A group of globetrotting Korean street performers is in Claremont this week to spread an environmentally conscious message. You can make music, and fun, out of junk - if you just think differently. That’s why you shouldn’t toss that big plastic Coke bottle yet. You could be throwing away your seat in the orchestra.
In a plaza at Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker Institute, the Korean ensemble Noridan leads a group of volunteers through a rehearsal for an upcoming “eco-parade.” Each member strikes a pair of air-filled plastic bottles tuned to ring out a different note.
Members of Noridan describe themselves as social entrepreneurs who blur the boundaries between activism, work and play.
“It’s granting a brand new life to leftovers,” says Alex Koo, Noridan’s musical director for this leg of the troupe’s frequent travels. “Not only recycling discarded materials like car wheels and pipes into musical instruments, it also means recycling our talents and our life itself.”
Noridan brought a small herd of large, drivable musical instruments from South Korea. That includes giant bicycles made out of scrap metal and plastic tubing strapped with handmade wind instruments and xylophones carved from recycled wood. “Musical instruments are our most visible products,” says Koo. “Because, as you see, they are huge, first of all.”
Huge, colorful and impossible to miss on the street. The center piece is the Sprocket. It’s a one story high, four-wheeled metallic contraption that looks like it rolled right out of a Dr. Seuss book.
It’s got handmade instruments and noisemakers bolted to its sides, and lo-fi amplifiers manufactured from a network of twisting plastic pipes. It’s got a pair of pedaling drivers that get the sprocket in motion while a husky drummer sits in the main carriage area, anchoring the vehicle. As it moves, a team of percussionists attached by bungee cords to an overhead propeller twirl overhead in a wide circle.
“Everything can be turned into musical instruments if you know the principles of making sound,” says Koo. “With playing these, we are making like, sustainable enjoyment.”
Rick Wartzman awkwardly straddled one of the Noridan musical bikes during Noridan’s rehearsal. “So the next step is ride it, and make noise and like have it play a tune,” he said. The bike is designed to be played and ridden simultaneously. Wartzman is the director of the Drucker Institute.
"The Drucker Society of Korea last year gave Noridan its social innovation award,” explained Wartzman. “And I though their messages were just fantastic – about sustainability, about arts education, about leadership, about job creation and social entrepreneurship.”
Noridan’s applies its motto of “play, imagine and recycle” to other projects as well. It seeks to transform unused, or “dead,” public space. It builds “sonic” playgrounds where the slides and see-saws make sound when kids play on them. Noridan is also trying to build a cultural center in a vacant industrial lot in Seoul.
“So this is an actual business. It has a social purpose, namely to recycle material and promote sustainability,” says Wartzman.
“But I think they’re also doing something else. A number of the Noridan troupe I talked to, they said, 'Oh, I was a student but I was casting about for what to do, and I kind of recycled myself. I really found myself and found a new kind of energy and orientation for my own life.'"
Noridan troupe leader Alex Koo agrees. “It’s not just about performance. It’s about people’s mindset. We can change ourselves! That kind of self-leadership makes Noridan something special. And I think that’s the source of differentiating ourselves from just a bunch of... weirdos,” Koo laughs.
The DayGlo clad members of Noridan still look pretty weird as they peddle their yellow instrument-cycles across the Claremont University campus and spin from the whirling propeller of the giant Sprocket car all the while banging out a joyful noise.
Noridan promises to peddle back to the U.S. soon. Find out more at Noridan.org.