Interview with Craig Shepard

Although I didn’t end up meeting Craig Shepard until about 2006 when I was in Zürich for a concert (and he kindly gave me some expert advice on selecting chocolate), I’d been aware of his work for a while, and was particularly interested in the On Foot project which he had completed in Switzerland in 2005. We met up again in New York again in 2008, and more recently we have corresponded in relation to the article on multipart series that I wrote last year, focusing on this aspect of the work of the Wandelweiser composers, of whom Craig is a member. With Craig’s work, I’m attracted to the simple placing of events in sequence, focusing on reduced uses of pitch and clarity of presentation. The group I run at Bath Spa University – Material – have played some of his pieces, including the Four Voice Canon (2010), and we hope to do more in the future. As most of these interviews are to some extent about working method, I expect we’ll focus on how walking intersects with composing, and how this relates to his approach in other pieces where he’s a little less mobile.

This interview began on 25 March 2012, midway through Craig’s On Foot: Brooklyn project.

In your first walking project On Foot in 2005, you walked 250 miles across Switzerland over the period of a month, composing a piece for trumpet each day and performing it in the evening. Could you explain how the situation of walking affected the way you approached the composition of each piece?

When walking I couldn’t sit down at a piano and try out ideas, I couldn’t flip coins for chance procedures, and I couldn’t work at a computer, so I had to rely much more on my imagination, my inner hearing. I would sing melodies to myself and then mentally map out the rhythm and relative pitches so I could write it down later. On the 2005 project, walking took up between 2 and 9 hours each day, so it also forced me to be more efficient when I was sitting down and putting pen to paper. I would make notes in the morning after breakfast, and then start walking. After about 30 minutes, thoughts of logistics–the route to take, where I was going to sleep at night, where I could buy food–would fade and I would relax into the rhythm of the walk. Then, after a few miles, ideas would come to me: a few notes of a melody, a form for the piece, an idea for a pattern. I learned not to force myself to think about what I had noted that morning; and learned to follow where the walk would lead me. Sometimes, I would walk for an hour hour singing the same four-note phrase. During breaks, I would sit down and note what had come to me during the walk. Making notes before the walk and during was important: it opened up possible routes which affected–but did not determine–the direction my thoughts would take.

One practical part of  On Foot 2005 also had an effect: I had to carry everything with me. So I wrote everything for pocket trumpet. I was trained as a trombone player–which I refused to carry for 250 miles. So I took a year of trumpet lessons before the project began to prepare for it. I also had a very small notebook: which probably affected the scope of the pieces that I was writing.

So in the current On Foot: Brooklyn project some of these constraints are loosened as I understand it, so you have more time to work on pieces between the formal walks themselves and less immediately pressing practical concerns for example. I guess you could even arrange to have someone deliver your trombone to the performance venue. Do the new pieces follow the same format in any way as a result then, drawing on the Swiss project as a model which is reapplied to the new situation? 

So far, there are some similarities in style. I’m still performing outdoors and still very interested in how the sounds I’m producing interact with the ambient noise of the performance site. So as in On Foot from 2005, I write sounds with lots of silence in-between. Some pieces are a bit like wind chimes on a slow day.

The main difference between On Foot: Brooklyn and On Foot is the length of time I have to compose each piece. In On Foot, I had to finish a new piece every day, and so I used some patterns to generate melodies for some of the pieces. Once the pattern was there, I would go through the piece and let my ear decide the rhythms and the rests. On one or two, I also used chance procedures. In On Foot: Brooklyn, I have a week to finish each piece. Without the daily deadline, I can let my mind wander for three hours or more each day while walking. If no melodies come to me on a given day, I don’t have to come up with anything. I can just keep walking and wait for the music to come. So far, the music has come. A short melody, a rhythm, or a phrase presents itself, and I write it down. It’s not always clear what to do with them at first. Then, usually on Saturday, I see which fragments might make a piece. This is the way I’ve written the music so far; I’m not ruling out any way of composing for On Foot: Brooklyn.

