`Phonk' presents music never heard before

June 09, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

Talk about one man's trash being another man's treasure.

Scrap Arts Music builds unorthodox musical instruments from materials salvaged from construction sites, metalworking shops, junk heaps and plumbing boneyards.

The group has used old artillery shells, bicycle spokes, marine bilge hose, pots and pans (who knew they could be tuned?) - even submarine ballast. Their colorful creations, fancifully named the Mojo, or the Plankophone, are integral to their shows, which combine original music with choreographed movement.

When the five-member group performs Phonk June 16 at the Columbia Festival for the Arts, the result will be a show that is equal parts percussion, theater, sculpture, gymnastics - and a journey back to musical roots.

"Instrument-building is part of a lot of cultures, especially percussion instruments," says Gregory Kozak, 43, a founder of the 4-year-old group and its instrument-builder.

"That's true in Asia and Africa and of slaves in the American South. People go home at the end of the day, and there's no TV, and they can't afford to send away to Taiwan for a bongo set. So they make something communal. There are parts of the world where the entire village owns the instruments. It's sort of the Native American approach to owning land. How can one person own music?"

While most of the repertoire in Phonk has been performed before, Kozak promises something new for Columbia. "I always try to build a small musical instrument out of local material if I have the time," he says.

Scrap Arts Music was founded in 2001, when Kozak made the rounds of the Vancouver clubs and, he says, "I kept running into these great drummers who had time on their hands." (The group consists of Kozak, Richard Burrows, Christa Mercey, Malcolm Shoolbraid and Simon Thomsen.)

Kozak decided that he wanted "to write music for my own instruments and for my own orchestra," and headed for the library.

"I wanted to create an entire family of instruments, woodwinds and string instruments, not just percussion," he says. "I checked out books on metallurgy and sound physics. I had to learn welding."

The instrument-builder had no idea what one of his creations would sound like until after it had been built.

"I would play the new instrument, and I would get a mass of tones, and then I would find out what notes they were relative to the piano," he says. "I have graph paper for every instrument, and I graphed the different tones and their frequencies. Then I found the sounds that percolated most commonly through all the instruments, and I used that as my sonic palette."

But the sound, however compelling, is just part of the story. During performances, group members jump up and down and play each other's instruments.

In addition to experience as percussionists, the five performers also have strong athletic backgrounds. Two were active soccer players through college, and Mercey was a 1996 Canadian national champion at ringette, a sport played on ice that resembles hockey, with sticks and a hollow ring.

In addition to appearing at arts festivals and other popular music venues, Scrap Arts Music recently performed a 15-minute piece jointly with the string section of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

"They told me that performance sold more tickets than their Pavarotti concert," Kozak says.

Kozak is not even remotely concerned that future generations will be unable to replicate his compositions because his instruments are unique.

"In order to play my music, you'd need my instruments, and I'm not interested in mass-producing anything," he says cheerfully. "Somebody else can build something else."

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 32.

Phonk

What: Scrap Arts Music performs Phonk

Where: The 2005 Columbia Festival of the Arts at the James Rouse Theater, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia.

When: 7:30 p.m. June 16

Tickets: $20-$35 for most adults; $18-$30 for students and seniors.

Information: 800-955-5566 at www.tickets.com.

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