The Maestro of Junk

If a classical composer can build an orchestra from garbage in San Francisco, what else can we do with our trash?


On a recent Friday morning, Nathaniel Stookey—a tall, angular 37-year-old classical music composer with a shock of blonde hair—strode across the sorting floor of the San Francisco city dump. Dressed in a day-glow yellow safety vest over a blue sweater, tired jeans, and canvas sneakers, Stookey was scouting that day’s eddy of junk for musical talent.

Given the hour, it was still low-tide, garbage-wise. But Stookey sounded upbeat. “There’s stuff here that makes noise,” he said. Skirting a colony of grubby refrigerators and battered microwaves, he aimed for a small pile of construction debris. Nearby sat a mound of old carpeting, rolled and heaped like sausages. Stookey grabbed a curl of metal flashing and flattened it against his thigh. “This you could bow, because it has an edge.”

A bit later he spied a round, plastic Igloo beverage cooler. “Things that are hollow are often good,” he said enthusiastically, picking it up and quickly dropping it. “Eck—It’s covered in some kind of oil. I’m not wearing gloves. It’s not so appealing.” Moving to a nearby pile, he fished out a length of metal-wire shelving. He raked a pipe across its ribs to produce a rhythmic click-click-click sound. “This is kind of the shopping cart principle. The good thing about a shopping cart, though, the little metal bars get smaller. So you have more scales,” he said by way of critique, tossing the rack back on its heap. Reflecting earlier on the dump and his musical quest, Stookey said, “It’s a little bit like the Internet. You know that there’s always something out there.”

Stookey is no ordinary scavenger. The trained violinist has served as a composer in residence with the Hallés Orchestra in Manchester, England, and the San Francisco Symphony. His compositions have been played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he has collaborated with artists as diverse as the rock band The Mars Volta and the children’s author Lemony Snicket. But the musician only honed his ear for garbage last summer during a four-month stint as an artist in residence at the city dump. Stookey was given a $1,950 monthly stipend, computer-equipped studio space, and 24-hour access to the city’s garbage by Norcal Waste Systems, Inc. The private company earns about $500 million a year hauling most of San Francisco’s and other Bay Area trash, recyclables, and compost. Stookey sorted through what residents value least—their trash—to create what many value most—art.

During the first weeks of his tenure, Stookey built 30 or so instruments from objects and material he scavenged from the dump. He spent the rest of his time writing “Junkestra,” a small orchestral piece for eight musicians and conductor.

Stookey’s ensemble includes a car bumper, a shopping cart, a bird cage, a bicycle wheel, five silver platters, an assortment of mixing bowls, two whirling vacuum hoses, and a 50-gallon oil drum that, depending on how it’s played—struck by mallets or bowed through its spigot—can rumble like a kettle drum or resonate like a cello. (Or, some might argue, moan like a sick whale.) Using a collection of cast-iron, copper, and galvanized metal pipes and scraps of wooden decking, Stookey also built several garbage glockenspiels and a garbage xylophone. His piece de resistance is undoubtedly the “Godzilla Phone” (shorthand for the “God of All Xylophones”), a Dr. Seussian contraption of seven, fat PVC pipes sprouting through the top and front of a drawer-less dresser-drawer. The instrument produces a loud, slightly reverberating boomp-boomp sound heavy on bass notes. And like the traditional bamboo instrument from Papua New Guinea that inspired it, the Godzilla Phone is also played by beating it with flip-flops.

San Francisco is the only city in the nation that regularly hires artists to work at its dump. Funded by a 2 cent levy on the monthly trash pickup fee paid by city residents, the program was founded in 1990 at the urging of Jo Hanson. Hanson, who died last year at age 89, was herself an artist and anti-garbage activist. She gained fame for sweeping the sidewalk of her then-marginal neighborhood and creating art from the selected litter. In a video interview recorded in 2006, Hanson said, “I’ve learned that knowledge doesn’t make people change. You have to feel something in order to care enough to change your behavior.”

