Photo: Petri Kuljuntausta

THE SOUND OF TRASH: From Instrument Building Project to Accompany Film Screening


At the beginning of the Sonic Improvisation for Moving Image project we set three goals, 1) the musicians design a new sound instrument from trash, found objects, or other everyday material, 2) assemble an orchestra where the musicians use the instruments they have built, 3) the orchestra prepares the accompaniment for the film and gives a cinema concert.

The starting point was to explore the possibilities of non-musical objects. We started our work by studying experimental instruments built by others, by viewing video and construction videos, listening to recordings and getting to know the construction instructions for do-it-yourself instruments. I gave the musicians source material, such as Bart Hopkin's instruction books and CDs and his Experimental Musical Instruments magazines. I introduced my sound installations, Tero Vänttinen presented his own instruments and activities of Cleaning Women group.

The grouping of instruments in instrument families can take place, for example, based on the classical classification of Curt Sachs (extended with electronic instruments).

1. Idiophones, sound is produced by way of the instrument itself vibrating (without membranes or strings).

2. Membranophones, sound is produced by way of a vibrating membrane (like drums).

3. Chordophones, sound is produced by the vibration of a string.

4. Aerophones, the vibrating air itself is the primary cause of sound (like wind instruments and reeds).

5. Electrophones, the sound is generated by electrical means.


Each member could start building the instrument without external pressures and restrictions. We didn't aim for a specific musical instrument (like instrument families in above classification by Curt Sachs), everyone was free to develop their own ideas. We were confident that the whole thing would work even if similar instruments were constructed.

The construction progressed at different stages, some started from scratch without a prior plan, others had an idea of ​​what they were aiming for. The first experiments with trash and raw materials often weren’t fruitful and were left aside. The development of these objects began to function as musical instruments, offering the potential to develop music and sound with them.

During the autumn, we met at least once a week for rehearsals, sometimes twice. At the rehearsals, each musician presented how their work was progressing, and what their ideas and solutions in building the instrument were. During the sessions, everyone got a good picture of where the others were going. Ideas and experiences were exchanged. Somebody always could give a tip or knew how a problem could be solved. When the instruments were close to finished, we started playing together as a group.

At the beginning of the project, we also went through various microphones and microphone techniques to amplify and modify the sound of objects. I ordered low-cost but good sounding contact microphones, guitar microphones, lavalier microphones, guitar strings, potentiometers, piezo elements (to solder own microphones), etc. For many, it was a surprise how the silent or modest acoustic sound of an instrument changed dramatically when it was amplified and played through the PA. In particular, the use of a simple self-built contact microphone opened a whole new sound world as the contact microphone takes the sound directly from the body of the instrument. The sound transmitted by the contact microphone is, in a sense, intimate, as what we hear is the vibration of the instrument itself. But when the sound is amplified, we’ll hear hidden characters of the sound, and the possibilities for further sound processing are limitless. We tried different effect devices and guitar pedals for sound processing of junk instruments. A few musicians wanted to feed their sound through the computer’s effects processors.

In the case of quite a few junk instruments, no other processing was needed than the sound of the instrument was amplified, and a little echo or delay effect was added. A few wanted to add a little more effected sound, but just occasionally in some places. The fact that for many musicians only the amplified sound of the junk instrument was the final sound, told us how interesting the sound of the instrument was in itself.

At the time of the rehearsals, the musicians are focused on their own instrument and do not necessarily perceive others playing every detail, but by listening to the recordings each got a good picture of the whole. I recorded all our rehearsals and uploaded the audio files in the cloud for others to download. Performances and recordings were reflected on in rehearsals.

As the main working theme of our project was 'Sonic Improvisation for Moving Image', we continued the work with a moving image. After a few sound-only sessions, we started to rehearse with short film clips to get in touch with the symbiosis of sound and image. After that we moved to work with the episodes of the actual film, ‘Cityscapes’, I made for the concert.

During the rehearsals, we stopped after the performance to talk collectively. We commented what section worked well, which was not successful, or where we would draw attention in the future. The chemistry between the musicians was naturally good. They responded nicely to each other's playing, quickly adapted to different situations and responded to the changing rhythms and events of the film. We agreed in which film section each one is in turn a soloist and the others are supporting. We agreed that the change in the sound texture must happen when the film section ends (between the sections was 10 second long black). The change does not have to be dramatic. With this decision, we prevent that we will not repeat same material or stay in the same wonderful sound world for too long. And we agreed at what point we make the climax.

For the film ‘Cityscapes’, I compiled a collection of archive films from the Finnish Broadcasting Company, which included documentary film material from Helsinki from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1960s. I edited the film clips in chronological order and very short clips I combined together. The whole was divided into scenes ranging from three to 10 minutes. Between each scene was 10 seconds black. The duration of the ‘Cityscapes’ was about an hour. For the last rehearsals and concert, I made a paper entitled ‘The Scenes of Cityscapes’, as the musicians needed this to help to see and remember the order of the clips and structure of the scenes during the performance.

As the concert day approached, the roles of the players with their instruments began to settle. Since it was about improvisation, we didn't begin to repeat the solutions created in the rehearsals. We were relying on the experience gained during the training and the group play. We didn't make score or notes for the concert. We deliberately avoided that we started repeating ourselves and fixed the goal that every performance would have a unique sound world and the result would be a fresh work. Before the concert we had two long rehearse days to finally play the film through and the general rehearsal was at the theatre just before the concert. At the concert, I projected the film, and Tero Vänttinen did the sound mixing.



The Instruments of the Helsinki Junk Orchestra

Pavel Rotts. The Sound Table is a sound manipulation tool that received the sounds of other instruments from the main mixer. The table distributed the sounds from the small speakers on the table and the sound pressure got the nuts, peas and other small objects on top of the speaker cones to bounce and produce clinking sounds. In addition, the player modified the sounds by placing metal cans and boiler caps on top of the speakers and, by moving, produced a "wah-wah" effect (such as a wah-wah sound produced with sordino or a frequency sweep with equalizer). What the audience heard was in fact a mix of two sounds, the original sound of the instrument, and its altered sound coming from the Sound Table.

Ignacio Lopez. Different metal pieces hanging from the rack are played with wooden sticks. The table has two long metal springs attached to a wooden frame. In addition, one of the instruments is an eastern musical instrument found in a flea market. All objects have a contact microphone. The sounds of the instruments can also be processed by the effect devices shown in the picture.

Michiel Dondeyne. Metallic pin-shelf (from a refrigerator) and badminton racks with contact microphones. The microphones in the instruments are connected to the sound card of the computer and further sound processing was made with the audio software. In addition, a modified children's toy was used to produce speech fragments (the instrument is not in the picture).

Zane Perkone. The metal storage box has several rubber bands, they are tuned to different tones so that the player can produce melodies. Rhythmic material can be produced by playing rubber bands with chopsticks. The sound of the instrument goes to the input of self-built sound processor (wooden box) and for further processing.

Atte Kantonen. Metal bars, strings, and metal cans are attached to the wooden frame of the instrument. These can be played by hitting a hand, drumming with a stick or playing with a violin bow. There is a KaossPad effect device inside the instrument which could be used for sound processing, after that the sound goes to the main mixer. The main effects were spatial and delay effects.

Teo Tornberg. Two metal detectors and a long plastic tube (not shown in the picture). The metal detectors produce an electronic alarm sound when you hold metal objects near them. From the microphone, sound goes to the computer and sound out as processed. The long plastic tube, in turn, was used as an aerophone. It produces a trumpet-like (low register) sound that also went through the microphone to the computer's audio software and played out amplified.