Donald Knaack, (“The Junkman”), graduated from the University of Louisville School of Music with a Bachelor Degree in Music Education and the Manhattan School of Music with a Masters in Music, and followed the road of a traditional percussionist: a stint in the US Military Academy Band at West Point, performing in the Louisville Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic, and as a studio musician in Hollywood. He was also an artist-in-residence at the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The Center at Buffalo was a mecca for experimental music, and it was there that Knaak returned to his childhood love of pots, pans and junk. At the Center, he met and subsequently worked with the late composer John Cage. “Cage was composing for junk and found objects in the late 1930s and 1940s. Coming from a classical background, I found the concept of using junk and found objects to be exciting, creative and challenging,” said Knaack.
His first solo album on Atlantic-Finnadar was the first proof of that work – using simple objects to create complex and fascinating music. For that album Knaack constructed a complete set of “instruments” from glass – over 80 sounds, from wind chimes to xylophones – using everything from microscope slides to wine bottles to custom-made glass spheres with marbles inside that made a sound like the ocean tide when the sphere was rotated.
Knaack went on to record all of the John Cage Constructions for percussion for Tomato Records. By this time he had begun touring worldwide with his solo percussion concerts in which junk materials were a vital part. Tin cans, automobile brake drums, saw blades, an old computer, highway signs, oil cans, wine bottles, radiator parts, window shutters, clay flower pots, scrap metal and wood are some of the 100+ pieces of junk he uses to create Junk Music. In 1998 his CD, entitled “Junk Music,” was a finalist for a GRAMMY nomination in the Best Classical composition category. Selections from that CD were also used by choreographer Twyla Tharp for her new work for the American Ballet Theater. The summer of 2000 was the premiere of Knaack’s new work for Tharp, “Surfer at the River Styx,” a joint commission from the Kennedy Center and the American Dance Festival. The work is currently a part of the world-wide touring repertoire of the Twyla Tharp Dance.