set in stoneware
Rain falls mutedly beyond the thin-walled abode, but the interior living space emanates cultural warmth and a casual, creative vibe. There are stacks and stacks of papers, skyscrapers of sheet music and personal documents that rest upon an old, out-of-tune piano. A colorful, abstract piece of art from the ‘60s hangs boldly on the wall. A black case, housing the body of a clarinet, sits atop a set of drawers, surrounded by Vandoren reeds and blown-glass water cups. Books, plants, stoneware ceramics, and Mexican knickknacks occupy a grid-like shelving unit. The room indirectly supplies a narrative of its resident, musician and ceramicist Roy Zajac.
Forty-three-year-old Zajac, who possesses jet-black hair and wire-framed glasses, hails from the small suburb of Berwyn, Illinois. After studying in Morris, Illinois for most of his childhood, he procured a scholarship and attended the Interlochen Arts Academy for his senior year of high school (think Fame, if it had taken place in a small Michigan town). Zajac went on to achieve a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan in Musical Education, and a Master’s degree at the University of Minnesota in Music, intermittently playing in orchestras such as the Filharmonia del Bajio, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the United States Air Force Band.
But beyond his impressive résumé and refined skill lies the real reason Zajac stands out like a shining beacon within the world of wind instruments: he brings an unrelentingly passionate approach to music, a deep-seeded appreciation for the arts that was fostered as a child and has never ceased. After playing professionally for twenty years, his excitement and dedication to the craft are just as powerful as on the first day he picked up the clarinet. In conjunction with his talent and fervor for ceramics, Zajac balances his creative endeavors, sustaining an ever-inspired lifestyle within laid-back, Northern California.
After his three-year tenure at the Air Force Band of the Golden West, located in Fairfield, CA, his quest for employment led him to his current position as the principal clarinetist of the Santa Rosa Symphony. It was in Zajac’s cozy Santa Rosa apartment where he expounded on his artistic pursuits, the twists and turns of his career, and their effects on his life thus far.
Q: Growing up, what did you want to be?
A: I really did want to be an artist when I grew up. But then I discovered the clarinet… and then I found myself… becoming a clarinetist. I don’t think I actually planned it out. I just wanted to play an instrument really well and along the way… I kept wanting to be an artist. I can tell you that I told my mom and dad that I wanted to be an artist. I mean and now I guess I am one, right?
Q: What drew you to the clarinet?
A: I do remember having the opportunity to try all the instruments out, and I was drawn to this instrument because I just liked all the little mechanisms. I thought oh, this is a really interesting-looking instrument, and then it sounded kind of interesting too.
Q: How has dedicating your profession to music affected your personality?
A: I think at certain times it makes me less patient because I get frustrated, other times it makes me feel like I understand imperfection. There’s no such thing as perfection… in music. I mean you might play all the right notes, you might play all the right rhythms, but there’s nothing called perfect music. Is there something that’s called perfect art? I don’t really think so. So you really want to strive to do your best all the time. I could probably take a whole hour to talk about that. But you don’t really want to do that I think. Yikes.
Q: Was it your aspiration to become an artist that compelled you to play the clarinet professionally?
A: I think so. I didn’t start out with this goal of, “I’m going to play in a symphony orchestra.” Some people go to the symphony orchestra one day and they say, “I’m going to do that.” Or they go to the art museum one day… and they say, “I’m going to be an artist. I’m going to paint. I’m going to have my studio. I want to make all these images.” I think mine just took a longer time to develop and I just liked… the process of studying the art form. I was lucky enough to get my first job as a performer. And that was in Mexico, and basically, in the hills… there were these potters. And… they got [their clay] from the ground, their own earth, that they dug which we don’t do very often in America. And I went up there to visit them and… they let me throw on their wheel and then they said, oh come and join us, just become part of our little pottery guild over here.
Q: Where did you initially discover ceramics?
A: When I was at Interlochen [Arts Academy], I’d never even seen ceramics at all but… one day… I passed these wheels. And I thought… I really want to do that. And so I went to the art teacher and asked her if I could take classes. And she said, “Absolutely not. No way. Do you have a portfolio? I wouldn’t go to your clarinet teacher and expect to take lessons would I?” I never thought of it that way. But then I asked her again and I said please, I… really would like to take your class. And… she said, all right but you have to do exactly the work of a ceramics major. And she taught me very well, in one semester I threw… hundreds of pieces, and I earned an A+ in her class. She basically said that I could have a career in ceramics. That I could, if I wanted to, that it could happen. I then went to the University of Michigan and didn’t study ceramics. I only had time to study music. Then I went to Mexico. I got to rekindle that in a very part-time way. And that’s how ceramics has been for me.
Q: Do you prefer throwing to hand-built ceramics?
A: Yeah I do. I mostly just throw on the wheel, whatever comes off the wheel is round, and that is the frame. It’s confining but… I think working within those confines, that structure is how I look at producing… a type of art. Musicians work with twelve-tone music, and that’s their structure. Some people work with tonal music, and chords, and that’s most of the music that you hear… it all has this tonal center. Well anyway, you can use different structures and I think the wheel is a round structure. You just go from there.
Q: Do you have a favorite type of piece that you like to make?
A: I’ve been stuck in this teapot mode for a long time. It seems so conventional.
Q: What do you think is the most important technical aspect of ceramics?
A: It’s all about drying management. How fast the clay dries, and how much water is on that clay. And if you don’t watch it, things are going to crack. No matter what you’re making, no matter what you’re doing, and it’s so simple and basic. You try to keep as little water on the piece as possible, and then as it’s drying, you try to let it dry as slowly as possible.
Q: I see that you have a lot of stoneware pieces; do you prefer creating stoneware?
A: I do. Like [I have] a really pretty teapot that was near something that was a copper red and that just found itself getting on to [it]. And so that’s another thing… it’s not only the glaze you use, but the things around it.
That’s what I love about clay, it’s so mysterious. And music’s the same way, actually. The things around you just bounce off each other. And the vibrations, it’s very similar in a lot of ways.
(Photo, courtesy of Roy Zajac)