Living a musical life: Zac Pulak beats the drum for new percussion music

Zac Pulak. Photo: Alan Dean Photography

There are many artists hard at work in our community. Today ARTSFILE begins an occasional series of profiles about these creators starting with an enthusiastic twenty-something percussionist named Zac Pulak, who is making his own way as a performer and as an impresario.

Zac Pulak started pounding on a drum set when he was 13 years old. It was a bit of a late start, but he was interested in music and some friends were already playing together. One had a guitar, another was on bass and a third was playing the piano. “So, I was filling a void.”

He also listened to a lot of different kinds of music. Rock, of course, but his parents listened to a lot of jazz and he caught that bug too. Pulak’s grandfather was a clarinetist in a jazz band in hometown Winnipeg.

“We had an extra room in our basement. It was roped off as the percussion room but eventually it started to overflow with equipment.” It was helpful that a previous owner had sort of soundproofed the room, keeping Pulak’s parents sane.

“I listened to all kinds of music. Led Zeppelin, I liked John Bonham. But I listened to jazz such as John Coltrane, really I was listening to anything and everything.”

He was always picking out the percussion sounds. It quickly became an obsession.

“When I started playing drums that became all I thought about. I always was doing something to do with art. As a kid I drew a lot. I wrote a lot. I aways assumed I would be involved in art. When I got my drums that was it. I knew right away that was what I would do.”

He played in high school bands and that made him even more determined to live a musical life.

“I was determined to dig more deeply into music and wanted to learn how to read music.” That meant university. he applied after putting together an audition tape and was accepted at uOttawa where two members of NACO Jonathan Wade and Kenneth Simpson were teaching percussion.

The last thing Pulak learned was melody, but after a little while he started to pick that up. Today the instrument he plays most is the marimba.

Even before he graduated from the uOttawa music school in 2014, Pulak was picking up gigs. Like many uOttawa students, he worked with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra.

“The OSO showed me what it could take to be a professional. At the same time, some other opportunities opened up. I had started my master’s but I dropped out because I had all these things I wanted to act upon.

“I am really impatient. I just want to get things done. I didn’t want to stay in school until I was 30.” He probably won’t go back.

That was about a year ago. Since then he’s started a concert series, commissioned new works and plotted a tour to Vienna, Austria.

The concert series is known as #NSFWcc … short for Not Safe For Work contemporary cabaret.

“It’s meant to feature emerging artists my age or older (or even a little younger). It’s about giving them a place to play and experiment with interdisciplinary collaboration.”

The first concert, this past spring, was called Early Music After Hours and featured cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne and soprano Bronwyn Thies-Thompson.

“I gave the performers a phrase and they were challenged to present music that the words inspired in them.”

The operative phrase was ‘New Urban Renaissance’. Clothing was provided by a local fashion designer to fit the intent of the piece.

“It was first time I ever put on something like this and I learned a lot about how to organize an event. I was really pleased with the result. It drew a larger audience that I expected.

While the audience was generally colleagues and people he works with, there were passersby because it was an outdoor concert.

While he is planning performances, Pulak also teaches and starting in 2018 he will be travelling to perform.

“I have a percussion-guitar duo. We will be going to Vienna for a week where we premiere five new pieces by an Austrian composer that we commissioned.” Pulak’s guitarist partner in RPM EXperiment is Daniel Ramjattan, another uOttawa grad.

The connection to Vienna was made during a two-week residency at the Banff Centre this past January. It was a productive two weeks. He’s also working with a composer from Texas as well.

“I’m really interested new music. I’m getting all these pieces ready with the view to release an album of solo percussion music.”

While he does listen to lots of music, he’s not following any particular person too closely.

“In some ways I am distancing myself from what other people are doing. I want to develop own style especially for these specific projects such as the solo CD. I want it to be totally unique to Zac.” His commissioning project is called Mayhem and Meditation: Canadian Works for Solo Percussion.

He is also charting his own path in his approach to the instruments he plays.

“Part of what I am trying to do to is practical. I’m looking at simple set-ups that are more portable. If I am playing at a festival, as an emerging artist, I don’t have the cash to have a truckload of gear. Musically this can work. Performers are moving away from huge chaotic set ups.

Travelling to Vienna, Pulak will just bring his marimba sticks. The venue will supply the 4.3 octave marimba.

Another commission  perhaps headed to his CD will be one from Ottawa’s Kelly-Marie Murphy. It premiered at Music and Beyond in July and included a small set up of tom toms and break drum. He also performed at this year’s Chamberfest in an Al Fresco concert with another percussionist.

“I’m branching out in so many different ways. It’s not all that focussed. I exist in classical music but that term is so blurred. I want to encompass all influences. I’m not really a composer. I do compose for fun but I like realizing other people’s work. I want the CD to encompass all that I am listening to and being influenced by.”

At university Pulak realized he didn’t want to follow the usual path and be constantly auditioning for orchestra jobs.

“It’s frustrating and it takes away time from projects that are more important to me.”

So far with teaching and performing, Pulak is making enough money to live.

“I’m excited to ride it out and see where it takes me. After only one year I’m encouraged.

Next up is the release of a YouTube video performance of the Murphy commission in the next few weeks. The piece is called Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine.

And the next #NSFW concert will be Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Knox Presbyterian Church.

“Originally it was going to be a campfire experience but the insurance needed to do a public bonfire was prohibitive.”

It will metaphorically explore two key elements of a campfire and feature Adam Cicchillitti on guitar and Ottawa poet Susan McMaster. Pulak met her in Banff too. Tickets are pay what you can at the door (suggested payment $10-$20). If the weather is nice it will be outside in a courtyard. If it’s raining it will be inside the church.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.