How Much is Enough? Thoughts from The Suitcase Junket
Photo by Joanna Chattman
EDITOR’S NOTE: As his new album, The End Is New, comes out today, Matt Lorenz of The Suitcase Junket writes about how he came to look — and listen — to things differently.
I remember the moment it happened. I was standing at the edge of the scrap metal dumpster having an epiphany. It wasn’t a new idea, by any means, but it was a revelation for me. Every bent and busted, torqued and twisted hunk of metal seemed to shine with an extra glow. They weren’t what they had been anymore. They had transformed, first from useful objects into waste at the dump, discarded because there was a newer, shinier model available, but then they morphed again from useless objects into musical instruments in my mind.
“Can I, um, take some of this stuff?” I asked the attendant, who shrugged in a way that clearly showed he didn’t care about anything at all that was about to happen. I crawled into that dumpster and came out a changed man. I’d seen the light. I became obsessed with collecting discarded sounds and assembling them into instruments.
I refer to them as discarded sounds because their sonic qualities were the main interest I had in them. In seeing them as sound-makers, they ceased to be their former selves, so as I prowled the piles at the transfer station, the chair leg was no longer a chair leg, it was a “CLONG-eeee” in the key of F with a C overtone. The holiday popcorn tin was now a “KROMP” and the copper pipe gone verdigris was a sweet and pure “Bing” hovering between G and A-flat.
I was studying at Hampshire College at the time, a place of self-designed majors and grade-less evaluations, so I was able to fit my “discoveries” neatly into the experimental composition work I was doing. At the same time, I was building on an adaptive drumming design that would allow a person without use of their legs to play the foot-pedals on a drum set. It was a functioning prototype, but overall the application of the concept was a failure. I only say this to show how charmingly humble I can be and to point out that failure is an important ingredient in process. This particular failure helped lead to the founding of The Suitcase Junket. (And all humility flies out the window with one shameless plug for the band.)
After college and some feckless adventuring, I was back home in Western Massachusetts working on farms and substitute teaching. Having a little space of my own brought me back to sound collecting. I made a sextet of one-string can-fiddles, a whole slew of wind instruments, and an army of junk-drums and percussion. As I recall, I couldn’t shut up about it. I was thrilled and wanted to share it with everybody. “Can you believe it? It’s just an old kitchen sink with a garden hose taped to it and it sounds exactly like a sousaphone!”
My enthusiasm somehow cross-pollinated with the substitute teaching I was doing, which is how I found myself on the edge of another dumpster one spring afternoon. This one was surrounded by children. They had come to a junk-instrument building workshop that I was teaching at the local library but none of them brought any garbage. Amateurs. It said BYOG on the poster, kids. Get with the program, am I right? Anyway, we lucked out because there happened to be a house renovation of some kind going on across the street. So I took those kids over there, jumped in the dumpster and started throwing stuff out to them. “Get the TV! Get the TV!” “We’re not making anything with the TV today, Jimmy. How about this floor lamp, though?” It’s a miracle none of the little buggers fell in.
Sharing my interest in repurposing the discarded objects of everyday life with the kids was a blast. They totally got it. They had the same feeling of wonder that I’d felt on the edge of that first dumpster. Not only were they able to make weird and loud sounds, which is objectively fun to do, it got them looking at and listening to everything around them in a different way.
I had to shift away from the scrap metal heap for these classes and toward plastic bottles and bags, garden hose, tin cans, pots and pans — more everyday stuff with fewer sharp edges and unknown pathogens present. It limited the scope and spectrum of sounds we could create, but in the end wound up being a more poignant lesson.
As these kids turned two-liter soda bottles into trumpets you could see them start to look at the world a little differently. A thing was no longer just the thing it appeared to be. It had the potential to change into something new and even to create music. I remember going to ask a second grader who was standing by the classroom door if he needed to use the bathroom or something, because he was just hovering there with his hand on the knob, but as I walked up to him I could hear that he was twisting it back and forth, listening to the metal mechanism of the door latch click and pop and creak, and he looked up at me with that wide-open wondering look of discovery in his eyes.
“Do you hear that? It’s beautiful.”
I did. It was.
A question: “How much is enough when we all want a little more?” This is a line from a song of mine. Yes, I’ve just quoted myself. It’s a good question, though. Hard one to answer, but it makes you think, and I’d say that’s the best kind of question there is. One of the things I came to discover in my obsessive pursuit of found sounds is that we throw away an embarrassing amount of stuff in this country. It’s absurd. Our culture encourages it and we get suckered into buying things we don’t need and then throwing away perfectly good stuff. I know I’m not going to significantly change the world or fix the flaws of consumerism by teaching a few workshops to 8-year-olds, but it felt good to see these kids realize, if only for an afternoon, that the world they’re living in is changeable not only through action, but also through observation and altering how we look at things.
As we face enormous, existential threats to our continued existence on this planet, we have to first recognize that we are the problem. We are losing from winning. Our wild success and proliferation as a species is the very thing that will lay us low. After we realize this hard truth, we must then turn to ourselves for solutions. Who better to fix the mess than the ones who created it? We need to change the way we see our problems and take extreme actions to fix them. We don’t have time to waste. Let’s go.
Here are a few of Lorenz’s discarded sound discoveries (click on any of the photos to enlarge and view as a slideshow):