coverage that 99 teachers in Ontario have been let go—specifically, in the city of Hamilton, where the school was—and this teacher was the 99th one to be fired. And she found out hours before I got there to return the instruments to her. To see it immediately affect someone like that, who we maybe only know as an acquaintance—it emphasizes what we were talking about earlier, that this is a problem all over the place.

Director Charlie Tyrell and composer David Lang during an interview shoot at the Honey Jar Recording Studio, New York City.

When you had to start deciding who you were going to interview, how did you make those determinations?

Tyrell: It started with Rob Blackson. In reading articles and press about the performance, every single piece identified Rob Blackson at one point or another. He was the first person to reach out to. Then he listed a couple of names: "Yeah, call this person. Call this person." Again, he has a curatorial background, so he was pretty good at: "OK, here's a good balance of people, and here are people that would likely make good subjects." The thing about the project was that everyone who was involved is still enthusiastic about it and still has such a love for it. And they were able to name off even more names. And the person who rounded the list probably the best was the project manager, Anna Drozdowski. I think we had about 20 different people on the phone that I set up initial phone-call interviews with to get their side of the story and gauge whether they'd make an engaging interview subject or not. And then after that, a follow-up call to determine scheduling. Like, "OK, we're going to be in Philadelphia on these dates. Can you meet for an on-camera interview?"

Our approach was really just a way to keep things open and allow things to be relatable—to allow people to see themselves and their cities and their communities in this story.

I've done films before where you have a million interview subjects, and it's "Oh, my God. How do I include everyone?" It gets pretty hard to cut some of them, but with this one it was very clear, and everyone was enthusiastic and passionate about the story, and articulate. Because we came to film a year after the performance, one thing that we noted is everyone had had this period of reflection and time to think about it, to see what it did to the community in a positive way, and a very big perspective on the story. Most people said, "Yeah, I knew that this is going to be one of the moments I'm going to remember for the rest of my life." This is one of those special things, and you were aware that it was special while it was happening.

  Why didn’t you include footage of the actual performance? Tyrell: We didn't have footage of it. There was some footage out there, but I don't like to use someone else's footage always, unless it's purely archival and ten to 15 years away from the matter. The way that everyone on the phone in these initial interviews was able to talk about the night, and describe the night, it gave the night its own quality that I knew we wouldn't be able to match by showing footage of people playing broken instruments. That was why we decided, OK, let's not show footage. At least not show footage very clearly of the performance, of the night, because the way that these people describe it from their memory is way more powerful and way more ethereal and has this unique quality, and we won't be able to match that. That's why it kind of turned into: let's wander through the school, let's shoot at the music building, and then let's see this interpretative piece of installation art.

  How did you end up deciding on the conceit of moving throughout a school with a camera and television in order to tell the story?

Tyrell: Early on, we had a kind of open book for how we were going to tell this. Probably that the baseline was, "OK, we'll just do a bunch of animation, and it will look pretty. But let's see what ideas develop as we're working on this film.” When we were down in Philly and we were filming in George Washington High School, filming a couple of our teachers and a couple of our students, it was the first time, not just for me but for most of us, that we had been in a high school in at least a decade. Being in that school, wandering around, we were just kind of like, "Wow, even though this is a high school hundreds of miles away from where I went to school, it's still the same, and it still has the same smells and the same kind of atmosphere." Little details were even the same, in some cases.

That kind of stood out: If this triggered this many memories and nostalgia for me, it's going to do that for anyone if we do that through filming this way. Placing [it in a] school kind of opens the door to igniting people's memory and draws them back to their own music class, or art class, or whatever their high school experience was. If you place it in a school, it's going to put people back in time. That will hopefully allow the viewer to empathize better with the story and with the issue. It makes it all the more relatable that way, I felt.

  Where did you film the school portions?

Tyrell: Obviously, we weren't about to go back to Philadelphia, so we had to film it locally. We live and operate out of Toronto, but I'm originally from Hamilton, which is about an hour west of Toronto. Hamilton has all these great, ancient schools built in the teens, '20s, and '30s. We came across this one called Delta Secondary School. It’s a high school, but it's pretty run-down, it's pretty tired. It kind of has the reputation of being the knucklehead school. Kind of tough school, tough neighborhood. It had so many of the qualities that so many schools share, and we didn't want to shoot it in a brand-new school, because brand-new schools have new instruments. Delta is actually closing down. Next month is the last month that it's ever going to be around. It's mostly these older schools and communities that have these kinds of issues. We wanted something that had some wear and tear on it, and something that showed its age. And it was, yeah, the perfect school, and we filmed there over the course of two days. The school didn't have an elevator, and we kept having to go from floor to floor to floor, moving hundreds of instruments as props between different floors. At the end of the shoot, everyone was looking at their health apps on their phones. I think the person who had the record was 180 flights of stairs.