On a practical side, in On Foot: Brooklyn, I do have time to sit down to try out some patterns and chance procedures, and have used the computer to record ideas and do some arranging.  A fragment will present itself during a walk, I’ll record it, listen back, do some arranging. Then I let it go, and see what happens during a walk. I often have four or five strong ideas, each of which could become a piece on its own. I develop each of them as far as I can. Usually, there’s a small change that happens which opens the lid. The finished piece comes out all at once, and I feel like I need eight hands to catch it all.

One important point:

You used the word ‘constraints’. I don’t see the structures of On Foot: Brooklyn as ‘constraints’; they are choices I make in my day-to-day life which encourage and support creative work. Every aspect of one’s day-to-day life has an effect on how one thinks. Change one aspect of that, and one changes the way one thinks. It’s difficult to know in advance what effect any given change will have; the change is nevertheless there.

This is very clear with smart phones, which have been heavily marketed as devices providing freedom: free to talk, free to text, free to email anywhere at any time. The other side of that is the expectation that one is always available–and so is obligated to talk, text and email everywhere, all the time. I spoke with a mid-level corporate manager, who referred to his smart phone as his leash. I notice that when I have a smart phone, there’s a small part of me that is not quite present–in the back of my mind, I’m thinking: ‘what if I got that text I’ve been waiting for?’

One of the powerful parts of the Sunday walks is that they are silent and cell phone free. Before I give out the starting time of the Sunday walk, I ask each participant to commit to either leave his or her phone at home, or turn it off and give it to me for the duration of the walk. It stays off in waterproof bag in my backpack. Some people have real difficulty turning it over. When they do, they help to create a silent space where everyone is present. So when each of us keeps the commitment to be without the cell-phone, we create a space that is free from distraction. It’s a powerful experience to walk in silence with someone I’ve never met. I look forward to it every week.

Have you found that the resultant music differs in any noticeable way from your other, non-walking pieces? If so, is there anything which clearly derives from the physical situation of walking? I wonder if pulse is more important for instance.

Walking has directly influenced the pieces in how I approach time. Because much of the music is written underway, the pulse is present in my mind while I write the music. Many of the pieces (there are exceptions) have a pulse supporting them, especially those made up entirely of long tones.

In past pieces, I’ve used stopwatches to determine duration, where notes are to be played within a certain number of minutes. In the Wind and Lines series, which I wrote before the On Foot project in 2005, the length of the tones are tied to the performer’s breath. In the Heartbeat series, to the human heartbeat. I recently read a quote from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking: ‘Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart.’ I hadn’t realized until I read this quote the relationship between these three actions, and how I had used them in my pieces.

There has been a practical use for the walking tempo as well. I’ve found when I count during long tones, the tones sound better. By counting out the steps, it’s easier to remain present in the performance, and the tones are more full and centered.

That being said, the music written on the On Foot projects is more influenced by the situation of the performance than by the situation in which the music was composed. One of the reasons I moved outdoors was because I felt that a lot of the silent Wandelweiser pieces (where there are a few tones and a lot of silence) required a background against which the sounds would be heard. One of the most successful of these is Manfred Werder’s series in the Galerie Mark Müller in Zürich, where the tones are heard against the silence of the paintings (which are truly silent–an experience without sound). In the concert-hall situation, the ambient sounds of the indoor space become the background against which the tones are heard. By taking it outdoors, the reverse is true: the day-to-day sounds are heard within the frame of the tones.

Playing outdoors has also affected the style of the music. When playing in a concert hall, the presenter selects the audience. This may not be overt, but there is nonetheless a selection process taking place in the language that the presenter uses to communicate with the audience, in marketing material, etc. This language shapes who will show up.

Because I play in public spaces, I am responsible to the passerby. What I write needs to be recognizable to the passerby as music. It may be music he or she hasn’t heard before, but it needs to be experienced as music. This has given me the freedom to write unapologetically melodic music.

It would be interesting to try a walking project where all of the pieces composed are to be performed inside. Then we could compare.

