Junkestra symphony is pure garbage

Composition played with instruments made of objects scavenged from San Francisco Dump will appear in a classical venue that belies its trashy origins.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

Nathaniel Stookey
Standing in front of an instrument made from old metal trays attached to clothing racks, composer Nathaniel Stookey addresses the audience at a past Junkestra concert. The junk orchestra will make its Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall debut on May 9. Flickr/Recology San Francisco, Art at the Dump

SAN FRANCISCO--With its sleek architectural lines, extensive acoustic setup, and cultured patrons in fancy garb, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall is generally considered an elegant place. On May 9, however, the stage at the home of the San Francisco Symphony will be covered in garbage.

Sewer pipes, deck railings, dresser drawers, bike wheels, saws, bathroom fixtures, and bird cages. Symphony musicians will bang, clang, tap, and thump on these and other bits of detritus as they perform Junkestra, a composition played with 30-plus percussive instruments made entirely of objects scavenged at the San Francisco Dump.


Sounds of Junkestra
Hear the third movement of Junkestra.

Download mp3 (3MB)

Davies "is definitely not used to seeing garbage onstage," says Nathaniel Stookey, the composer of Junkestra. "It doesn't go with the velvet seats."

Then again, musically savvy audience members expecting to hear something akin to toddlers beating pots and pans may come away surprised--Junkestra's odd acoustic mix sounds way more world music than garbage music. (Listen to the third movement in the audio player at right).

"I had no idea when I started writing this piece how beautiful the instruments could sound...I was very surprised by how rich the palette was," Stookey says. "It's really not just a bunch of banging. It sounds like an orchestra. It just sounds like a very strange, exotic orchestra."

Stookey composed Junkestra in 2007 while participating in an artist-in-residence program sponsored by San Francisco waste management company Recology. He collected his sonorous stash by heading onto city trash piles in a helmet, safety goggles, gloves, and steel-shank boots and, amid giant moving tractors, testing the musical potential of discarded objects. He then placed his findings in a shopping cart, which he pushed down city streets back to his studio.

Trashy instruments of Junkestra (photos)

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The 12-minute Junkestra, which is always performed with the same assemblage of instruments, has drawn listeners to San Francisco warehouses and public squares, and in 2008 helped mark the opening of the redesigned California Academy of Sciences building in the city's Golden Gate Park. At its May 9 Davies debut (PDF), the audience will hear Stravinsky's Octet for Wind Instruments, Prokofiev's String Quartet No. 2, and Ravel's Piano Trio alongside the strains of pans and oil drums.

The May performance will also mark the official release of a new Innova Records Junkestra CD conducted by Benjamin Shwartz and performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. The CD includes all three movements of Junkestra, plus a dance remix written by Stookey.

Have junk, can't travel
But while Junkestra appears to be expanding its reach, there's no doubt that an orchestra made of trash, creative and green as it may be, poses unique challenges. For one, the instruments lack the customized cases of their traditional counterparts, making it difficult to transport them to venues on the East Coast and elsewhere where Junkestra's presence has been requested.

For another, an instrument made from the wooden bars of a deck railing doesn't have the inherent staying power as, say, a sturdy wooden xylophone explicitly engineered and crafted to be hit over and over again. Because they weren't born to be instruments, Junkestra components are starting to show wear.

"These instruments are kind of one of a kind and I don't know whether I'll be able to do more than just approximate the sound of one or the other of them when they fall apart," says Stookey, himself a violin and viola player.

Nonetheless, while the Junkestra instruments may have come from the trash heap, they're not returning there--at least anytime soon.

"They are not going back to the dump," Stookey says. "They're definitely instruments now. They are precious to me. "