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  January/February 2005
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One Small Step: Recycled Rhythms
Donald "the Junkman" Knaack, Percussionist
interview by Blair Tindall

Donald "the Junkman" Knaack, Percussionist
Manchester Center, Vermont
"I've made a commitment to exclusively compose for and perform on stuff that has been discarded. It's the most basic form of world music as it contains two common elements of most modern societies–junk and music.

"The transformation of trash into a sound-producing object has a great recycling message and a fresh, innovative sound. That to me is true creativity and lets me continue to test my muse.

"Studying percussion at Manhattan School of Music 20 years back, I'd played bits of junk in classical music. Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony calls for a thunder sound to be made by wobbling a sheet of metal. Anvils show up in operas by Wagner and Verdi, and contemporary composers use chains, brake drums, and chimes made of seashells and bamboo.

"One of my favorite pieces of junk is an airplane engine's chrome nose cone that makes the most beautiful bell sound. Car taillight assemblies sound like thundering drums. I've made a Sno-Cat-o-phone from parts found at the Stratton Mountain Ski Resort's dump. And in Croatia I discovered that spent artillery shells sound like church bells–from destruction comes amazing sonic beauty.

"Twyla Tharp choreographed to a piece I wrote called Surfer at the River Styx. She takes it on tour, using my recording of 1,000 junk instruments, stuff that went from the scrap heap to finalist for a Grammy nomination. I've played with Eminem and Phish, on Conan O'Brien's show, and for World Environment Day at the United Nations.

"I take junk music into corporate America too, with seminars at companies like L'Oréal. The sessions increase recycling awareness, which is useful in choosing packaging and ingredients for new products. Right now I'm doing a program to teach kids how to be better environmental citizens. The kids scout for junk to make a public sculpture called a Junk Music Playstation.

"People playing a ‘junkjam' on the sculptures have said it changed the way they think about trash–that worthless stuff can create such joy."

ALL THAT TRASH: According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Americans generated 229.2 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2001, of which 127.6 million tons ended up in landfills.

ON THE WEB Visit the Junkman's Web site,

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