Although walking is well established in practices such as the dérive or the soundwalk, or through the role of the flâneur, in On Foot the focus seems to be on walking as a way to create a space for thinking as part of the compositional process. It also contrasts with pieces which involve walking as their principal activity, such as those by Michael Parsons. How do you view these other directed approaches to walking in relation to On Foot?

Manfred Werder had introduced me to the group of French artists/intellectuals active in the 50s known as the Situationists. They had a practice called the dérive, a sort of aimless strolling through a city where you let go of any agenda and walk where the vibe of the city leads you. They were interested in a study of people’s movements which found that most people moved in the same square or triangle every day without much variation. There’s probably more accurate data now with cell phone tracking. In the dérive, there is the idea that if you change the way you move (here the meaning is literal, not metaphorical or poetic) through your day-to-day life, you change the way you think. I’ve heard it expressed in the US as “move a muscle, change a thought”.

Because I’m in the middle of the project now, I don’t have the distance with which to be able to talk about the ideas in the work with any detachment. And I find that analyzing my work while I’m making it often hinders my ability to rely on intuition. So it’s difficult for me to make any useful comparisons with other work or practices. What I can say is that it seems with the dérive that first you have to get into the right state of mind and see which way it directs the feet, while in On Foot: Brooklyn, I direct the feet to allow the mind to wander.

How did you plan the routes for the walks, both in Switzerland and Brooklyn? I wondered if there were particular geographic features in the natural or built environment that you wanted to move through, or whether it was just more practical.

The routes were chosen to get to the performance sites, which were chosen for three reasons:

1) For high pedestrian foot traffic

2) So that the walks would cover a wide area of Brooklyn. In choosing specific streets in North Brooklyn, a neighborhood I crossed through a lot to get to other neighborhoods, I tried to walk on as many streets as possible. You can see this on the map.

3) So that I could alternate longer walks with shorter ones to give my legs a rest.

In choosing the route to the locations, I had some choices as to which roads to go through, and walked twice through Prospect Park, once through Fort Greene Park, and once through Greenwood Cemetery. This was to have different sounds on the walk. I also chose to avoid loud major roads. The one exception to this is the walk to Sheepshead Bay, where I walk the entire length of Bedford Avenue. Sometimes in choosing the routes, I would find something on the map that I was curious about, such as the walk to Cypress Hills where the route follows the eastern border of Brooklyn.

Does the environment of each walk affect the music you write in any way?

I can identify effects the environment has on the process. It’s much more difficult to point to effects that it’s had on the material.

So far in On Foot: Brooklyn, I have only written one piece during the walk to the performance site: ‘Fort Hamilton, April 8, 2012’. I had composed and written out a piece which required a triangle. Halfway through the walk, I realized that I had forgotten the triangle at home. It was too late to go back, so, sitting on a bench near the grave of Jean-Michel Basquiat in Greenwood Cemetery, I wrote a new piece for Fort Hamilton. I am not aware of any connection to the cemetery or to Basquiat’s work. The triangle piece became ‘Coney Island, April 15, 2012’.

The pieces are mostly composed during the week, on my work-day walk from Greenpoint, over the Pulaski Bridge, through Long Island City, over the 59th Street (Queensboro) Bridge to Midtown Manhattan. Because Long Island City has few window displays or advertisements, it’s easier to let my mind rest on the music. During the 15-20 minutes I walk over the 59th Street Bridge, I don’t need to think about crossing the road, so it’s possible to go deeper, if that’s where my thoughts take me. On the Pulaski Bridge, there’s a wooden sculpture that serves as a seat with a wonderful view of the Manhattan skyline. Sometimes, I stop there and write a bit. So the environment affects the thought process.

I find that the time I allow for the walk affects the work I do during the walk. If I don’t leave enough time, and am pressed to get somewhere, part of my thoughts and energy are directed to that–and away from composing. When I leave ample time, even if I don’t stop anywhere, mentally I’m more relaxed and more likely to let the thoughts wander. This too, is an effect on the process, and not on the material.

