The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

Craig Shepard’s “On Foot: Brooklyn” Project

When asked to describe his music, composer and musician Craig Shepard often answers with this question: “Have you ever heard snow falling outside at night?” The metaphor isn’t meant to be evocative of the way his music sounds, but of its intended effect on the listener: that incredibly still, quiet concentration one needs to hear tiny pieces of ice lightly pattering as they land. Shepard’s work is often called “silent music.”

Craig Shepard and passersby in East New York. Photo: Beth O’Brien.

On Sunday morning, March 18, Shepard stood on the corner of Java and Franklin streets in Greenpoint, about to begin his walk to East New York. During the week, he had composed a piece for trumpet that he would perform at 1 p.m. at the Gateway Center Mall, 8.6 miles away. As part of his “On Foot: Brooklyn” project, Shepard has been performing in a public space in a different Brooklyn neighborhood every Sunday since February 21. (The last performance will take place on May 21; the walks are all open to the public.) During these three months, Shepard has also committed to walking as his only means of transport—no bicycle, subway, taxi. He calls this a “transportation fast.”

On the morning of the East New York walk, the streets were empty and quiet; the sky was a uniform gray. Two people had arrived to join Shepard, and he was explaining the parameters. The walk was to be “silent”—but what exactly did that mean? No talking, sure. Cell phones were turned off and handed over. But for humans—a highly social species—simply not speaking doesn’t end the communication. In order to create a shared solitary experience focused on silence, Shepard has had to create a set of more explicit behavioral rules, including “no eye contact.” “No gesturing” is another, though there are three gestures allowed: stopping to take a bathroom break, stretch, or drink. I have even heard Shepard insist on “no laughing.” The point is to create a situation where the participants can concentrate fully on their own experience of the walk and their surroundings, unmediated by the thoughts and feelings of others. It creates a distinct kind of togetherness: “To just be there where we are, on that walk, together,” Shepard explains.

Having participated in a few walks myself, I know that this enforced silence can be very uncomfortable. Whenever I’ve found myself continually suppressing a desire to communicate and interact, I’ve become aware of just how integral my sociability is to my experience of the world. Our habitual behavior is mostly invisible to us and, paradoxically, becomes most visible when we consciously try to remove it. Each time its absence causes discomfort, the missing puzzle piece appears clearly, as do all the edges it touches. This discipline of negation and the resulting shift in perception can be found in many aspects of Shepard’s project.

If you happened to pass by Shepard performing his piece at the mall on that March Sunday, chances are you would’ve only seen a man standing with a trumpet in his hand. Many of Shepard’s compositions contain numerous lengthy stretches when he does not create any tones. To those accustomed to the idea of music as a continuous production of sound, this can seem strange. Silence, a concept often understood as more a negation than an actuality, is central to Shepard’s work. To be silent is to not speak, but your body continues to create sound, as does the world around it. Similarly, silence in a musical composition (as John Cage famously demonstrated) is never truly silent when performed, as there is no place in the world where a human ear hears no sound at all. “In composing pieces to be performed on the street, I try to compose frames,” Shepard says. “I want them to be invitations for passers-by to come and listen to the sounds that are already there.”

The possibility of transforming existence, both Shepard’s and others’, through deliberate challenges to ingrained responses to everyday life, is a central goal of “On Foot: Brooklyn.” The ideas of the Situationists, particularly those articulated by Raoul Vaneigem in his 1967 opus The Revolution of the Everyday Life (a new translation of which is currently being serialized in the Rail), were very influential for Shepard. The Sunday shared walks, Shepard’s commitment to traveling only on foot, the weekly deadlines he sets himself to make new compositions, and his outdoor performances are all “situations” Shepard devised with the intention of altering his and others’ reality through changes in daily activity. His project tends toward subtle shifts, as opposed to provocative or radical ones. “My trombone teacher, Frank Crisafulli, used to say that you want to grow like mold,” Shepard tells me. “I find that the important changes in life happen slowly, and take time.”


Beth O'Brien

BETH O'BRIEN is a Brooklyn-based artist who has been documenting "On Foot: Brooklyn" in photographs, video, and writing.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues