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Making Instruments Out of Car Parts

A 1982 Honda Accord has never sounded better.
March 6, 2014, 8:00pm

Recycle 80% of a 1982 Honda Accord and you get the Car Music Project, a band which plays instruments sourced from car parts.

Created by New Jersey Emmy Award-winning composer, sound designer, and musician Bill Milbrodt, there are 65 instruments in the band, from the Strutbone made from the car’s shock absorbers to the Tube Flute, which is made from air conditioner tubing. There is also a wheel rim drum kit, a double bass made from a bumper with a windscreen wiper bow and the Exhaustaphone made from the rackety old muffler.


The idea came about when Milbrodt’s Accord was nearly dead. It had putted along after 200,000 miles with little maintenance, blowing smoke, dripping oil and “making more noise than a cement mixer.” Transforming the car into musical instruments took 18 months, with the help of metal sculptor Ray Faunce III.

DIY instruments are a long-held tradition in experimental music, from John Cage piano strings stuffed with objects, or more recently, like Neptune, the scrap metal band. But, we’ve never seen anything quite like this before. Milbrodt’s masterpiece is auto audio at its best, if not in its metallic tone than at least for its recycling powers. He talks to us about the Car Music Project, how it all began at the Village Vanguard in the 1970s and what to do when there’s too many fumes.

Noisey: What have you been up to these days, aside from driving a new car?

Bill Milbrodt:

I am writing, producing, and directing videos with a particular interest in special visual effects and compositing. Composing a film or video is the same as composing music in that it involves melody (storyline), harmony (colors), rhythm (editing), and, of course, silence.

Just like the Car Music Project, "happy accidents" play a role in what I do. With the CMP, those happy accidents involved occasional wrong notes due to imperfections in the car-part instruments; and the band members had to adapt to them by making them a part of the performance and composition.


In film/video, happy accidents can occur in a myriad of ways: An actor does something in performance that is unplanned, but results in an interesting new way to interpret a part of the story; when color-correcting, a push in the wrong direction can reveal a whole new palette of possibilities for a scene's look; and in editing a rough cut, a shot that's trimmed too short (or left too long) can open a window to new contours in the drama of the composition. You can compare happy accidents to mispronounced words or, better yet, to differences in dialects in language. There's a place for wrong notes. They can lead to new ideas and then be woven into the overall composition. That's why I believe that wrong notes have rights, too. They represent a minority that should have the same basic rights as any other note.

Is it true this was all inspired by the likes of avant-garde superstars like John Cage and Frank Zappa?
Zappa was a big part of the equation, as were Duke Ellington and Gil Evans—and to some extent, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. When I was in college in New York City, I spent my Monday nights on the stairs of the Village Vanguard—in the rain, sleet, snow, and on warm summer nights—sneaking down the stairs to the doorway to listen and watch. Mondaynight was Big Band Night featuring the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. When they were out of town, the Gil Evans Orchestra took their slot. Evans was as unique as Zappa. He was a great instrumental storyteller with a particular focus on sonic colors. This was in the 1970s. I got to hear a horn section with Howard Johnson playing tuba, prominently, on the bottom. And buzzing over the top of that horn section was David Horowitz's Moog. In those days, you could only hear both orchestrated and improvised sonic color like that from Gil Evans and Frank Zappa. Karlheinz Stockhausen was doing orchestrated stuff like that, but he was much more formal, and a bit less accessible. I dug into the music of Cage, Varese, Stravinsky, Babbitt, and Boulez somewhat later.


How different is the sound, in comparing regular instruments (like a bass) versus a car part-built instrument (like a tank bass)?
It's hard to use words to describe differences in timbre. It's best to hear them. What I can tell you is that, to my ear, the basic difference is that they generally sound more "metallic" and not as "warm." Because they are car parts, they are imperfect when compared to real or traditional instruments. When I hired Ray Faunce to design and fabricate them, I did not have the intention imitating existing known musical instruments. In the beginning, I wanted raw car parts to sample digitally and play back within the context of a recorded composition (more along the lines of a musique concrete approach)…

But the project evolved as I hired a team of people together for Ray to work with. The team included musicians, a physicist, a glass cutter, an engineer, and some other people. Those collaborations made me realize that if I wanted musicians to actually perform on them, the project would work better if the instruments were similar enough to real, traditional instruments for the musicians to be able to learn them quickly. (At the same time, the original intent remained intact: they could still be tapped, scraped, bowed, knocked together, and blown). Think about audio and music software like Logic and ProTools. The interfaces are designed to make their mixers look like traditional mixers. This makes the software immediately familiar to audio engineers and composers. I wanted that kind of approach to the design of the Car Music Project instruments. That approach resulted in many of them being hybrids: most are not just car parts; they are a mix of car parts and traditional instrument parts.


The real difference in sound, though, comes from what I mentioned above: their imperfections. To me, the best part is the surprise when a musician is playing fast and doesn't quite get the pitch right. When that happens in live performance, it's the band's job to adapt by figuring out how to incorporate that sudden unintended pitch into the composition. That's where the fun is!

You've made 65 car part instruments. Got any faves?
For the Car Music Project we have roughly 65 instruments and that number includes all of the individual gears, windows, brake drums, and tubes that make up the band's huge "Percarsion" setup. My favorites are the gears and the Strutbone, which is a brass instrument made from my old car's struts.

Did you ever make use of the muffler?
For the Car Music Project, the muffler and exhaust system was turned into the Exhaustaphone, a large instrument with two slides and a tuba mouthpiece that plays (roughly) in the pitch range of a tuba. But the metal was so rotted and had been so heavily exposed to exhaust fumes that it was impossible for a player to breathe while playing. Therefore, for the Car Music Project, I had Ray Faunce buy off-the-shelf parts to construct the Exhaustaphone. All the other CMP instruments are made from the parts of my old car (1982 Honda Accord).

How much went to waste and how much of the car was used?
For the Car Music Project instruments, my best guess is that we used about 80% of the car.


Has it been difficult playing shows with the car music project? What is it like going on tour?
I would not call it "difficult." But it is a large project with a large setup, so it takes good planning, a lot of attention to detail and much more time than, say, a rock band. Travel requires a 14-foot truck packed front-to-back and floor-two-ceiling. That takes about two hours. Setup, from arrival at the venue to being ready to start a sound check requires about 4 hours. Add 30 minutes for the sound check and you've got 6-1/2 hours work before you add in travel time. The Car Music Project shows run about two hours. A single two-hour show requires a 22-hour day, round trip and door-to-door.

Wow. What has been your most memorable show to date?
We were invited to perform at Lincoln Center for the 2007 Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival.

Do you hope the recycling of car parts as musical instruments will catch on and people will follow?
I'm an advocate of all kinds of recycling. When it comes to the Car Music Project, though, I want to clarify something. A lot of people seem to think the Car Music Project is about cars. It's not about cars and never has been. It has always been about music (and sound).

That said, I would like my recycling of car parts to inspire people—particularly young people—to look for new ways to create music and new things to create music from. Many people used car parts for music before I did—Cage and Varese were among them—and other people have done it since. There are plenty of other things to make music from: household items like soda straws, coffee cups, and plates; appliances like washing machines and irons; building parts like metal pipes, wooden beams, and old wires.

Go to it. Use your imagination. Make music out of all kinds of stuff you can find. It's a challenge, it's creative, and it's fun.

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