The material for the pieces for the On Foot projects is more influenced by the situation of the performance than by the situation in which the music was composed. I originally chose the trumpet not just because it was lighter to carry, but also because of its sound properties in relation to traffic noise. Where the trombone melts into it the frequencies of traffic, the trumpet can be clearly heard over them. On the March 25th performance at Red Hook I wrote Katie Porter’s clarinet and Christian Kobi’s soprano saxophone in the high octave so you can hear them. On May 13, I’ll be joined by Jack Callahan. Because of the situation, he can’t play timpani; the instrument has to be hand-held, relatively light, and portable. That will affect the material as well.

I’m not aware of any one-to-one correlation between the environment and something I wrote. The one piece with a direct connection to a walk is ‘Dornach’ from the 2005 project. It rained all day: during the walk and during the performance. I arrived at the performance site one hour early, and was working out the piece for that day over a hot tea. At first I was inclined to write a short piece. Then I thought: ‘no, because it’s raining, I will write a long piece.’ It comes out to a bit over 20 minutes on the CD, but the first performance was more than twice that long. A commuter on his way home stopped and said: ‘thank you: today you have given me the sun’.

Could you describe your experience of one of the walks?

The walk to Cypress Hills on April 29 followed the eastern border of Brooklyn. The route followed Newton Creek south, then crossed over to Cypress Avenue, went around Evergreen Cemetery, and through Highland Park to Cypress Hills.

Starting at 9:00 am at Java Street and Franklin Avenue, I walked east until Provost Street, roughly following Newton Creek south. Newton Creek snakes off the East River, dividing Brooklyn from Queens with a series of dead inlets. On the northern part of the western bank (the Brooklyn side) there is a large sewage treatment plant sitting on the third largest oil spill in history, after BP Horizon and the Exxon Valdez spills.  Near the water, there are many signs warning against fishing. South of the sewage treatment plant, industrial buildings, wreathed in razor-wire crested fences, sit silently on its banks.  There is a BP depository, trucking businesses, and a series of warehouses. I passed no-one walking, and very few cars.

I stopped at the inlet at the end of Apollo Street, looking through a chain-link fence at the Citicorp building in Long Island City, framed by decaying industrial buildings on the banks of the lifeless Creek. It was here that I first noticed the silence of this walk: there were no birds singing. Normally, we think of silence as lack of sounds made by humans. Sound ecologist George Hempton talks about silence as the absence of mechanized sound. This silence was different: it was a lack of animal sounds. In most parts of Brooklyn, even where there are heavily-trafficked roads, you can hear birds, if only faintly. Pigeons flapping, thrushes chirping, seagulls crying. Here there was nothing.

I walked under the high Kosciuszko Bridge rising over the Creek, and could hear the distant roar of the cars passing on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. When I came near the large National Grid parcel, home to two large natural gas storage facilities, a security guard in an SUV began to follow me. Far away from the cameras blanketing Midtown Manhattan, the watchful gaze of the guard, inching after me on the road, was unsettling. I noticed it more because of the isolation. It made me question what I was doing. Walking down a public street for a music project, I began to wonder if I had done anything wrong. Should I walk a different route? Should I turn back? Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing? What will I say if he stops me? It was a reminder of the surveillance under which many artists work, and I felt a kinship with Shostakovich, under constant watch by Stalin’s regime. I wondered in which ways I, as Shostakovich, had begun to censor myself. This seems to be the most difficult part of surveillance. After a certain time, I begin to watch myself, and to censor what I have to say—not because anyone asked me to, but because I am thinking about what I would answer them if I were approached. As I passed the long chain-link fence with razor wire on the top bordering the National Grid parcel, it occurred to me that private property was also a form a censorship. Part of my work is designing walking routes. Each piece of private property cuts off a potential through-way.

I continued through Bushwick down Morgan Avenue to Jefferson Avenue, where I crossed the tail end of Newton Creek. I passed warehouses, a concrete factory, abandoned industrial buildings, and some residential apartment buildings. Here and there, a new empty condo building had sprung up. On Stewart Avenue, I passed some remarkable street art, and stopped for a while to take it in.

