Strange and wondrous sounds emanate from the third floor of the Bennington College Commons Building, affectionately called “Gunnar’s World” by students. There music teacher Gunnar Schonbeck, 64, keeps his nine-foot banjo, drums made from airplane fuel tanks, a xylophone constructed from truck springs and other singular devices for producing music.
“People have a notion that musical instruments must be made of certain things,” says Schonbeck. “In fact, they usually have grown out of what’s been readily available in an environment.” Hence Schonbeck’s propensity for adapting commonplace objects like flowerpots, sewer pipes and fire extinguishers. One of his more complex creations is the “Schonephone” (far right). It is a cross between a clarinet, a French horn and a trombone which, its inventor concedes, “shouldn’t work, but does.” In fact, it ranges over seven octaves, like a piano.
Once every semester at the Vermont college, Schonbeck orchestrates a concert featuring hundreds of his instruments. (He has invented more than 1,000 and stores them in five barns nearby.) As many as 300 people may try to coax sound from Schonbeck’s instruments with a play-by-the-number technique. The occasions are memorable, if not totally melodious.
Gunnar’s interest in music was fostered by his Swedish immigrant parents (his father was a tailor), who formed a family orchestra in Springfield, Mass. As a precocious 16-year-old, Gunnar played in the Boston Symphony and began teaching clarinet at Smith College. After working for a Massachusetts tool company during World War II (where he became adept at working with metals and plastics), Schonbeck joined the Bennington faculty in 1945. His four courses include acoustics and experimental orchestra.
Schonbeck creates his instruments in the basement workshop of his mountaintop home in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. The room is so crammed with half-finished thingamajigs that his flutist wife, Gail, 43, never sets foot there. “Everything has its sound,” says the man who has even made a violin from a coconut. “You just have to bring it out.”