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February 26, 2013
By Forrest Hartman
What happens when you combine some of the greatest musicians in the world with truckloads of industrial scrap? If you're lucky, you get SCRAP*ARTS*MUSIC, a five-piece ensemble that became a sensation by turning throwaway items into finely tuned musical instruments.
The group, who is coming to Nightingale Concert Hall for an April 4th Performing Arts Series concert, was formed by percussionist Gregory Kozak and his wife, Justine Murdy. Kozak and Murdy are an artistic couple that envisioned building a family of instruments out of materials found near their Vancouver home. Kozak said he was inspired, in part, by indigenous musicians from all over the world.
"The nice thing about percussion is you're introduced to handmade, original instruments almost off the bat," he said, "shakers from Ghana and bongos from South America - a lot of handmade, idiosyncratic, unique stuff."
Kozak also cites Harry Partch, an American composer who wrote much of his music for custom-designed instruments, as a huge inspiration. So, it felt natural for him to fashion drums from discarded metal and reeds from Home Depot bags.
"Greg has a pretty exploratory mindset when it comes to sound," Murdy said of her husband. "He had also done pretty rigorous studies of world music traditions and sort of got inspiration from things like African drum and dance, you know, this idea that you can create instruments from the materials around you. In Africa, it just happens to be gourds and tree trunks. In Vancouver, we realized, ‘Well, we're surrounded by all this high-end, beautiful construction and nautical salvage. So, if you make instruments from those things, then it becomes instruments from our town, our village.'"
However, Kozak doesn't simply find a piece of scrap metal and bang on it with a drum stick - rather, he takes the materials and tweaks them until he's made something special, both visually and sonically. This means moving beyond his musical background into the realms of engineering, welding, and construction. He said he gets help from Murdy, who studied architecture.
Despite the allure of the strange instruments in a SCRAP*ARTS*MUSIC show, the group isn't a novelty act. Kozak has carefully composed all the tunes, and the players approach them as they would any composition.
"I'm not just trying to make some kind of a spectacle here," Kozak said. "I'm trying to make great music more than anything else."
For concerts, Kozak is joined on stage by Spencer Cole, Christa Mercey, Greg Samek and Malcolm Schoolbraid - four percussionists who share his adventurous musical spirit.
"These are really great people to play with," Kozak said. "Every show is a surprise. Every show is the best everyone can possibly offer."
Murdy doesn't regularly perform with the ensemble, but she does make huge contributions behind the scenes, including working on the lighting design and costume design. She is quick to point out that becoming a SCRAP*ARTS*MUSIC player requires more than musical chops; the show features a lot of choreographed movement, meaning the performers have to be able to keep up physically.
"Not all percussionists are suitable," Murdy said. "Everyone in our group has a really strong athletic background and they're aerobic demons because our show is really aerobic. But they're all really amazing drummers, too."
Because of this, and because the instruments are custom designed, Kozak said there's a steep learning curve for anyone who joins. Not only do they have to be athletic and musically talented, they have to memorize the music and choreography for the entire show.
"Everybody is as important in this group as everybody else," Kozak said. "I really love my performers; they've given so much."
Tickets: $30 general; $26 for seniors, faculty and UNR staff; $12 for general students; $5 for UNR students. Tickets are available at the Lawlor Events Center Box Office, online at the Performing Arts Series Website and by phone at (800) 325-7328.