Turning on the tree-lined Cypress Avenue, I passed rows of single-family townhouses with well cared-for lawns. Sleepy suburbs on a bright Sunday morning. I suddenly noticed birds singing. The neighborhood was very quiet. Here the border between Brooklyn and Queens is invisible; it’s hard to find any difference between the two sides of the street. The border leaves Cypress Avenue at Bleeker Street, turns down St. Nicholas, Gates, Wyckoff and Irving Avenue to Moffet Street. At Central Avenue, it disappears into Evergreen Cemetery. As there was no way through I walked around on Chauncey and Pilling Streets, turned down Bushwick Avenue to where it intersects with the the tree-lined four-lane Interborough Parkway. The roar of the highway was part oppressive mass of moving metal and part comforting hush of the ocean. After crossing the expressway, I walked along it for a while until reaching the woods in Highland Park, where a few people walked their dogs. Down the hill through the trees, I could hear an amplified voice announce a local baseball game in animated Spanish.

Coming out of the Park onto Force Tube Avenue, I passed a number of people outside touching up the paint-job on their cars. I performed in front of a bodega in a quiet residential neighborhood on the corner of Force Tube and Ridgewood Avenues.

The piece I played, “Cypress Hills, April 29, 2012” has four melodies, each made up of long tones with pauses in-between; there are longer silences between the melodies. It sounds something like wind chimes on a slow day. The piece was composed in the weeks prior, during my weekday walk to the office. The first melody came to me in pieces.  The first two tones (C,D) were the first to present themselves, followed by the third tone (F). I could “hear” them very clearly in my imagination, and they kept returning to me. As I kept walking, I sang the tones to myself, trying different note lengths, until the rhythm became clear. Here the walk helped: the note durations are either four or eight beats, each beat relating to one step. The pitches of the piece flowed from the first two intervals—a major second followed by a minor third: C-D-F-G-Bb. When singing through these pitches on the walk, I noticed that they shared intervals with the first phrase of Miles Davis’ solo on “So What”. I sang the solo over and over, extending the durations of the notes, transforming the rhythm, until it seemed right to me.

The sounds of the site flowed through the spaces between the notes: people calling to each other in Spanish, the high chick-chick of a Latin beat from a distant high-grade car-audio system, a child calling to her parents, the twinkling bell on the door of the bodega ringing as customers entered and left the shop, car motors idling at the stop-sign and then revving up as they passed by, the squeach of tires turning on pavement as a car parallel parked. As the two mechanics tested the sound-system during the installation process, Latin Rap poured out of the system across the street in two- minute chunks. A woman passing said to me: “Beautiful. Beautiful, baby, beautiful”.

During the performance, I got a very clear idea for another piece. Immediately following the performance, I sat down on the sidewalk and wrote it out, composing most of what would become “Bedford-Stuyvesant, May 6, 2012”. A passerby stopped, saying that I didn’t need to sit on the sidewalk—that no-one would mind if I sat on the nearby steps. I had forgotten where I was.

I ate my lunch watching cricket players in Highland Park, and then lay on the grass and took a nap. I then walked home, retracing my steps from the morning. The walk was silent and unrushed. I met few people on the streets. I was uneasy walking past National Grid, even though I didn’t see the security guard. As with many of the return walks, I was relaxed and open. Often on the walk to a site, I have to pay attention to the route, and am thinking about the performance ahead. Knowing the route and with no appointment ahead of me I usually I don’t think about too much on the return. I got home at 5:00pm and enjoyed a nice dinner.


For more information on Craig Shepard, please see his website, and information about his scores can be found at Edition Wandelweiser. There’s a video interview at thirteen in which Craig explains the project. See also Beth O’Brien’s documentation of one of the Brooklyn walks at her blog. The images in this interview of the walk on 26 February 2012 were taken by Beth, and thanks to her for letting me use them here.