Donald Knaack
Photo by Rick Mattingly

If you have ever complained about the problems of hauling around and setting up a standard drumset, imagine the problems faced by a musician whose instruments are made entirely of glass. In order to do a performance, he must arrive at the hall a full day before the concert to set up such things as chimes made of glass tubing six feet long and three inches in diameter; a xylophone built out of glass rods; twelve different sets of wind chimes, ranging from glass marbles to large panes of glass eighteen inches long by eight inches wide; glass maracas; and various bottles and jars. Much of the time is spent just packing and unpacking the glass safely. Such a task requires patience, naturally, and dedication, surely.

The musician who possesses this necessary patience and dedication is percussionist Donald Knaack (pronounced Ka nak). He goes through all of this in order to perform a piece conceived by artist Marcel Duchamp entitled The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors. Even (Erratum Musical). The piece is as out of the ordinary as is its name, which was originally the title of a Duchamp painting. Duchamp conceived the idea of a musical composition which would be based on the principles of the Dada period in art, of which Duchamp was a founder. Duchamp’s instructions called for the piece to be played on a player piano, an electronic organ, or on any new musical instrument, or instruments, which “suppresses the virtuoso intermediary.” The idea was, anyone who understood the logic of the piece could perform it without having to practice technique on an instrument. Knaack chose to use “new” instruments, and because Duchamp’s original painting had been done on a large pane of glass, Don decided to use glass instruments in his realization of the piece.

Knaack spent about four months experimenting with glass sounds and ways to produce them before arriving at the combination of instruments he now uses to perform the piece. At one point during his experimentation, he had over 400 bottles in his living room. (His wife, Peggy, also possesses a great deal of patience.)

The first step in playing the piece is to “construct” the score. Duchamp instructs the performer to catalog each of the different sounds, or timbres, his instruments are capable of producing. Each timbre is then assigned a number and each number is written on a small ball. The balls are placed in a large funnel. A small toy train, consisting of five open cars, is then pulled under the funnel so that the balls drop into the cars. The balls drop at random, so each car ends up with a different number of balls. Each car represents a period, or movement, of the piece. The balls are then taken out of the cars and are mounted on a rack which has five levels, one for each car.

Donald Knaack kit
Photo by J&J Productions

The performer is free to choose the amount of time each movement takes. Knaack chose three minutes because the number three was important to Duchamp’s work. Don then divides three minutes by the number of balls in each level of the rack. For example, if t he first level contains twelve balls, he will play a sound every fifteen seconds during the first three-minute period. If the second level has only two balls, the second three-minute period will contain two sounds, played a minute and a half apart.

The score, therefore, consists of the rack of balls. The performer simply produces the sound whose number corresponds to the number on the ball, in the order the balls appear on the five levels of the rack. By using this procedure, which involves the element of chance, each realization of the piece is different. The final product is a blend of Duchamp, who conceived the idea, Knaack, who conceived the instrument, and chance, which determines the sequence of sounds.

In addition to the time period, Don has incorporated the number three into the music in another way. On his recording of the piece (Finnadar 9017). Knaack made three separate realizations and then, through overdubbing, superimposed them over one another. What is actually heard on the recording are three simultaneous realizations. In live performance, Knaack often plays the piece along with a tape on which he has recorded two previous realizations, so that he gets the same effect that is on the record.

When doing the piece before an audience, Knaack has slides of Duchamp’s art shown during the time he is preparing the score. He also has someone read a tribute to Duchamp, written by John Cage. The slides and the reading are timed to conclude as the music begins. The whole realization takes 22 minutes; seven to prepare the score and fifteen to play the piece.

Performing a work like this is not just a matter of learning notes and then playing them. Knaack spent a year and a half doing research on Duchamp’s work and philosophy before he recorded the piece. This gave him an understanding of the aesthetic principles behind the piece as well as ideas for ways to perform the work. It was his knowledge of Duchamp’s interest in glass and transparency that led to the instrument. It would have been possible to perform the work without this painstaking preparation, but the end result would not have been as true to the spirit of Duchamp.

This attitude carries into every project Knaack becomes involved with. He took the same kind of care when working on a piece by John Cage, entitled 27′ 10.554″ for a Percussionist. When Don first approached the piece, he already had a good understanding of what Cage and his music were all about. Knaack had read everything he could get his hands on about Cage and had attended seminars at which Cage spoke. He had also performed many of Cage’s works, sometimes under the supervision of the composer himself. This piece was also recorded, and appears on the same disc as the Duchamp work. Duchamp had been a strong influence on Cage, and Knaack felt that the two pieces complemented each other beautifully.

The music that Donald Knaack has chosen to play demands as much from him as from the composer. As a result, he is starting to do much of his own music, in addition to works by others. He wants to take his music into clubs where people go to listen to jazz, believing that there would be a bigger audience for this type of music if more people were exposed to it. Knaack has been experimenting with the latest electronic equipment and plans to include these in conjunction with the many instruments he already uses. Many of his pieces are multi-media, involving film, tape, and live performance. He reflected. “I don’t see a lack of ideas for a long time. It’s a chance to be truly creative in the ultimate sense. The only problem is cartage.”