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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Toscanini of Trash

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Joe Richmond profiles Skip LaPlante, a musician who salvages everyday objects from dumpsters and transforms them into instruments. From McDonald's-straw oboe reeds to the resonant qualities of styrofoam containers, LaPlante's creations combine unique sounds and an environmental message.


CURWOOD: Caribbean islanders long ago discovered that junk can sound good. They've been turning discarded oil drums into the instruments of steel bands for decades. But they aren't the only ones to make music out of waste.

(Chimes and percussion)

CURWOOD: This is the sound of trash New York style, conducted by a Princeton-educated composer and instrument maker in lower Manhattan. Producer Joe Richman has this profile, part of our series this summer of sound portraits from New York City.

(Traffic sounds)

RICHMAN: In New York City it's not that strange to see someone rummaging through the garbage, but it is a little weird if they bang on the trash first to see if it's worth taking.

LA PLANTE: You've got some kind of a cardboard tube here. Hmm (taps the tube) - the tube's okay but the cap seems to be the wrong shape.

RICHMAN: About once a day Skip La Plante goes foraging around lower Manhattan where he lives. Past the sweat shops in Chinatown, the offices and art galleries of Soho, and the construction sites further East, it's a mecca for good garbage, says La Plante.

LA PLANTE: I want to see what's in this dumpster. Looks like we've got some wood packing crates. Um. You've got some nice sheets of quarter-inch particle board. Um, we could use those as resonators for stuff....

RICHMAN: La Plante is a tall man with a ponytail and a graying beard. Pretty much every time he walks out the door with his backpack, he can find something useful. He says it's sort of like being an urban Bushman.

LA PLANTE: Well, the Bushmen have this great approach to food, where they know that they can eat any of about 100 things, walking around in the desert, and they have no clue as to what they're going to find next. So they just, you know, wherever they go, whatever they find, it's all cool, they know it'll be there.

(Honking horns)

RICHMAN: Skip La Plante studied music composition at Princeton University in the '70s. A year after graduating, he was living on a farm in New Jersey. One day he discovered a barn full of old farm equipment, kitchen appliances and other junk, and he started banging on it. Two decades later, La Plante has about 200 instruments, all stored in his downtown loft, and all made out of trash.

(Percussive music)

RICHMAN: Instruments like the FoJar, four juice jars that are played with an old beach flip flop. There's also a 20-gallon plastic drum that used to be full of air conditioning chemicals. There's a CaFooBa, which stands for Cat Food Can Marimba. The Boweryphones are made from Thunderbird wine bottles. The Styro Cello is an old wire stretched between a broom handle and a beer cooler. And stacked on shelves up to the ceiling are instruments made out of soda cans, broiler pans, no parking signs, cole slaw containers, traffic cones, and a kitchen sink. One of La Plante's most recent experiment is called a Straw Bassoon. It's a yard-long PVC pipe with a funnel on one end, and on the other there's a straw cut like a double reed. By the way, McDonald's, according to La Plante, makes the best straws.

(Music through the straw reed)

LA PLANTE: Anyway. You can hear why I, at this point, tend to let the wind players in the band play the wind instruments.

RICHMAN: Yes. In La Plante's band, straws are considered wind instruments. The group, called Music for Homemade Instruments, was formed 20 years ago. There are currently 7 members. They do concerts at schools, they've toured the US, and their work has been commissioned for a number of theater and dance projects.

LA PLANTE: People come to me when they've got a problem that nobody else can solve. You know, so if like you need music to suggest that you're in a bar in 1939, someplace in Texas, you don't bother me. Because my instruments won't do that comfortably. On the other hand, if you need, like, somebody to write music to suggest that you're on another planet 800 years in the future, and there's like, aliens who are, like, 4 inches long and purple (laughs) a bunch of people, okay well we're in the right ballpark here.

RICHMAN: Making new and different sound in music is the primary reason Skip La Plante does what he does. Of course, there's an environmental message as well. But La Plante is a unique kind of environmentalist. He is the type who loves styrofoam. Everything from coffee cups to big industrial-size styrofoam boxes. La Plante takes one down from the shelf and lays a bunch of short pipes across the top.


LA PLANTE: And this is the sound of one of those pipes on the rug, for comparison.

RICHMAN: That's great. So styrofoam is actually a great resonator.

LA PLANTE: It's wonderful. Yeah, we live slightly in terror, because as the, uh, sort of the American community, industrial community becomes a little more environmentally aware, styrofoam is one of these bad materials, and people are finding all sorts of ways to package things without using the styrofoam. Which in a sense is great. In another sense it's going to leave us without resonators in a while. So we've got to hoard these things. (Laughs)

RICHMAN: La Plante says that if more people looked at garbage as a resource, there would be less of a garbage problem. Making musical instruments out of styrofoam may not fix the environment, says La Plante, but it doesn't hurt, either.

LA PLANTE: We're not going to save the world with it, 'cause it's still styrofoam and it's still got all that nasty gas in it, and sooner or later it's gonna break down and screw up the ozone some more when that gas gets out. But before it does we can have some fun with it. You know, so I guess all we're doing is adding a layer of, another layer of usefulness to this stuff, before it finally goes to trash.

RICHMAN: Trash is ours, says La Plante, and we should make with it what we can. One thing La Plante and the members of the band Music for Homemade Instruments have produced with their garbage is a tape of original compositions. It's called A Decade of Debris. For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Richman in New York.



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