SHHH!!! Ensemble making their way in music

Edana Higham and Zac Pulak are SHHH!! Ensemble.

Musicians are also entrepreneurs and they have to do a lot of different things to advance their art and their careers. Consider the case of the SHHH!! Ensemble, an Ottawa-based duo featuring percussionist Zac Pulak and pianist Edana Higham. They recently combined their Spirits concert tour with a string of masterclasses across the country. The final one is March 13 at uOttawa. Before that ARTSFILE checked in with them and Zac answered our questions.

Q. Please tell me about SHHH!! Ensemble. Why so many exclamation points?

A. SHHH!! Ensemble is a piano/percussion duo dedicated to the creation and dissemination of new and rarefied sounds. When deciding on a name, we wanted something simple, memorable, playful and somehow inseparably related to listening —  after spending some time listing ideas, one of us “shushed” the other, and things just naturally fell into place! Our official tag line: SHHH!! … a powerful utterance designed to draw attention forward … creating space and awareness … opening ears to something important.

Q. Tell me about your colleague Edana Higham. Is a piano-percussion duo unusual?

A. Edana and I have been a couple for years and met during our studies at the University of Ottawa. It wasn’t until we were both working on independent projects at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity that a fellow artist in residence in a group discussion casually asked if we had ever thought of performing together — we hadn’t, but immediately switched the focus of our residency to just that. The rest, as they say, is history.

A piano-percussion duo is unusual — there is repertoire already out there, but very little compared with the other more common classical or contemporary pairings. To create a cohesive programme we almost always have to do some commissioning or arranging.

One of the aspects of the piano/percussion pairing that Edana and I most enjoy is the chameleon nature of both our instruments. Piano is at home in virtually any genre or style and so is percussion — when you put them together you get an almost unlimited license to explore what you want. Additionally, when a person decides to go to a piano/percussion concert I think there is an element of expectation for experiencing something different, and that is something that we are more than happy to provide.

Q. Tell me about your work?

A. Our duo works in three distinct areas: 

• Accessible outreach/educational programming/touring (our SHHHuffle recital);

• All-contemporary, boundary pushing programming/touring (our Spirits recital)

• Bespoke creative projects (such as our upcoming Ottawa New Music Creators/Ottawa International Writers Festival collaboration).

Spirits is a journey through composers’ reflections on the nature of creativity, meditation, inspiration, whiskey and the beyond. The recital features commissioned works, previously composed music, improvisation, creative arrangements and programmatic features that make it an unique and immersive concert experience.

We began the tour with a residency at the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto, before heading to Waterloo, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary, before returning to perform in Ottawa on March 13. We performed Spirits at concert series and at universities, as well giving masterclasses and workshops at several of the institutions.

The recital got its start by looking at a few key pieces on the program that we knew we wanted to play, and while trying to find a compelling link between the works, we came up with Spirits. Other distinctive features of the program (such as the triptych of the mp3 playback/improvisation work by Kevin Hanlon, a chorale by J.S. Bach, and the finale to the program by Micheline Roi) were things that arose organically while rehearsing.

Q. How many commissions in the project?

There are four commissioned works: John Beckwith’s Meanwhile for Marimba and Piano (commissioned 2018), Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine (commissioned 2017), John Gordon Armstrong’s The Angel’s Share (commissioned 2019) and Kevin Hanlon’s SHHHuffle (commissioned 2019).

There is certainly a limited amount of repertoire written for our instrumentation and we enjoy the process of collaborating with composers to bring new ideas to life, so commissioning new music is very appealing to us.

Q. Part of the project involved a session at the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto. Tell us about it. 

A. We were artists in residence at the CMC for one week. This residency served as an intensive rehearsal period for Spirits. Having dedicated time on a specific project was extremely important as both of us maintain busy teaching and freelancing schedules as well as our work with SHHH!! Ensemble.

The Centre is a stalwart supporter of new and creative music and those who perform it. The CMC in Toronto is in a centrally located heritage building and has a recently renovated performance/rehearsal space. The building also contains a library and archives which is both interesting to browse and an indispensable resource for research. 

Q. A good chunk of the project involves recitals at universities and colleges across Canada. Why?

A. We reached out to many universities across Canada; some schools we had a personal connection with, while others found our project compelling and offered us a place in their concert and/or masterclass season. We aim to reach as broad and diverse an audience as possible. For that reason, performing outreach concerts at schools and community organizations was also an integral part of the tour.

Q. What is the value of a master class?

A. The masterclasses we conduct are focussed on successful writing/composition for our instruments, arts entrepreneurship/creative programming ideas and discussion and practical performing concepts/ideas.

We try to offer students inspiration and encouragement. Commonly at a university music masterclass, you may have an international soloist, orchestral player or academic presenting information that is valuable, but, and this was the case for both of us during our studies, that did not reflect the sorts of things we were interested in achieving in our own future careers. It wasn’t until later, after having opportunities to work with creative and entrepreneurial artists at places such as the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity that we both saw that the kind of career we both envisioned was possible.

Q. Tell me about the final stop at your alma mater uOttawa on March 13?

A. The final date will be incredibly special. We are so excited to have the opportunity to present some of the ideas that we have been working so hard to achieve.

Q. Reflect on the value of this project for your career?

The Spirits tour is the first major tour our duo has undertaken. Through booking, organizing, rehearsing, and performing Spirits we have grown immensely as musicians, pedagogues and entrepreneurs. The lessons learned on this tour will certainly inform our future artistic practice as we continue to work towards bigger and bolder projects.

SHHH!! Ensemble in concert
Where: Freiman Hall, Pérez Building, uOttawa
March 13 at 7 p.m. No tickets: Pay what you can at the door.

Also: The duo will conduct a workshop at 1 p.m. in Freiman Hall.

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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.