Drummers on a roll from junkyard chaos to musical harmony

Beverly Yhap

How many grown-ups remember how to play? Not a sport or a structured game with rules, winners and losers. Just a simple activity, like stringing a pair of tin cans together for a makeshift telephone. Or swinging a ribbed plastic hose hard in the air for the loopy whoosh sound it makes. Putting this kind of 'play' back into playing music is what powers Scrap Arts Music, a dynamic five-member percussion ensemble from Vancouver.

'Scrap Arts Music is a five-person percussion ensemble that is centred around instruments created out of industrial scrap turned into sculptures on wheels,' says Greg Kozak, who builds the group's instruments, composes and performs.

'We try to do as much high-energy performance as possible using sculpture, music and choreography. We're trying to merge all three of those art forms into one.'

Audiences familiar with taiko performance will recognise the drumming and rhythmic responses. Alongside drums, Scrap also uses cymbals, gongs, hoses, tubes, marimbas and a whole host of shiny musical paraphernalia made for the most part from scrap metal and industrial salvage.

Since 1998, members of Scrap have played such zany self-made instruments as sigh-chordions, humunga drums, plasmatrons and annoy-o-phones. Born out of the excitement generated by Stomp, the original street noise musical, Scrap Arts Music has since built up its own distinctive repertoire of entertainment that celebrates the transformation of junk to funk.

Kozak heads Scrap alongside Justine Murdy, who acts as co-director, manager and lighting designer. Scrap's current line-up of performers, Simon Thomsen, Scott Bishop, Sarka Kocicka and Michael Schoolbraid, all have musical backgrounds, a must for Kozak, who styles himself a drummer first and foremost.

Kozak, a self-professed 'hyperactive kind of guy', creates his scrappy instruments himself. He seems to have tapped a limitless source of musical invention in his foraging of junkyards. From an initial harvest of largely marine scrap (the detritus of an ill-fated scheme for faster ferries) he began crafting sound sculptures like the ziggurat drums that would define Scrap's kinetic style. Kozak's work with scrap has become familiar enough to the Vancouver welding shops and industrial outlets he frequents that they regularly set aside choice discards for him.

Scrap's members honed their performing skills over hundreds of school performances throughout North America's Pacific Northwest. Children gravitate to the Dr Suess-like instruments, and in workshops given by Kozak, they can build their own instruments and start banging out rhythms all their own.

In the beginning, Scrap concentrated on doing such crowd-pleasing performances as NBA half-time shows, fringe festivals and jazz festivals. More recently, however, they have begun to make inroads in another direction: bringing their exuberant movement and rhythms to the classical concert stage. In January, Scrap premiered Composition for Sigh-Chordions and Strings, a 15-minute commission by the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra. For the first time, Scrap's trademark nonsensical instruments - sigh-chordions (squeeze boxes made of recycled plastic) among others - were making music alongside standard, traditional instruments.

The results - aside from an 11th-hour panic by organisers unsure of their audience's response - have won Scrap enthusiastic new fans from an entirely unexpected musical quarter.

Three years in the making, the Philadelphia commission is the kind of opportunity that may emerge with more frequency as the group's popularity grows. In the meantime, Scrap Arts Music will continue to deliver shows featuring such diverse elements as artillery shells, pots and pans, PVC pipe and other garbage.

For Kozak, it's about bringing music back to its roots. 'Growing up like most kids do with the radio on all the time, hearing music from all over the world, I really started to gravitate towards ethnic music and all those wonderful ethnic percussion instruments that people built from stuff around them,' he says. 'People in South Africa didn't send away to Taiwan for bongos, they figured out a way to make it themselves. I just didn't want to have to buy things in order to make music. I wanted to figure out what I could do with stuff around me.'

Scrap Arts Music, Fri, 8pm, Kwai Tsing Theatre, $100, $180, $280, Urbtix