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  Was there a lot to add to the production design, environmental elements, when you shot in the school?

Tyrell: We had to add in some specific things. There were some things that we wanted to see noted in our production design. There was a lot that we had to add in. But there was virtually nothing that we had to remove. I mean, the school played itself beautifully. Things that we had to add in were the art room and all those portrait pieces, moving the TVs around from floor to floor. Tiny bit of a tidy and organization and moving things out of the way, but nothing extreme. Putting some American flags up, because obviously there were Canadian flags up in some of the classrooms. It really kind of did its own job.

  What was it like finding yourself back in a school?

Tyrell: Weird. And you know we had, like I said, a crew of about 25 people all noting, like, "Whoa, I'm having flashbacks" and "Oh, I remember this kind of assignment, this kind of program." Yeah, for me the kind of surrealness of that had already worn out, because in the weeks ahead of the shoot I had gone to the school so many times to kind of rehearse the walk and get familiar with the spaces and get familiar with the floor plan. For everyone else, even just like, "Oh, I remember this kind of chair and what it was like." These uncomfortable chairs, all that kind of stuff. It was amusing for most people, I think. But yeah, that was met with like, "Oh, that's sad that this school is closing down, too."

  The short gives the appearance of being done in one take, but it’s actually multiple takes stitched together. Did you think at any point that you’d be able to do it in one take?

Tyrell: I kind of knew that we would have to have some cuts in there. We would have needed a billion dollars and 20 Steadicam operators on standby to switch out when one gets tired [to do it in one take]. That would have just been ... not impossible, but not necessary for this project.

Student Abdul Maaf sits for an interview shoot at George Washington High.
Student Ahlayjah Parker poses with her instrument.

Where did you get all the old tube televisions and media carts? I would imagine those would be sort of hard to find.

Tyrell: We rented all the TVs and carts. The TVs weren't as hard. The TVs were weird, because some people are putting them on Craigslist for free, some people are putting them on Craigslist for $200 for some reason. There's a lot of real nagging negotiating with Craigslist sellers: "Come on, this is for a project about arts education. We can't afford your $200 for this crappy, old broken TV. Give us a hand." Yeah, we were able to get TVs, but the AV carts are ... those were impossible to find. There's like none of them. And the ones that people have they use, so they don't let them go. It took us a better part of a month to find all of those.

Baldassi: We looked at other schools, and most schools don't have those big, clunky old TVs. Delta actually had them, but most schools have moved on to flat screens, and you know, the students have iPads and stuff like that.

  What sort of issues, if any, did you run into during the shoot in the school?

Tyrell: Well, we're all stressed out. I think even if the most hilarious thing happened, we wouldn't laugh. I think we would just all freeze. On the second day, there were apparently blackouts in the exact neighborhood we were in. I had some family members who lived around the corner, and they were like, "Oh, we just had power out. Are you guys OK?" And somehow this blackout that covered most of the city skipped us.

Baldassi: We were moving up and down so many stairs and trying to do these big, difficult shots. Everybody kind of just had to keep their head down and keep working. It was a really physical shoot, and it was hard work. We were all just trying to pull this thing off. The AD and myself and Chet Tilokani, our cinematographer who we work with all the time, we were all joking that we had, in the shoot, become Charlie's enabler, because originally this was supposed to be two to three people in a studio doing stop-motion animation over a few days. Very simple, we've done it before. And we turned this thing into a 25-person shoot in a different city over two days, and it just expanded. That was the feeling that was the most present on set: you were really getting away with a lot here. But also, we work with a lot of the same people all the time, and everyone was happy to be there and happy to do it.

Tyrell: Half the people thought it was a music video for the first part of the first day.

Baldassi: Really? Who thought that?

Tyrell: The camera guys. They were like, "Oh, we thought ... we couldn't believe this was a documentary. Why are you going through all this trouble for a documentary kind of thing?"

Baldassi: They didn't read my call-sheet email.

  Did you know that the conceit of shooting in the school in this way was going to work from the get-go? Or did you think you wouldn’t know until you saw the footage?

