Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

If you ever find someone going through your garbage with a tuning fork, feel free to introduce yourself to Skip LaPlante. In the musical subculture of homemade instruments, few have been made so much noise, or been quite so intrepid, as LaPlante’s Music for Homemade Instruments, which he formed with Carole Weber in the mid-’70s.

“What I love about instrument building is that I have the freedom to go anywhere and do anything,” says LaPlante. This had come, he says, after four years of childhood piano lessons and two years of cello before settling down to the double bass.

As a student at Princeton, though, he first started “fooling with percussion” as a result of working with dancers. “There was this farm just north of Princeton where they had about 72 tea saucers and about 10 plates,” he recalls excitedly, “and they were all tuned differently.”

But it was later in Manhattan, where he came in 1975 to be a rock and roll bassist, that LaPlante both discovered New York’s “trash culture” and got his first garbage gig in a sculpture gallery. Soon everything on the street was fair game.

“Certainly Harry Partch was there as an influence,” he says. “In fact, Partch had died the year before I got started. I had read Genesis of a Music in 1975, and I always had questions. I never bought into Partch’s esthetic completely.”

Also for influences, there was Indonesia, where gamelan had provided more than a little inspiration. LaPlante and his wife Denna Burton spent two years in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, with her studying Javanese dance and him learning to make gongs.

Percussion may rule the homemade instrument world, but LaPlante’s ensemble also includes a mix of homemade strings, winds and horns. Music for Homemade Instruments once even featured a piece of music scored for three pieces of dry ice spinning in frying pans and melting from a major triad into a minor. Just about any style of music that can be composed has been adapted to the trash bin.

Besides his own annual series, which he usually runs over the course of a weekend in late spring or early summer, the group has also performed at Lincoln Center’s Out-of-Doors Festival and the American Festival of Microtonal Music.

And most recently, LaPlante has found an unlikely new home in the New York City Public Schools. “It’s amazing,” he exclaims, “what you can teach about physics through these instruments.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox