Zack Sulsky ’13 is, as he calls himself, a “songwriter-singer,” but this term does not begin to cover the scope of his abilities. In his time at Wesleyan, Sulsky has been involved in many aspects of the music scene on campus. Though not necessarily the most publically visible person, his talents merit much recognition.
Argus: Zack, I understand that you’re very musically talented. What exactly do you do?
Zack Sulsky: I play piano, saxophone, and ukulele, and I’m learning a bit of clarinet. And I compose and arrange. But songwriting is the thing I’m most passionate about.
A: Is composing separate from songwriting for you?
ZS: Yeah. While composing is intellectual, songwriting is personal. To me, composing/arranging is ivory tower stuff – it’s academic. It may be satisfying on an individual level, but there’s a different sort of satisfaction that comes from writing or playing something anyone can appreciate – like a song.
A: What did you do on campus last semester?
ZS: My biggest project was the musical “Charlie Greengould Meets Himself,” for which I arranged the music and played piano. I also play with Thelonius Funk and play acoustic stuff on the side with Julia Mark ’13. I played baritone saxophone with the jazz orchestra and was in the steel band, for which I also did an arrangement: a Latin take on “Eleanor Rigby.”
A: Why does arranging appeal to you?
ZS: Well, there’s a limit to what I can do myself – writing something for piano and voice is like drawing in pencil. Arranging is painting with a full palette – you can use so many resources in so many different ways to create anything you can imagine. And getting to hear it performed is incredibly fulfilling.
A: I know you’re majoring in music. What made you decide to do this?
ZS: I actually didn’t come to Wesleyan with the intention of majoring in music. I thought that making it academic would make it mean less to me.
A: Did it?
ZS: No. I realized that music can be both academic and personal at the same time. I love the music major because there’s so much to it. When you’re a history major, you read books and write papers. You do that as a music major too, but you also get to do a lot of other things, from playing to composing to things that are essentially math problems.
A: When did you become interested in music?
ZS: I started learning classical piano when I was five, but I stopped in middle school, when I took up the saxophone. But, when I was younger, I really disliked most of the music I heard. I didn’t listen to the radio. My moment of discovery didn’t come until high school, with the help of two teachers, when I found jazz.
A: If you didn’t like music, why did you start piano? Was it forced on you?
ZS: No, my sister started taking flute lessons, so I wanted to start learning an instrument too.
A: Why do you think you didn’t like music?
ZS: Well, I hated popular music when I was young, and I sort of do now, but for different reasons. I just feel like people listen to music for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way – in the background. Of course, I’m guilty of all the things that I hate. But I do believe though that anyone who really loves music can sit and just listen without thinking about or doing anything else.
A: Besides piano and saxophone, what is your training in music?
ZS: Well, I never really had formal training in music theory or writing music until I took a music theory class last semester, but I’d picked up bits and pieces in saxophone lessons and high school band.
A: That’s really impressive! What would you say is your greatest musical accomplishment?
ZS: Arranging “Charlie Greengould Meets Himself” was definitely my biggest project, but the most artistically fulfilling thing I do is writing songs. It’s more emotional, more personal.
A: What do you have planned for this semester?
ZS: I’m still playing saxophone in the jazz orchestra and piano and sax in Thelonius Funk. This semester Thelonius Funk is trying to become more polished and song-oriented. We’re moving toward doing more originals and more thoughtful covers. I’m also taking jazz voice lessons – trying to actually learn how to sing instead of just faking it. And I’m teaching saxophone lessons at an elementary school. And, of course, I’m always working on my own songwriting.
A: Do you have any projects outside of campus?
ZS: Well, my band from home (Denver, Colo.), Building 58, self-recorded an album of all original songs last summer, and we’re hoping to record another next summer if we get the chance.
A: Where can we listen to this album?
ZS: You can download it for free at building58.bandcamp.com.
A: You say that you are most fulfilled when writing songs. In the future, will we be hearing any Zack Sulsky originals?
ZS: I don’t have any performances planned right now, but I gained a new appreciation for playing out last summer, when I tried out the starving musician routine instead of getting a summer job. I’ll be playing plenty this semester. Hopefully, it won’t always be in the basement of the music studios.
Sulsky seems to have come a long way from disliking music, and luckily for us, has a busy semester lined up. Keep an eye, or rather an ear, out for Zack Sulsky around campus.