Some instrument-makers scour the world for the raw materials of their art: exotic rosewood from Brazil, paua shell from New Zealand, fossilized mammoth ivory from Alaska. In an abstract sense, the goods that Paul Snider works with are no less precious, but they come from considerably closer to hand. The alleyways of Kitsilano, the wrecking yards of Mitchell Island, and the crevices of Craigslist are where Snider sources what he’s used to build his garbage-can cello, car-hood timpani, and wheelbarrow bass—all of which can be heard in his upcoming production The Music of Junk!.
“I can’t even drive by something sitting on the side of the road without having a really close look at it, just in case there’s something in there that I could build an instrument with,” the actor, songwriter, and former software engineer explains, on the line from his Vancouver home.
“One of my favourites, I’d say, is the Sleeping Harp, which is an old bed frame that I strung with strings,” he continues, adding that he found its skeleton in the hoarder’s free-for-all that is Tsawwassen’s springtime “big garbage day”. “I knew that I wanted to make some sort of a bed-frame harp; I thought that the concept would be really nice, especially if the sound was soft and sleepy. So this one was just sitting there, calling out to me. I brought it home and put a little cross-brace in so that the strings could be shorter for the different notes—and then as I tightened the strings the whole thing started to collapse. So I added some wooden supports, but it wouldn’t stay in tune until I added two metal braces and got it to the point to where I could tune it and have it stay in tune.”
Masterpieces of the luthier’s art, Snider’s instruments are not. Still, that’s hardly the point. In The Music of Junk!, he wants to show that what we’d normally call junk can make beautiful music—and that the throwaway ethos of the modern world is destructive to both the environment and the human spirit. He’d been toying with the idea of recycled art for some time, but the sonic dimension didn’t really kick in until he found himself teaching music, as a volunteer, in Kenya.
“The kids were beating on their desks with their hands, and there was this percussive sound from the old wooden desks that they were using,” he relates. “So it was on that trip that I thought ‘Wow, I wonder whether I could get serious about trying to put together an orchestra of instruments built from nonmusical sources?’ They’re big recyclers there as well, so I thought ‘How about using junk, things that have been discarded? That would be a great technological challenge—and a great reminder to people, when they see all this stuff on-stage, that recycling’s important.’
“As well,” he adds, “it would be a way for me to get some of my music out there and be able to tailor the music to these sounds, as opposed to writing it for traditional orchestra or something like that.”
An earlier iteration of The Music of Junk! was a hit at the 2014 Fringe, but for this version Snider says he’s scaled back the narrative element to focus instead on his bouncy yet somewhat ramshackle show tunes, as delivered by a cast of 12. Rather than present a lecture with musical accompaniment, he’s decided to let the songs speak for themselves while listeners’ imaginations fill in the rest.
“If you can imagine a better world,” he says, “that’s the first step to getting there.”
The Music of Junk! runs at the Waterfront Theatre from Wednesday to Sunday (November 18 to 22).