When it comes to garbage, most of us could be a bit more emotional. More Americans recycle than vote. But we still throw away a staggering amount of trash—251 million tons of it in 2006, nearly 1,700 pounds for every man, woman, and child in America. The upside? We recycled 82 million tons, or one-third of that total. The downside is that each of us throws away 59 percent more trash today than we did almost 50 years ago. And there are 121 million more of us now than there were in 1960. The ocean of garbage is the runoff of our increasingly disposable, shopaholic society. What we chuck speaks volumes about what we consume upstream in raw materials, energy, and other resources. In the age of global warming, trash matters. Once garbage reaches a landfill, its burdens grow.

The E.P.A. estimates that food scraps, yard waste, and other organic materials comprise 60 percent of our national waste stream. Left to rot in landfills, these organics become a significant source of methane, a major greenhouse gas. (If composted, they would emit none.) When landfill linings breach, old paint, cleaning products, and other household toxins can leach into groundwater. Half the EPA Superfund sites are former landfills.

California and San Francisco in particular have declared war on garbage. State law requires California cities to divert 75 percent of their garbage from landfills by 2010. The most ardent garbage jihadists subscribe to the philosophy of zero waste. The notion challenges garbage as an increasingly obsolete concept: The materials that we currently throw away should be reused, recycled, or composted—or ultimately reengineered so that they can be reused, recycled, or composted. The idea is gaining traction around the country, with zero-waste resolutions popping up in the city halls of Portland, Seattle, and Burlington, Vermont, and in the boardrooms of outdoor retailer REI, Toyota, and Wal-Mart. Organizers of the 2012 London Olympics pledge to make the summer games the first zero-waste Olympics. And during a recent appearance on Larry King Live, no less an oracle than the actor Brad Pitt professed his love for zero waste.

San Francisco is to recycling what Silicon Valley is to high-tech. Which is to say many Zero Wasters leave their hearts, if not trash, there. City residents already recycle or compost 69 percent of the municipal solid waste that would otherwise go to landfills. This is partly due to strict rules on what does or does not constitute garbage. The city also has 11 tailored collection streams for recyclables and compost—the most in the country. Skyscrapers, for example, which are heavy on office paper, have their own recycling program. So do restaurants, which traffic mostly in compostable food scraps and soiled paper. Ditto construction sites, which are required to sort wood, metal, concrete, and Sheetrock into allotted dumpsters. Sunset Scavenger, a city-contracted Norcal Waste Systems subsidiary, is even looking at ways to convert dog poo, which tallies 4 percent of the city’s waste stream, into electricity.

Not for the regulatory-faint-of-heart, San Francisco has also outlawed Styrofoam containers in area restaurants. The same applies to plastic shopping bags at stores grossing more than $3 million a year. Sacks made from paper or biodegradable corn-based plastic are allowed. It is illegal in San Francisco to throw away batteries, florescent bulbs, or electronics. Batteries can be returned to any corner Walgreen’s; bulbs and electronics at drop-off centers. Likewise, food scraps and demolished Sheetrock are composted and sold to area vineyards as fertilizer. Old bicycles fished from the dump are refurbished by San Quentin inmates and donated to needy kids in the Tenderloin. And leftover paint is collected, re-blended, and given away—to city residents on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and, less frequently, to villages in Mexico, Central America, or the South Pacific.

Environmentally and socially responsible garbage doesn’t come cheap. But the city Board of Supervisors likes what it sees and has vowed to zero out all its garbage by 2020.

Most San Francisco residents care about their garbage. Stookey, for example, stumbled upon the Artist in Residence program after visiting the dump’s Web site for a very mundane reason. “I couldn’t figure out whether or not I needed to rinse a yogurt tub before I put it in my recycling bin or whether the waste of water would be worse than—Oh, I don’t know. I just didn’t know how to deal with it,” he said. I asked him if working at the dump changed the way he thought about garbage. “What I was using was genuine junk that I could see that no one else had a use for—a piece of bent pipe with a little concrete in the end. But other things that get thrown away, perfectly good things, were shocking to me,” he said. Once, he saw the contents of a house thrown off the back of a truck.

Music composed for trash doesn’t have to sound like garbage. One evening, I sat in on a rehearsal of Junkestra in a small, unheated warehouse next to the dump. Playing a rusty metal saw, Stookey and seven percussionists from the San Francisco Youth Orchestra were running through “Junkestra” under the direction of Benjamin Shwartz, the resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. I’d arrived about half an hour late. (Unheated warehouses next to dumps tend to all look the same in the dark.) So by the time I sat down, the players were well into the second and third movements of the 15-minute piece, working out kinks in tempo and transitions.

