I have to admit that I have a fetish about recycling. I am a child of those hope-filled days when I still believed we could change society, and respond intelligently to the emerging environmental reality. Our current situation makes me nostalgic for those halcyon days.
For years I made a living by recycling food cans into a whole line of candle-holders, lamps and chandeliers. I loved doing it. We worked all of the best festivals, including Oregon Country Fair, Strawberry Music Festival, and Reggae on the River. My chandeliers sold in fancy galleries and pictures of my work appear in Garth Johnson’s book, 1000 Ideas for Creative Reuse. I named my business, Tin Can Luminary. Recycling was my life, until I realized it was killing me.
Sulfer Dioxide gas, a byproduct of welding galvanized steel cans attacked my thyroid. I always wore a respirator when I worked, but that was not adequate protection. I could hardly get out of bed for almost a year, and my thyroid has not recovered in the 10 years since I quit welding. The whole experience really tempered my enthusiasm. Recycling can kill you. Mass-produced consumer culture is toxic, and no amount of imagination, inspiration or perspiration can render it benign.
Still, I can’t shake my obsession with waste materials. As our mass-produced consumer culture continues to destroy the biosphere. The detritus of unbridled consumerism lies scattered and piled all around us. There’s very little about our modern culture to be genuinely enthusiastic about, except the abundance of exotic materials, preformed into useful and interesting shapes, and available to any imaginative artist, for free, practically everywhere you look. At least that’s how the world looks to me.
Art is such a frivolous thing. It doesn’t feed anyone. It doesn’t shelter anyone from the elements. Art doesn’t heal the sick, or protect us from those who would do us harm. At the very best, art can change the way you see (or hear) the world. Considering our current ecological circumstance, there’s no excuse for destroying the planet to make art. So I continue to let my imagination run wild when it comes to the waste material I see around me, and when I make art out of recycled materials, I still use the Tin Can Luminary label.
Lately, my fetish for recycling has infected my music, so now I spend my time teaching garbage to sing. For my 2006 release Hand Made, I recorded a piece titled Voices of the Unwanted, which I composed entirely from instruments I built from recycled materials. Back then, I had built just a few crude instruments, but I became fascinated with their sonic potential, and I found it refreshing to work with these new sounds. Since then, I’ve built dozens of instruments from recycled materials and found objects. I call this collection: “The Orchestra of the Unwanted.”
The video features my latest addition to the Orchestra of the Unwanted, the “Goat Brie Mini-Dulcimer,” an electro-acoustic short-string hammer dulcimer made from scrap wood and the lids from two, 180 gram packages of Woolrich Dairy’s Triple Creme Goat Brie. Woolrich Dairy’s Triple Creme Goat Brie is delicious, by the way. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have bought the second box.
These boxes have a lid made of very thin wood, that I thought would make a serviceable soundboard for a short-string instrument. I mounted piezoelectric disc pickups inside each of the box tops, and wired them together with the leftover cord from a set of failed headphones, so that the pickups can be used individually or in stereo. In the video, you can hear how the Goat Brie Mini-Dulcimer sounds by itself, and in the audio clip below, you can hear how I incorporated this original GBMD track into a composition that also includes thumb piano, an overtone flute made from recycled irrigation tubing, and a circuit-bent Casio keyboard. Bon Appetit!