Fifteen years ago, when Gregory Kozak of Vancouver started welding together plastic, wood, and metal from scrap yards, Dumpsters, and garage sales into musical instruments, nobody seemed remotely interested that he was turning used or disposed materials into art. “When I started, nobody wanted to know that I was using recycled materials,” he says. “I had presenters who would say, ‘Could you, like, not tell people that this stuff is from the scrap yard, or the garbage?’ Now, everyone’s talking it up, saying it’s cool, it’s green. It’s ironic.”
Kozak’s group, Scrap Arts Music, in its present form — a quintet of percussionists who play a 100-plus-piece array of instruments — is now in its 10th year, and their profile has risen so rapidly they have been chosen to perform at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver on Sunday, February 14, at the nightly medal ceremony. The group will be performing and holding a residency Monday through Friday, February 1 to 5, at the State Theater in New Brunswick. The show is part of the venue’s month-long Hub City Carnivale, a winter festival. On Friday, February 5, Scrap Arts will give daytime performance for school students and an evening performance for the general public.Their first appearance in this country was a decade ago in Philadelphia. “Since then we’ve been on every continent, with the exception of Africa (and Antarctica),” says Kozak. “We just keep traveling more and more and more, and that’s awesome in my book,” he says. “Traveling is the best possible education you can get.”
Kozak then ponders the irony of not ever playing Africa. The drums played by Scrap Arts, of course, are his own creation — Canadian welder/tinkerer, if you will. But Kozak’s group, although involved with improvisation to a small degree, performs highly regimented compositions, the vast majority of them Kozak’s. But he does have a deep appreciation for world percussion, and he has delved deeply into the African and Afro-Latin, as well as European, Asian, and Native American traditions. “It is hard not to have all of that percolate into our heads. We are in an awesome place in history right now where we have so much music, just on the Internet alone, from all over the world. And just being able to travel somewhere and hear them play something live — Tuvan throat singers, or some North African accordion music, or something you just would never expect to hear — it is a source of inspiration.”
The raw materials Kozak has used in his instruments range from old accordions to artillery shells. “Instruments are constantly being created by human beings,” he says. “That’s a huge thing for me — trying to create instruments and sounds that have never been heard before.”
Kozak is a native of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, not far from Toronto. “It’s famous for Oktoberfest,” he says. “I’ve been told that it’s a lot like Indianapolis — seven days of the world’s attention, then the other 350 some-odd days of miniature golf. There’s not a lot going on there.”
Even as a child, Kozak says, he tinkered around with drums and actually built his first drum set. “I don’t know why but I jumped into this right away. I guess I did it because I couldn’t afford to buy one. I just started to build stuff. I was always interested in finding things that made noise and experimenting with sounds.” He played piano and other instruments as well.
The first record Kozak really listened to, he says, was by jazz great/mad genius Ornette Coleman. “That’s probably the thing that led to my mind being so warped.” Being from a boring small town, Kozak says, he spent lots of time in the library. Aside from listening to records from Coleman and others, the book “Genesis of a Music” by maverick composer Harry Partch, was a huge inspiration, partly because of Partch’s style of composing and his philosophies, and partly because he created his own instruments.
As soon as Kozak, who says he’s of “indeterminate middle age,” graduated from high school in the 1990s, he moved to rural British Columbia and then to New York to immerse himself in the jazz scene. There he attended the New School in lower Manhattan. “It was the place to go in New York City” for jazz, Kozak says. “A lot of my teachers would go play the Blue Note or the Vanguard at night after teaching all day. And a bunch of my fellow students were the ‘young lions’ of the jazz world during the ’90s.”
Equally important, says Kozak, was the time he spent studying and playing congas and bata drums in the Puerto Rican and other Afro-Latin communities in the city. “Rumba, bomba, plena, all of that stuff. I love it so much. The bata music, which goes back to Nigeria, the Santeria stuff.”
When Kozak moved back to Vancouver after a few years in New York, he says, “I was broke but full of ideas. I was just going to go for it — to create my own orchestra of original instruments. All of that came from the way people created their own instruments out of local stuff — bells and shakers and gourds and flattened pieces of metal. I’m trying to take it a lot further. I am building stringed instruments, and am trying to make sure the instruments are tuned well.”
Kozak believes the quintet he has now is “the best band I’ve ever had.” All Canadian, the musicians are known for their creativity and physicality. He periodically travels all over Canada to audition musicians.
As a result, Scrap Arts projects an image that is stimulating aurally, visually, and conceptually. The look of the drums, as well as the sound and the feel of them, and the physicality of the musicians themselves — who move to Kozak’s precise choreography during performances — are all equally important in the Scrap Arts Music concept.
The instruments “are articulated sculptures on wheels,” says Kozak. “They transform and change as I use them. It’s kind of a metaphor — these instruments used to be scrap materials, and no longer. Now they’re little treasures.”
Helping Kozak greatly in his creative quest is his wife, Justine Murdy, his collaborator, his muse, “the love of my life,” he says. They met in Kitchener, when Kozak was playing music for a modern dance class in which the lithe, blonde Murdy was participating. “I met her then, though she and I were not an item at that time. A couple of years later, we finally realized that we liked each other.”
Murdy is an architect by training, and she has a huge impact on the way Scrap Arts Music looks on stage. She designs the group’s sets, lighting schemes, and costumes.
“She has such a rigor and discipline about design,” says Kozak. “When I started the design work in making instruments, she asked me the 15 questions I needed to answer. ‘How is this instrument going to sound? How are we going to use this? How are we going to transport this thing around? How does this fit the larger scheme of what you are composing? Is there a way to make the same sound with something lighter, or more durable?’”
Scrap Arts Music, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Friday, February 5, 8 p.m. The ensemble performs on more than 140 invented instruments crafted from industrial scrap, ranging from accordion parts to artillery shells. The percussion performance is rooted in street performance, jazz, and world music traditions. $32 to $52. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.