Interview with CMT Assistant Craig Shepard

Composer Craig Shepard directs Music for Contemplation in New York. He trained as an orchestral trombonist with Frank Crisafulli, and studied Renaissance sacred music with Ulrich Eichenberger in Switzerland. A member of Wandelweiser, he studied with Michael Pisaro, took a Deep Listening Course with Pauline Oliveros, and has worked with Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, and Christian Wolff.

 Photo by  Richard Howe

Photo by Richard Howe

What led you to begin Creating Music Together?

I’ve had a keen interest in working in groups beginning with playing Dungeons & Dragons and in rock bands in High School. This continued in free improv groups with Dave Rempis in college, and then witnessing the tremendous creativity in the vital exchanges within the Wandelweiser group. Manfred Werder and Carlo Inderhees are wonderful conceptual artists, and Manfred in particular—through a series of intense discussion over years—help me to sharpen my thinking around situations. Then in 2014—on my first Guitar Circle course in Tepoztlan—I participated in what’s called a “performance challenge”, where a group writes, rehearses, and performs an entire program of music in 24 hours. There the aim is to perform effectively on guitar; I began to think “what if the aim were creating new music together? What supports would people need to do that? What can I bring from my experience with Wandelweiser to that?” At the same time, I became blocked creatively myself, and had to accept that I depended on others to do anything.

Rather than working with only professional and experienced composers, or only beginning composers or those who just want to begin to explore creativity in sound, Creating Music Together puts everyone together. What do like about this approach?

The combination of pros and beginners supports both. The beginners invite the pros to let go of their assumptions and self-image about how music, while the pros are able to support the beginners in giving voice to what they hear. It seems that creativity—specifically composition—is an innate ability we all have.

How has your own work as a composer been influenced by your CMT experience?

On a practical basis—I write more. While spending time on the retreat last January and participating in the day-long workshops, ideas, fragments, phrases, and solutions to thorny problems arrive—seemingly from no-where. And a lot of that energy continues to be available after the retreat or workshop is over.

You’ve had experiences with other methods of “teaching” composition.  What makes CMT different than other methods?

I have had two younger musicians—Jonathan Ackerley and Doug Farrand—come to me in New York for 8-week mentoring courses. There the focus is their individual work. On CMT, the focus is on supporting others and working together.

In the CMT context, how do you think group work affects composition, which is traditionally considered a solitary endeavor?

One thing I suffer from as a musician is jealousy and low self-esteem. My brain often compares my work to others, constantly calculating if I’m better or worse. It can be excruciating and can completely block the creative energy. But while supporting others in Creating Music Together, the judgement, criticism, and nasty thoughts that “I’m not good enough” fall away. In supporting others, I take the focus off my self, and I feel better! And, importantly, take more risks and write more.

What do you think someone who comes to a CMT project can hope to absorb and bring back to their work at home?

What I most cherish is the direct experience—a knowing in my bones—that I’m not alone. When I take a moment, I can call to mind each and every person that has joined CMT, and know they are making their music.