Tyrell: No, we knew it was going to work 100 percent the whole way through, Anna. It was fine [laughs]. I mean, I'll put it this way. We got that first shot, and we knew, OK, we have this concept [that] visually works. But I felt like, and this is maybe just me, every single shot, worrying about making a day, making a schedule—I feel like the whole entire shoot I just had this feeling of anxiety, like we were one slip away or one power outage away from not making any of this. Because there weren't too many segments that we cut together. It was like, we can't fail on a single one of them. There's not a shot that we can get and be like, "Oh, we might not need it later." Everything that we had planned to shoot, we needed. It was very timed and planned.

What kind of city has a complete, bountiful, and supportive arts system for young people?

The only thing that we kind of had a plan B for was Jesse Yules, who did the installation art, the projection screens in the gym. I was referred to him by a colleague that I've worked with a few times, [who] does amazing work. He just moved out of the city, so I would have normally worked with that guy on this, but he was like, "Oh, here. Work with Jesse." And he worked on his own away from the rest of the crew in an empty space, and just kind of quietly had his headphones in and was working with the piece and getting the projection set up. We didn't really have a preview or a test of what it looked like. We just knew his work, and he was vouched for by a lot of people. You hope it's going to work, but our plan B was, "OK, if we get into that gym and that big moment in our film doesn't work, and the projection doesn't sell as this big moment, then for that part of the score we're just going to ... all the lights are going to turn out in the school, and it's just going to go to black." And that was our backup plan.

A piano practice room at the school.
The keyboard room.

Have you guys become a better director and producer with each film? Are you able to look back at each project and define how it helped you grow as creators and as collaborators?

Tyrell: Absolutely. With each film, we don't really like doing things that we've done before. We might try and incorporate elements of things we've done and know will work. Chet and I have worked together since film school. Sometimes those projects start with, like, "Oh, I want to see if I can make a person with a glowing head." And we start there. And then that becomes a creative and technical challenge. With every film that the group of us, or Julie and I, collaborated on, it's usually born out of, like, "Let's see if we can do X." Now, as filmmakers, we have such a good read of each other, and a sense of not only our own capabilities but each other's capabilities, that we know what we can do and we know we can pull things out of our minds and put them to film. It's nice to see the evolution of things. It's nice to see, like, "OK, that was a simple idea and it worked, and then things got a little bit more complicated." Just to see the evolution of these challenges that we've set up for ourselves and that we've been able to carry them out.

Baldassi: I met Charlie when I was transitioning out of having just started a career in journalism and then decided it was not for me. I met him when he was producing a music video for a friend, Amanda. I was really just starting out in the film industry and just had come from a background of having friends who were going to art school, and I would help them out on their video shoots on the weekends. And just really loving doing it. That is how I became a producer. I just came out on enough shoots, tried enough different projects, and just took on the responsibilities. I think with Charlie and I, we were able to do a lot together because Charlie always has ideas. And I, at that time, had a lot more free time and was willing to just be like, "OK. You have $500 and you want to shoot for three days in this place three hours from here? Sure, let's give it a go." And so our relationship as producer and director evolved as I was, at the same time, becoming more capable as a producer and working on other projects. We've been able to go from these no-budget things to getting some budgets for our short films, and now we're developing a feature together. It helps us both for me to be working with Charlie all the time, but also to be learning from other people and gaining experience in other worlds.

Tyrell: When people have a good brain, it's good to keep them in the fold and make excuses to work together again, because it does become a muscled exercise. We've settled into this really good core team of ... I'm sure I'll miss some people, but myself, Julie, Chet the cinematographer, Michael Barker the editor, and Josef Beeby as some of the writing side of things. He has a very good sense of story that we always like to use. And then animators, Phillip Eddolls and Martha Grant and Marty MacPherson. And all kinds of other people here, there, and in between. Our colorist, Conor Fisher, I've worked with since he was a color assistant. And now he's doing the Mad Max movies and stuff like that. It's nice to see [everyone] evolve and everyone's abilities to get really concrete and really good, and hopefully age out of no-budget stuff.

  How would you describe the Broken Orchestra to someone who hadn’t seen it or read about it?

Tyrell: The story is arts-education funding was so dramatically slashed in Philadelphia that a byproduct of that was all these instruments—that would have been repaired and recirculated—were left for dead. And people discovered that and rallied them together to kind of create this unique art piece and performance to get attention on the issue, attract private donations to get them funded, and get them back in schools. And we decided to tell that story through wandering through a school, and going through the night of the performance, and allowing people to revisit memories that they might have about their music classes. It’s a way to prove that these things are important, and one thing I keep noting and realizing is myself and everyone else involved in this project, I mean, we're byproducts of our arts education, whether it was grade school or high school or what. If we didn't have those classes, we probably wouldn't be doing what we're doing today, right?

