The Sounds of Brooklyn on Foot
Seven years ago, composer Craig Shepard packed a pocket trumpet and a musician’s composition notebook and set off for a month-long stroll across Switzerland. Along the way, Shepard traversed 250 miles, composing a piece of music every day and performing it precisely at 6:00 pm in the Swiss town squares, harbors, and mountaintops that he reached at the end of each daily trek.
Now, every Sunday between February 26 and May 21, Shepard will be afoot on the sidewalks of Brooklyn, fanning out over 13 routes that intersect nearly every neighborhood in the borough for his follow-up project, On Foot: Brooklyn.
The walks begin near Shepard’s home in Greenpoint, at the intersection of Java and Franklin Streets, and arrive in diverse cultural, spatial, and sonic environments, among them Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Red Hook, and Gateway Center Mall in East New York.
Click on images that document the nearly eight-mile walk to Red Hook:
Participants are welcome to join Shepard for the walks or just the performances, which are scheduled for 1:00 pm and go on rain or shine. To walk in Shepard’s shoes, there are only two stipulations: Shepard asks that walkers leave their cell phones at home and that they travel the entire route in silence, whether it is a 12-mile hike to Coney Island or a brief jaunt through North Brooklyn.
Watch the video:
The works that Shepard performs at the terminus of each walk were composed on prior, private walks — those to his midtown office each morning during the work week “One of the reasons to do the project,” Shepard explains, “is to change my own thinking. The project lasts for 13 weeks, which is 91 days. Ninety days is the amount of time it takes the brain to develop a new neural network. I was curious to see what would happen in those 91 days when I’m not taking any other form of transportation.” That’s right, Shepard doesn’t use public transport or cars at all for the duration of On Foot.
As for the music itself, Shepard likens it to slowly ringing wind chimes. Others, as he mentions on his website, compare it to the experience of listening to falling snow. However one characterizes the work, Shepard’s performances challenge not only traditional notions of melody but also what constitutes music itself.
Citing as inspiration composer Christian Wolff’s idea that if one listens long enough, everything becomes melody, Shepard says, “One of the reasons in On Foot: Brooklyn to have tones and silence is then the tones start interacting with everything you start hearing.”
The long tones he sounds on his trumpet seek communion with the given sounds of the performance setting, priming the brain for the ensuing, prolonged rests that allow the sound of a passing bus, a door latching shut, or the wind shaking the branches of an ailanthus tree to fill the sonic space Shepard’s notes vacated.
During a recent performance in Bensonhurst, a woman stopped for a moment to listen to Shepard play, and after a short time she wondered aloud, “Why is he only playing one note?”
Looking back on it, Shepard remarks, “She had only been there for two minutes, and other notes came later, so her experience was a guy standing on the corner playing one note. She didn’t experience it as a melody. Would that have changed if she had stayed? I don’t know, but I’d be curious.”
Shepard plans to publish a book of photographs about the project with filmmaker Beth O’Brien, who photographs each walk and performance, and then creates a stop-motion video.
View the walking routes:
View On Foot: Brooklyn dates and locations in a larger map.