The New Junkman Opera: 'Odin' The Junkman makes music with mailboxes, saw blades, frying pans and beer cans. Now he has written a full-length spoken-word opera based on the Nordic myth of the Viking god of war, who also happens to be the Viking god of knowledge: Odin.
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The New Junkman Opera: 'Odin'

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The New Junkman Opera: 'Odin'

The New Junkman Opera: 'Odin'

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This Friday in New York a new opera will have its world premier. There will be some common operatic elements. Norse gods, warriors, bloody battles, a grand quest for truth, but this opera, Odin it's called, written by Vermont percussionist Donald Knaack, is very different. It is performed on hundreds of pieces of junk. Andrea Shea reports.

ANDREA SHEA: Before you run screaming from your radio in fear of some quirky NPR story about an environmentalist who concocted an opera for recycled materials, consider this, Donald Knaack, a.k.a. the Junkman, is a classically trained percussionist who studied with John Cage. Chirographer Twyla Tharp thought enough of Knaack's compositions to ask him to write two for her company.


SHEA: Donald Knaack performed this with Tharp's dancers at the Kennedy Center. Conductor Robert Franz commissioned a piece from Knaack for the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra in Ohio.


SHEA: He says if the idea of music played on scrap wood, saw blades and used pie tins scares you, you're not alone.

ROBERT FRANZ: And I can tell you when I first brought this to the staff of the Mansfield Symphony there was fear in their hearts as well.


SHEA: Conductor Robert Franz says this 35-minute concerto for orchestra and junk is a complex, contemporary work and Donald Knaack is a legit composer.

FRANZ: Before he was the Junkman, Don was a very talented and working percussionist. He was a member of the Louisville Orchestra for a number of years, but he was also a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic. So he had gone to school, gotten his degrees in percussion, won jobs as a percussionist in orchestras, which, by the way, is no mean feat.


SHEA: But Knaack gave up coveted positions and some measure of job security to pursue a career in junk. Fifteen years ago he packed up his kit bag and moved to the green mountain state.

DONALD KNAACK: Welcome to Vermont.

SHEA: It smells like Vermont. Burning wood in the air.

KNAACK: Yeah, everybody's still burning wood, yeah.

SHEA: Knaack's modest cobalt blue house is in Manchester, not too far from the Stratton Mountain Ski Resort. His recording studio is upstairs, but the tools of his trade are kept in crowded, organized shed just steps from the house. Inside it looks like a cross between Dr. Frankenstein's lab and the back of Fred Sanford's truck. Knaack rummages through a plastic garbage can labeled heavy metals.

KNAACK: This is an old artillery shell.


KNAACK: It's made of brass, but that's too nice of a sound. I'm looking for something that is going to be a little more cutting.

SHEA: The percussionist needs one more instrument for his new opera.

KNAACK: This could be interesting. Let's see what this is.


KNAACK: I think this is nice. This is some kind of electrical conduit cover. I think I'm going to go with that.

SHEA: Knaack says he fell under junk's spell three decades ago. As a percussionist with the Louisville Orchestra he was sent to a junkyard to find six metal plates for another composer's work. Since then, Knaack says your run of the mill marimba isn't enough.

KNAACK: When you're writing for a symphony orchestra we have drums and we have cymbals and we have tuned, like, xylophone and timpani. All of those are specific sound colors that the composer is using. What the junk does is, because there are just so many thousands of pieces of metal out there and wood and all that, it's as if for every one color a traditional composer has in percussion, I'm given a couple of hundred.

SHEA: Knaack admits the transition from glockenspiel to gas can wasn't easy. At first some fellow percussionists snickered. But that changed when he worked with composer John Cage in the early 1970's.

KNAACK: Essentially he was kind of the glue for me. He's the one that allowed everything in my life to make sense, because I had this experience with junk before, but I was also a trained composer in a classical sense. And then I met him and I discovered that he had written these three constructions for percussion in the late 30's and early 40's, and they all included found objects.

SHEA: Brake drums and anvils and metal cylinders. Knaack eventually recorded Cage's work under the composer's supervision.


SHEA: Some of those same instruments turn up in Knaack's latest composition, Odin.


SHEA: Like Wagner's Ring Cycle, Knaack's opera is based on the Nordic god of the title. A split personality that Knaack finds fascinating.

KNAACK: He was the Viking god of war, and he was simultaneously the god of knowledge. And he was credited with, you know, starting the alphabet and poetry, and so he knew as the god of knowledge that if anything could defeat the god of war, it was going to be knowledge.

SHEA: To tell his story Knaack needed more than a bunch of percussionists beating aggressively on hunks of metal and wood. He also needed a chorus.


KNAACK: One, two, three.

CHORUS: (unintelligible)

SHEA: Forty performing art students crowd into a rehearsal room at New York University where Odin is being staged. The voice coach is Michael Douglas Jones. He's sung in operas all over the world and says while Odin is a contemporary work it still hews to tradition.

MICHAEL DOUGLAS JONES: There's passion in here, there's sex. There's death and killing.

SHEA: All things that make opera, opera.

JONATHAN HAUS: I can't stand opera so my first reaction was oh great, what do I have to do with this?

SHEA: Timpanist Jonathan Haus specializes in conducting percussion music. He's on the faculty at NYU, and after listening to Knaack's demo he was convinced enough that he talked the school into taking a chance on Odin. Ten of Haus' students are playing junk for the first time, including a xylophone made of snowboards, as well as lampshades and Beck's Beer mini keg.

HAUS: Playing them and learning how to create beautiful sounds is actually a challenge, and I think that everybody learns and benefits. When they go back to classical percussion instruments it actually raises the bar on everything.

SHEA: Composer Donald Knaack learned that lesson a long time ago from the man who made art out of a urinal.

KNAACK: Marcel Duchamp said tools that are no good require more skill, and that's kind of become my mantra of the idea of taking tools that are no good, in order words taking junk, things that people have discarded and that's of no more value to me, and I find a whole new value for these materials in terms of making music that hopefully people will want to hear.

SHEA: Donald Knaack has never gone back to making music with traditional percussion instruments, preferring instead the sounds of the cracked and contorted objects the rest of us throw away. For NPR News this is Andrea Shea.


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