Shwartz, 27, stood in front of the group, which was arranged in two tight, concentric semi-circles. His score rested on an overturned 32-gallon compost bin and several broken saw horses. “Can I hear the alhambros at 135?” he asked, using the garbage cognoscenti’s term for five-gallon plastic water jugs.

“Junkestra” has a surprising range of notes for an orchestra made up of garbage. Structured in three movements—with a majestic opening movement, a melodic second movement, and a driving, percussive final movement—the piece features rich textures, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. The second movement is the most melodic of the three and evokes the layered, metallic sounds of Indonesian gamelan.

Stookey, who has the long, slack fingers of a violinist, sat stage right in what was presumably first chair for saw. During rehearsal, his bowed, rusty saw added a loopy vibrato to the movement—one I associated with the arrival 50s-era flying saucers or certain French art films. The third movement opens with the Lone Ranger-style clattering of two Heineken bottles and builds to a percussive finale. It held the kind of incremental, percussive tension that a director might use to score the foot-chase scene of a 70s spy thriller, I thought. While “Junkestra’s” performance was whimsical at times, the music remained, above all, serious. With my eyes closed, I could have easily forgotten that the musicians were playing trash.

“It’s a fantastic piece,” Shwartz told me later. “Nat just has this wonderful rhythmic sensibility, which allows the piece to be the kind of interaction between this found sound world of glassy, metallic, wooden instruments and this just driving, rhythmic urging forwardness.”

“I think the piece ended up, maybe just because of who I am, sounding like an orchestra piece,” Stookey told me earlier, “in that it’s very much driven by pitch, by melody and harmony and counterpoint, even though it’s counterpoint for mixing bowls.”

Stookey’s biography is also full of unexpected surprises. As a toddler, his lawyer father moved the family to Banca, a small Basque village in southern France, to work on a novel for several years. (“Everybody in San Francisco wants to write a novel,” Stookey said.) When the manuscript sold, the family returned to San Francisco, where Stookey attended a French-language private school and met his future wife, Jodi Dunmeyer, in third grade. Stookey studied violin from age four and later viola and harbored teenage fantasies of joining a rock band. But he never broke free from the orbit of classical music and he received his first commission from the San Francisco Symphony at age 17.

While exhilarating, the experience was also difficult and isolating, Stookey recalled, and it ultimately soured him on the world of professional classical music. Soon after, he dropped out of his music conservatory and drifted, waiting tables and painting houses. When he was 19 Stookey returned to France and to Banca, working under the table for the grounds keeper at a state-run hospital for disabled children. Stookey lived across the street from three retired nuns who befriended him. Knowing his passion for music, they sent him to a Basque musical monastery in Spain, setting him up with a job painting windows. “While living at the monastery I had started writing a piece,” Stookey said, noting that it was a turning point in his life. “I decided that writing music really was important to me, that I would figure out something.” Stookey stayed five months and applied to Berkeley.

In the years since, Stookey has supported himself principally as a composer, piecing together a modest income from residencies, commissions, appearances fees, and royalties. He has also worked briefly at a diner and a day-care-center and as a manservant. Stookey and his wife Jodi, an epidemiologist, don’t own a house and, friends say, probably won’t anytime soon. Yet he said: “I think of my life and most full-time artists’ lives as luxurious as life could possibly be.”

One of Stookey’s recent projects has been “The Composer is Dead,” a symphony for young people with a narration written by his friend and old high school classmate Daniel Handler. A novelist, Handler is also the hugely successful children’s author known as Lemony Snicket. “The Composer is Dead” was performed widely by orchestras large and small this year and will be released as an illustrated children’s book and CD in November 2008.

“He’s getting a great deal of recognition, and he’s becoming an extremely important composer,” Shwartz told me. Edwin Outwater, a San Francisco Symphony alum who now leads the Kitchner Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, Canada, conducted the “Composer’s” debut performance and its recording. Outwater said he admires Stookey’s work, which he describes as earthy and organic. “He writes about real things, like the birth of his children and sex.”

