Experimental musical instruments (aka custom-made, homemade, invented, DIY instruments etc.) have a long and varied history. Many basic acoustic instruments were likely invented out of necessity (i.e. no other instruments were available) – such as the cajon, the washtub or tea-chest bass, the jug, and the washboard. Others would have been created from artistic experimentation, and are either entirely new creations (e.g. the theremin, feedback organ, hydraulophone), recreations of conventional instruments (e.g. cigar box guitars), or modifications of conventional instruments (e.g. prepared piano). For some musicians/groups and even entire genres, unusual and experimental instruments are integral to their practice, e.g. groups like From Scratch and Neptune, and genres like skiffle.
Arguably all musical instruments, even today’s bog-standard conventional ones, originated from some creative experimentation with musical instrument craft, though potentially with some professional training and tools to help (Adolph Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, is a case in point).
While experimental musical instruments were probably rarely (if ever) created for an environmentalist kaupapa, the global ecological crises we now face gives this creative practice a new purpose. Today, continuing to create instruments can still serve both original purposes – artistic exploration and necessity. Only this time the necessity is ecological, not economic.
The rubbish-to-instruments trend is perhaps best known through the documentary Landfill Harmonic. The film follows a successful collaboration between a music school and the community of Cateura, who live at, and derive their income from, the largest landfill in Paraguay. Orchestral instruments were created from materials found in the landfill, enabling the youth to learn to play classical music and eventually tour the world (oops) with their Recycled Orchestra. Although environmentalism isn’t really the point, the film demonstrates the potential ‘waste’ holds as both a material and social resource.