  Speaking of arts education: what was your experience of it growing up?

Tyrell: I mean, I went to a high school that didn't have a lot of great teachers. I probably shouldn't slam it that hard, but I went to a pretty tired old high school. As a result, there was a lot of complacency amongst the teachers and the staff, and I didn't really have a lot of teachers who went out of their way for their students. But in art class, that was where I found that I had an aptitude, and I was comfortable in that space. And I had a teacher, Ms. Lankford. She wasn't the fluffy, super-fun, let's-get-our-hands-dirty type of teacher. She was good and very practical and levelheaded, but she really treated her students just as human beings in a way that other teachers didn't. She was kind of an ex-hippie. She had armpit hair and didn't wear bras, and her hair was down to her thighs. She gave us a good place to stretch out, both creatively and personally, within an environment that wants you to get a certain grade on something, right?

Art is a form of play, and it's a form of imagining, and whatever direction you end up in, I think you become a better person if you can do those things.

I wasn't like a teacher's pet or a favorite of hers even, but she just really gave enough encouragement for me to go to the next step, which was post-secondary education. Now I work in film, but it's still in the arts. Without that, without her, and without some other teachers I had as well, I would not be doing this. I’m very happy that I'm doing what I do now.

Baldassi: I thought about this when we were making the film, and like how did I end up in an art career? I grew up in the suburbs; no one in my family has artistic careers whatsoever. I was in band class, and I was in visual-arts class, and none of it really impressed upon me that much personally. But on reflection, I actually think that what made the biggest mark was a cousin of mine who happened to go to this really awesome arts high school. He was always a person that I loved and idolized. I remember going to some of [his] high school's plays in the regular high school auditorium—because they were a theater-arts school, they really went for it. I think that I probably absorbed something by proxy of their arts education, but I certainly would have benefited from it being more of an emphasis in my own high school. I think I went to the kind of high school that was like, you learned what you needed to learn to get a high school diploma and get out.

I think it's really easy for kids to miss the opportunity to engage in arts education, and I think it does so much for a person. Not for them to become an artist or for them to end up in the arts, but just for their own personal development. Art is a form of play, and it's a form of imagining, and whatever direction you end up in, I think you become a better person if you can do those things. If you can play, and if you can imagine, and if you can empathize, you can try and wrap your head around something that is not a straightforward explanation, but something that you have to dig a little deeper to get into.

Josef Beeby (cowriter) looks at sheet-music archives at George Washington High.

Do you, or did you, ever play an instrument?

Tyrell: I only took the mandatory grade seven music class where I played trumpet. I'm a big music fan and lover, and I know a lot of musicians. But the short answer is no. No instruments for me.

Baldassi: Yeah, same situation. I played the clarinet in elementary school, but only for a few school years.

  One thing I've noticed, Charlie, is that you've talked about the instruments a couple times as if they are living things. You made a comment about how they'd been left for dead. And then you also made a comment about the concept of adopting an instrument. Is that something that you feel? That the instruments are alive?

Tyrell: Sure, I mean ... I guess even with My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes, I can emotionally invest in an object sometimes more than I can in a person. But there's something about instruments specifically that just elicits way more of an emotional response. Instruments, they have so much character and personality innately, and we can go to their shape or their form, but when you see the wear and tear on them, you see, OK, this is an area where a hand always is, because it's worn down in a specific spot. But an instrument, no matter what it is, it represents exactly what we're talking about it. It represents opportunity, whether that's an opportunity to become a musician, or the opportunity just to have a different hobby, or a place to see the world from a different perspective. They're a place for someone to exercise something that they might not normally consider, and they make them, hopefully, a more balanced and well-rounded person by just having exposure to something different.

Baldassi: I think people have relationships with their instruments. I remember Liz, one of our interview subjects, she was talking about having this cello, really caring for it and thinking about what life it would have after she gave it back. And when it would be repaired, and then it would go into the hands of the students. I think people just have a certain type of connection to an instrument that just goes deeper than a regular physical object. It's nostalgic and I don't know what it is, but it's some form of relationship.

  Charlie, what happened to the violin that you adopted for your sister-in-law? Do you know how its story ended?

Tyrell: They sent me a really nice letterhead package with a thank-you, and the instrument has gone back; it doesn't specify to what school. All the instruments are identified by their numbers. As far as I know, it's back in circulation, and it has my sister-in-law's name on it, as it will until that tag is lost or until something completely destroys the instrument. It’s nice to know that it’s there, continuing its legacy.

An identifying sticker is affixed to an upright bass.
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