Craig Shepard and I moved in the same social circles in northern Brooklyn, frequenting some of the same spots, but we didn’t really know each other. The impression I had of him was someone with a tendency towards intense silences. A concentrated and slightly disconcerting silence had been the defining feature of the few interactions we had. It was a collaborative project, these silences, as I am decidedly reticent with new people myself. Rushing to fill a space with words has never been my role, as my mind tends to react to even a whiff of awkwardness with a complete cessation of all activity. My sense was that his silence was not out of discomfort but simply an aspect of his personality and relational style.
What finally brought us together is a very North-Brooklyn-2011 story: he is a composer and I am a graphic designer, and he was putting out a CD.
Graphic design is a side-project of mine; it’s more of a hobby than a career, allowing me the luxury of choosing only to work on projects I like. It’s too bad that CD packaging is most likely on the way out – it’s an art form I really enjoy. I’ll do everything from creating artwork, photography and logos to the layout. The largest project I’ve ever done was for a Brooklyn-based band named Nakatomi Plaza. You can see the project here: “Unsettled.”
Craig’s project and the album is called “On Foot”. In the summer of 2005, he walked 250 miles across Switzerland, carrying a pocket trumpet with him. Every night at 6 p.m., wherever he was, he would play a piece he composed that day.
After our initial meeting about the job, Craig sent me home with a rough edit of the CD. The album has six tracks chosen from the thirty-one compositions he wrote on the walk. Each piece is performed and recorded in the musicians’ own spaces. Though ranging from sparsely melodic to a series of elongated and repeated tones, all have one thing in common: ample space and time in which the musicians do not play. They are silent, but the recording is not. The non-instrument sounds, just barely audible, are an integral, though muted, part of the recording: indispensable background. You can hear the soft clacking as the keys are depressed, saliva smacking and the inhalation of breath. A refrigerator humming, heating or cooling systems, wind blowing, distant traffic noises.
In Craig’s own words, his work is meant to “frame the everyday sounds of the place in which they are heard”. In its philosophy it is a kindred spirit of anarchy, and the political ideals of non-hierarchical, egalitarian structures. It is in stark contrast to the idea of man in dominion over nature. His compositions are not written or presented with the intention of monopolizing the space, but in their delicate, simple melody or impressive precision, open your ears to all sounds.
As I laid on the couch listening, and occasionally dozing off, the recorded sounds of the instruments, players and environment amplified into my space, mingling with the sounds inside my apartment and outside my window. Mingling past and present.
It was in the many silences that punctuated every piece that I recognized Craig. What I had observed as a personality trait is, not surprisingly, an integral theme and concern in his work. Craig is a member of the Wandelweiser Group, a collective of composers and musicians founded in Germany in 1992 by Antoine Beuger and Burkhard Schlothauer. For the artists of Wandelweiser, much thought is given to silence as an important building block of a composition; to silence as a concept, a subject, a theme. They are the heirs to the work of John Cage. Of particular importance is “4’33,” the infamous piece in which no notes are played.
Though the silences in “On Foot” make the strongest first impression, they are not the most important element of the album. The musicians do, in fact, play their instruments. The incredible care and skill with which the music is performed and recorded is essential – the compositions would not work otherwise. The lovely, simple melodies of the second track, “Grottes de l’Orbe, le 22 juillet 2005″ are rendered rich and compelling by Katie Porter’s nuanced performance. At times the piece hovers on the edge of dissolution, the intermittent notes from the clarinet sounding like wind whipping through the eaves of an abandoned house on the edge of prairie. At these moments the piece mimics the accidental beauty of unorganized sound. But then it regroups and continues on with a complex sequence of notes, asserting its genesis in a conscious mind and realization through a skilled performer.
The first few times I listened to the album it was not with the intent to study or critique it. Listening this way, casually, I wasn’t immediately aware that the two tracks “Vallorbe, le 23 juillet 2005″ and “Dornach, den 2. August 2005″ were ensemble pieces.
On “Vallorbe”, four musicians (flute, clarinet, cello and percussion) play each note together with such skill and precision that they are nearly indistinguishable – at least to an untrained ear such as mine. There is melody here, but glacially slowed into long mournful tones.