Handler also counts himself among the list of Stookey’s musical admirers. He confessed that he thinks of Stookey as a role-model father to his two young children, Milton and Gertrude. “One of the things they do,” Handler said, “is they go on bus adventures, which means they walk down to the corner where they can catch a bus and they get on it. They get off the bus whenever the kids say, and they get on any other bus, and they kind of continue throughout the afternoon going all over the city. It’s a great thing to do with children, and it is something I would never have thought of myself.”

Handler, a music aficionado, sees parallels in the way Stookey composes: “He takes what would otherwise be an ordinary situation, and he kind of riffs on it until it’s far more interesting. So certainly a bus adventure is far more interesting than taking the bus. A ‘Junkestra’ piece is far more interesting than you think. I mean, when I hear about a composer working at the dump, I automatically think about five angry Germans banging on shit. And there’s no trace of that in ‘Junkestra,’ and that’s what makes it interesting.”

Listening to “Junkestra” that evening in the warehouse, I would have been inclined to agree. After about an hour, the rehearsal broke up, with some players heading to Mandarin Palace, a local restaurant, for spicy eggplant. I arranged to meet Stookey back at the dump the following morning.

Fourteen hours later, he wore the same ragged jeans. Joining him at the warehouse that morning were Paul Fresina and several guys from the dump. Fresina holds one of those only-in-San-Francisco jobs. Working for the Norcal Waste Systems subsidiary S.F. Disposal & Recycling, Fresina splits his time as the manager of the dump’s Household Hazardous Waste Program and director of its Artist in Residence program. Fresina has worked at the dump since 2000, and that morning he told me something that stuck: “I no longer say what I used to say when I first started working here: ‘I can’t believe somebody threw that away.’”

Over the next hour or so, the dump crew helped Stookey load his junkestra into a large white truck to drive it downtown to the 920-seat Herbst Theater, the grand Beaux Arts concert space across from city hall. (Stookey would appear at the theater that evening, showered and dressed in formal wear, to perform “Junkestra” before a near sell-out crowd.) Among the crew that morning was Ousmane Sy. Sy, I was told, planned to return to his hometown of Segou, Mali, one day to run for state senator. Sy already showed keen political sense. Through his job at the dump, he helped arrange the shipment of 35,000 gallons of free paint, unwanted in San Francisco, to his village in Africa.

After the truck was loaded, Stookey took me on a brief tour of the dump. Inside a cavernous metal-sided building that housed the dump’s public disposal area we met Butch, a burly guy wearing a reddish goatee and a dark knit cap.

“Hey Butch!,” Stookey said, shouting over the diesel rumble of a bucket loader.

“What’s going on bud?” Butch replied.

The public disposal area is where people come to unload their junk after cleaning out their basements. Likewise for small contractors tearing out old kitchens and bathrooms. Dump workers comb through the debris, pulling out hazardous, reusable, and recyclable materials—from old appliances to mattresses. The rest gets bulldozed into a dumpster and trucked to a landfill 60 miles away. Butch’s job is to fish out usable items for Goodwill. Gregarious, charming in his way, Butch is no Brad Pitt. But to spend a few minutes with Butch is to see where our garbage troubles lie. Basically, it’s us.

Standing there, Butch brandished an expensive-looking Black & Decker hedge trimmer he rescued from the floor. He pulled the trigger. It whirred to life.

“Want it?” he offered.

Moments later, he picked up a black and yellow tile cutter. Butch walked it over to a nearby wall, plugged it in, and turned the machine on. It worked.

Why would anyone throw those things away, I wondered?

As Stookey walked toward the exit, we ran into a middle-aged Latino man in dingy work clothes. A dump employee, he was standing by a dozen or so ancient refrigerators. Part of his job was to safely drain the refrigerant from the old appliances before disposing of them. “This is Rafael,” Stookey said by way of introduction, breaking into a smile. “Rafael listens to Brahms in his workshop.”

That night at the Herbst Theater, the San Francisco audience, nearly a thousand strong, gave Stookey and his fellow “Junkestra” players a standing ovation. The stage was resplendent with an orchestra of garbage. Taking a curtain call, Stookey announced that the percussionists would play the third movement of “Junkestra” as an encore. Someone in the audience shouted back, “Play the whole thing.” And in the spirit of recycling, Stookey and his fellow musicians did.

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