Donald Knaack

by Kimberly Kenna

"Tools that are no good require more skill."
Marcel Duchamp
Donald Knaack (
Donald Knaack (

Envision an opera of mythological proportions accompanied by an orchestra of musicians "playing" materials from recycling bins! It's true and magical and inspiring all at once. I had the pleasure of watching "Odin," a full-length opera about that Nordic god, at NYU several years ago. Donald Knaack, aka the "Junkman," wrote the words and music, which was played by percussionists on discarded items such as frying pans, cardboard boxes and automobile brake drums. Donald Knaack's creative production inspired me by reminding me that great things can come from the most unlikely places.

Donald was "hooked" on percussion at a young age. He enjoyed playing the drums in 3rd grade. At about the same time he became more knowledgeable about recycling, thanks to his father who saved everything. One day when Donald came home from school with a stack of old notebooks, his dad asked if he could have them. Later Donald witnessed his father using the cardboard of one notebook to trace his car's carburetor in order to make a gasket for it. This was a defining moment for him. By the time Donald attended college, his love of music and appreciation for recycling became even more pronounced. He studied jazz and performed in a band. For one performance they needed a low C chime, which they did not have. He and his buddies fashioned one from the drive shaft of an old truck. Donald's future calling was becoming more evident.

John Cage, a musician who had worked with recycled instruments since the 1930's, had a huge impact on Donald Knaack. Donald was lucky to be able to work with Cage, and loved the challenge of creating exciting music from materials that were past their prime. Knaack dubbed his work "junk music.". Donald lives in Vermont and now works exclusively with recycled objects. In 1999 his CD was nominated for a Grammy. Twyla Tharp, the well-known choreographer, used music from his CD for some of her dance productions. Currently, a TV ad for Home Depot uses Knaack's music, composed from sounds from drills, saws, wrenches and hammers.

Realizing what a big impact adults had on him as a child, Donald gives back to his community by implementing a program in Vermont schools called HOP (Help Our Planet) that focuses on environmental citizenry as well as making music by working together as a team. He has created junk music sound sculptures made from recyclables. These "playstations" encourage people to come together and jam informally. Even perfect strangers find a way to interact as a result of these amazing sculptures.

Donald Knaack's contributions to society fall under several different themes---musical, environmental, artistic, theatrical. His unique productions inspire all kinds of people to ask questions and explore, to create and give back to others as he has done.

Page created on 8/15/2009 2:10:28 PM

Last edited 1/6/2017 7:10:58 PM

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