The final piece, “Dornach,” is the simplest and most direct of the tracks. As an invitation to listen, it is the most straightforward. The 27 minute track is mostly silent, occasionally broken by the striking of what sounds like a large church bell. This crashing metallic sound never fails to jolt me awake, either from slumber or reverie. Its effect, and sound, is similar to the gonging of a metal bowl in Buddhist meditation practice: it brings the listener’s attention back to the present. Thus awoken, I listen intently to the following silence, until I wander again into sleepiness or into one of the myriad distractions, internal and external, which pull on my attention. For those who really listen there is a reward, a hidden treasure, in each tone. It was only after reading reviews that I finally heard it. Along with each percussive gong, hidden through a near-perfect matching of pitch, is a cello.
The final packaging for “On Foot”:
You can purchase the album here: On Foot.
I imagine coming across Craig performing a piece on a street corner, and, in the contemplation of his sound in the silences, I would become more aware of sound in general: the swishing of a passing bus, murmuring of pedestrians, blowing leaves, barking dogs, chatter of birds. It is an invitation to a fuller experiencing of my world as it transpires in the moment, an invitation to inhabit more fully a richer sensory present.
In this sense, his work reminds me of my first experience with Stan Brakhage’s films. Though opposite in its conceptual framework of presentation – the images are projected in silence within a space intended to block out all other aural or visual stimulus – the effect on my sensory experience of the world after is parallel. Following watching a series of Brakhage’s short films, notably including “Window, Water, Baby, Moving,” I engaged in a common post-cinematic-experience activity: I went to the bathroom. I still have vivid memories of this one bathroom visit, an experience of the world that was so painfully rich visually that, though I was completely sober, it bordered on the hallucinatory. The cold, occasionally flickering fluorescence, light bouncing off the small square tiles of the floor, the texture of tiny pebbled paint specks on the matte gray bathroom walls, the silvery shininess of metal fixtures, gleam of white porcelain sinks. No detail seemed to escape me – the world had become manically hyper-real. Brakhage’s work induced a shift in my perception towards really looking at things, as Craig’s work presents you with the opportunity to really listen – to everything.
In a letter to Dorothy Crisafulli on December 4, 2000, posted on the Wandelweiser site, Craig says:
I also enjoy sitting and listening to the interstate, or a busy intersection, or birds singing. The sounds just are. The beauty is in the sounds themselves, as opposed to their relation to each other (melody, harmony). I understand much classical music in terms of a story, or a journey. Tension, resolution. A melody ‘rises’ and ‘falls’. It moves and invites the listener along. I think with Cage, and with much of the music of my group, the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble, that the music doesn’t move. It’s just there. It opens up the possibility of listeners finding their own way through the sounds. There is no specific journey.
Though the music itself may not be about story, it was created within a classic story framework: the journey. And this was the first aspect of his project to which I connected, before even hearing a single note of the CD. Walking 250 miles across Switzerland in 31 days, even without the production and performance of music each day, is an enviable and compelling feat. In 2009, I traveled to New Zealand and, amidst a two-month-long journey, spent four days walking the 33.5 miles of the famous Milford Track. Though only a fraction of the journey Craig undertook, it was an exhausting, exhilarating hike. (Read about it and see photos here: Milford Track Walk)
The second aspect that interested me was the idea of walking long distances. As a meditative practice and creative catalyst. As a rebellious and almost ascetic act in an age of much faster and less personally taxing mechanical travel. As a distinctly slower and rich way in which to interact with the world. As a way to experience distance and space in direct proportion to human scale. As a challenge.
Craig and I plan to walk the entire perimeter of Manhattan in one day. 34 miles. That is one half mile longer than the entire Milford Track, in three less days.
The idea for the walk and the planning was all Craig’s work. Unlike the Switzerland walk, he has no plans to compose or perform. I realized last night while talking to Craig about his “On Foot” album and project that the plan for the walk is itself a composition. An indeterminate one in the tradition of Cage. He has created a structural outline, with points to reach at certain times during the day. What happens in between will be determined by the performers (I am one) and the uncontrollable events of the world at large. Having dispersed the information about the walk we are not even sure who will be joining us and at what point.
As I have told people about our planned walk the most common question is “Why?” My usual response is “Why not?” I think the true answer is closer to this: to see if I can. Or, maybe, to see what happens. But most likely the heart of the matter lies here: I want to have a story to tell. And I prefer that it be a good story.