(by Mark Nauseef)


One of the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of being an improvising percussionist is the idea of performing on an instrument of which you have very little knowledge or experience. This happens because although a percussionist may be heavily trained in the percussive arts from an early age and/or has played drums his entire life, he can easily be thrilled by an unusual sound and then take time to develop a technique for making music with the object producing that sound. This situation happens to many percussionists, more than any other instrumentalists, as most percussionists are always searching for new sounds to add to their vocabulary. These new sounds are more often than not found in locations other than musical instrument shops. The objects which produce these new sounds may be “found objects” such as kitchen utensils, the obvious being pots and pans, which ironically is how many percussionists started playing as children, but also electric mixers, amplified egg slicers, containers made of metal, plastic, wood and glass as well as anything else which speaks to the explorer. Making wind chimes from handfuls of metal knives, forks and spoons or just throwing them all into a large empty metal container or galvanized garbage can, could be your new instrument. Find the sounds within the object and develop a technique to access those sounds and create something with them. Although the kitchen is very rich in resources for new sounds, anyplace may be rewarding when searching for new instruments. Old hubcaps from the garage, discarded metal lamp shades or that protective screen/grate from a broken fan that may be hiding in the basement or attic. Outside the house there are many possibilities as nature gives us much great sounding wood, stone, pods filled with seeds, dried leaves...

Good sounding found objects can be found everywhere and the keys to discovery are looking, listening, and imagination. Toys are another source of sound. It feels good to tear open a toy to find out what is making that weird sound inside and finding ways of manipulating and possibly extending that sound through modification of the object and eventually adding it to a developing instrument made up of many sounds from individual instruments of choice. These instruments can be made from anything in the universe or elsewhere which produces a sound                                   

Extended techniques are always being created to extract sound from unlikely places and /or to modify sounds from likely sources. As well as striking with both hands and all fingers the possibilities could include sticks, chains, mallets and beaters of all sizes and materials such as wood, metal, plastic, rubber, yarn, etc. Superballing, bowing, scraping, rubbing, kicking…As with kitchen sounds, good toy sounds may be electronic (battery operated) or acoustic and techniques could include squeezing, shaking, scraping, spinning, pulling and winding. As found objects and toys will both eventually deteriorate and at some point be discarded, they may both be included in the third and most all inclusive of categories of newly discovered instruments known as “junk”. Junk instruments are rubbish. Tons of rubbish are thrown out everyday. Discarded heaps for most people, a musical goldmine full of possibilities and joy for the improvising percussionist. The choice is large for great sound producing objects especially if you are looking for things to hit. Although there are possibilities for discovery by wind and string players, the most fortunate tend to be percussionists. Pipes, large sections of air ducts, grills, gratings…  Rejected electronic equipment such as electric motors, broken cassette recorder/players and malfunctioning cd players. Brake drums from automobiles were written for by composers such as John Cage, John Bergamo, and Lou Harrison and are used in many classic pieces of percussion ensemble music. All objects already mentioned, such as kitchen items and toys, will eventually find their way to the dump. Cage had written for tin cans, electric buzzers, radios (could be discarded/junk)… Lou Harrison writing for oxygen tanks to be struck with baseball bats, rice bowls, large box…Harry Partch building instruments of liquor and wine bottles, airplane gas tanks, shell casings, and of course, the master of junk mayhem, Spike Jones with his duck calls, guns, and whoopee cushions. Barbara Benary's instruments which she built for her gamelan ensemble, Gamelan Son of Lion, use hubcaps as gongs and resonators made of coffee cans. Recently junk is gaining more mainstream exposure through the popular performances of groups such as Stomp, who exclusively use junk and found objects, and Blue Man Group who use self-built instruments of plastic piping. Finishing this mention of composers using junk in a preconceived structure/form (composition) is John Bergamo with his writing for the engine cowling from a 747 jumbo jet!!

            In the world of “free improvised music” musicians often take an approach of accepting the junk completely as the piece of junk that it is as opposed to having a preconceived idea as to how it might be used as in the case of substituting a hubcap for a gong in an American gamelan ensemble. British improvisers such as Tony Oxley, Frank Perry and Paul Lytton have explored the possibilities of using found objects and junk in free improvised music. One of the most fascinating of the free improvisers promoting junk usage in free improvised music is Jamie Muir. A truly original musician who relishes rubbish and would prefer not to “transmute rubbish” but “approach the rubbish with a total respect for its nature as rubbish.”

Here are a few of Muir's thoughts on the subject of rubbish:

            “I much prefer junk shops to antique shops. There's nothing to find in an antique shop - it' s all been found already; whereas in a junk shop it's only been collected. But a rubbish dump - a rubbish dump has been neither found nor collected – in fact it's been completely rejected – and that is the undiscovered / unidentified / unclaimed / unexplored territory – the future if only you could see it.” He goes on to say “ Instead of transmuting rubbish into a music with a heavily qualitative bias…leave behind the biases and structures of selectivity (which is an enormous task ), the “found” attitudes you inherit, and approach the rubbish with a total respect for it's nature as rubbish – the undiscovered / unidentified / unclaimed – transmuting the nature into the performing dimension. The way to discover the undiscovered in performing terms is to immediately reject all situations as you identify them ( the cloud of unknowing ) – which is to give music a future.” (from a 1972 issue of Microphone magazine. These statements were reprinted in the book “Improvisation: It's Nature and Practice In Music” by Derek Bailey which was first published in 1980)

In another extract from the Microphone article Jamie Muir says “ Improvising percussionists are primarily concerned with effecting alchemical changes over rubbish. The changes can be directed towards objective ends – beauty / purity / music – or subjective ends – an essentially organic interest in the process of change / transmutation itself.”. ( from “ Derek Bailey And The Story Of Free Improvisation by Ben Watson 2004)                                                                                                        

     One of my most memorable experiences with junk was when I was a member of Edward Vesala's Sound And Fury.  My roll as a percussionist in that band had me mostly hitting, kicking, superballing, scraping and chain whipping as well as leaping against a large double-basin steel sink which Vesala, Jimi Sumen and other Sound And Fury members had salvaged from a dump in Helsinki. Jimi Sumen had also fixed guitar machine heads to the basin edge so that strings could be stretched across the sink which gave me further possibilities to pluck, snap, pull, slide on and detune strings….not easy to transport but a wonderful instrument.

             Another great junk experience was playing the part for a 747 jet engine cowling in John Bergamo's  “On The Edge” . Throwing pool balls around the gutter of the cowling, bowing the edge, superballing, bbq skewers…

            One positive bi-product of playing junk is that you can more easily develop your own unique technique and sound, as your instrument will be unlike any other. A healthy alternative to chasing the latest snare drum buying fashion or the cymbal setups of popular drummers.

            Found objects, toys and junk are three general areas to be explored as first instruments as opposed to ornamental sounds, although it's hard to imagine being a virtuoso whoopee cushionist.