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Sunday July 3, 2011


NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- The larger-than-life musical instruments of the larger-than-life Gunnar Schonbeck -- the late, long-time Bennington College professor -- have found a temporary new home.

They have also found a big band of new admirers, including the members of the alt-rock band Wilco, the Bang on a Can All-stars, and a bunch of ordinary people making simple music; Gunnar would have probably enjoyed seeing the last group of musicians the most.

Several of Schonbeck’s instruments are currently on display, and occasionally available for public play, in the Sol Lewitt galleries at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). This past weekend, during the Solid Sound music festival, not only did everyday people take their turn at playing them, but so did Wilco’s percussionist Glenn Kotche and guitarist Nels Cline, and On Fillmore bassist Darin Gray.

Those same instruments -- maybe a few more, maybe a few less -- will continue on display at MASS MoCA and are expected to be central to a project by Bang on a Can All-stars member and guitarist Mark Stewart at the upcoming Bang on a Can Festival at the museum. Bang on a Can is a festival of "adventurous contemporary music," which includes, but is not exclusively, modern percussion and electronic music.

For Nicholas Brooke, currently a music teacher at Bennington College, among other things, seeing all the interest and interaction with Schonbeck’s instruments was sweet music.

"To see those five people in the room," Brooke said of seeing Kotche, Cline, Gray and two other musicians playing the instruments at Solid Sound, "I said ‘Oh my god.’ It was wonderful."

From an attic to MoCA

The path of Schonbeck’s instruments -- which include hanging metal objects struck with sticks, sort of post-industrial tubular bells, as well as an eight-foot-tall banjo -- from a dusty but historic attic at Bennington College to MASS MoCA is a six degrees of separation story.

Brooke was a student of Schonbeck’s at Bennington and, after a separation of two decades, Brooke began the process of bringing his teacher’s instruments back into the light in 2004. He had help from Schonbeck’s daughter, Katy Schonbeck, who also graduated from Bennington College and now teaches math at Mount Anthony Union High School, as well as two student interns.

"During college, I would come up to his house and he would hand me an instrument," said Brooke of Gunnar. "He was cranky -- not irascible; cranky is good. But I did not talk to him for 20 years and he passed."

Then Brooke found out the instruments were still at the college.

"They were stored in an attic at Bennington, a beautiful but currently unused space, the original dance studio," said Brooke. The real work on getting the instruments ready to come out began in 2006, when the two interns started working with him.

On a parallel track, Brooke knows Stewart professionally, having written a piece for Bang on a Can. Brooke has written pieces for a range of instruments -- oboe, rebab, piano, boombox, electroacoustics and spike fiddle.

Stewart, the musical director for Paul Simon, is a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-stars, and plays with the likes of Steve Reich, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne and James Taylor. He is on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music.

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Stewart is also known for performing with unusual instruments, so ...

"I talked to Mark, asked him, ‘Do you know of them?’ last year," said Brooke. "When he saw them, it was kind of like finding El Dorado (the mythical lost city of gold)."

The next thing Brooke knew, MASS MoCA was involved through Sue Killiam, the managing director for performing arts at the museum, whom Stewart has worked with.

"The said they would put some of them on exhibit, but I had no idea it would be in the Lewitt galleries," said Brooke. "They are perfect there."

About one third of the instruments were moved -- "one truck load and some in my car," said Brooke. "We were setting them up just days before" Solid Sound weekend began last week.

It was also through Stewart that Wilco’s Kotche and Gray (who work together in On Fillmore) became interested and decided to perform on the instruments during the weekend.

At a press conference with Wilco members on the first day of the festival, June 24, Kotche was asked why he was interested in Schonbeck’s instruments. Kotche said he was urged to take a look at them by Stewart and he was intrigued. Fellow Wilco member Jeff Tweedy broke in and added "How can you resist an eight-foot-tall banjo?"

The instruments -- some of them, anyway -- will also be used when the Bang on a Can Festival hits MASS MoCA July 13-30. "Mark is coming in for the last week and I understand he will be working with some people on new works using them," said Brooke.

What’s next for creations?

From there, Brooke is a little unsure as to the next stop for Schonbeck’s creations.

"I don’t want to speculate on an eventual home, but it is a little hard to do anything with them at Bennington (College), they take an enormous amount of space," said Brooke. "I am kind of hoping that MASS MoCA is smitten with them. ..."

With all the notice by big time musical talents, maybe what Brooke is most pleased with is to see Schonbeck’s creations being played by the likes of a 7-year-old kid and a 54-year-old newspaper arts editor, two of the many who also played impromptu pieces this weekend.

"They come in cardboard boxes and they were meant to played by the masses," said Brooke. "It was terrific for me, a total thrill for me, to see those people enthused about them."

Gunnar would probably have liked that, too.

Contact K.D. Norris at


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