Streams

New York Philharmonic Turns Junked Cars to High Art

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Found sound is a staple of some experimental music that ends up in clubs and galleries, and other alternative spaces. But on a recent Friday, Magnus Lindberg, the New York Philharmonic's composer in residence, and several percussionists, were scouring a salvage yard on Staten Island for local junk that will be played at Avery Fisher Hall in October.

There were rusty coils. Plastic radiator covers caked in grime. Empty oxygen canisters. Ribbed hub cap rims, and a whole trailer full of old gas tanks. 

Standing in the shadow of the Bayonne Bridge, with batons in hand, Lindberg and other members tested the percussive quality of anything that looked like it might sound good.

Lindberg, the Finnish-born composer, wrote the piece Kraft while in Germany and insists on collecting local junk in each city he performs it in. He plays piano in the piece and has performed it over 20 times, but never in New York.

Striding over to a steel dumpster he spots a rectangular, rusted piece of unidentifiable metal. He wipes his brow and flips his floppy blond hair out of his face.

"One of the purposes of this trip is to find metallic sounds that don’t always have that resonant sound," Lindberg says tapping a dull piece of metal.  

Lindberg can hardly hold a conversation, distracted by the variety of things to bang on.

Markus Rhoten, the Philharmonic's principal timpanist, is impressed with the variety of sounds the scrap produces.

“It’s cool, you don’t know what it’s actually going to sound like until you strike it. There’s a great variety of sounds there that provides everything we need for this piece. And it’s good Magnus is here, because he knows what he wants, what he’s looking for.”

Within 30 minutes Lindberg had found a key item for the piece.

“This could really be the big one in the center,” Lindberg says. He calls over Christopher Lamb, the Philharmonic's principal percussionist, to look at a five-foot tall oxygen tank. Batons thwack the bottom, the middle and the round top.

"Yeah, I would take that," Lamb says quickly, before moving on to other parts of the yard.

After an hour, the team has collected rusty coils, radiator covers, a red panel from a sewer cleaning truck, several ribbed hub cap rims and of course, the oxygen tank.

But how does this pile of scrap become performance-grade instruments?

That’s the job of Lou Mannarino. He’s the audio engineer. He lives nearby and actually visited the Edkins Salvage yard with his father when he was six-years-old. He's produced shows for artists ranging from Bon Jovi to Jay-Z. He says he's used to turning trash into art, “just not with the Philharmonic,” he says laughing.

Mannarino has just under two weeks to prepare the rusty junk and he’s concerned about two things.

“I’m worried about the musicians complaining about what it smells like, that’s the first thing. Second, if something generates too much sound it can sometimes put the ears into crisis; I call it ear fatigue and it takes people time to clear it out.”

The scrap yard, a second-generation family business, has had artists combing their scrap for projects in the past, but never anyone as prestigious as the New York Philharmonic. Owner Ben DiCostanzo, 46, agreed to donate the pile of goods, but is hoping for free tickets to the performance.

Lindberg will be taking Kraft to France next June, where he says the junkyards aren’t nearly as good.

 

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