As can only happen in New York, I stumbled upon guitarist Brad Shepik's portentous suite Human Activity entirely serendipitously. Visiting New York for the day on extra-musical business, the evening began as a step around the corner to the 55 Bar to sample whatever music was on tap and quickly transformed into a night of singularly arresting music in the form of Shepik's debut of a suite constructed around the theme of global climate change.
Salient due to both its tumultuous, far-reaching structures and the gravity of its theme, the ten part suite fuses a diverse range of musical genealogies to form an experience whose rare ambition is matched only by the impact of its execution. From the discordant, pulsating opening "Blindspot (North America)," to the ethereal lament "Stir (Antarctica)," to the arabesque "Waves (Asia)," the suite presents a geographic and conceptual tour of the globe through the lens of climate change.
Seldom do concept albums hold together musically and thematically at the same time; often either the musical integrity or the philosophic agenda dominates to the detriment of both. In this case, Shepik employs his expertise in multiple musical cultures to deliver an eloquent statement of equal artistic, political, and humanistic urgency.
Corresponding with Shepik following the concert, the reason for this success became immediately clear: Shepik's deep concern over the fate of our planet and his dedication to expressing that concern through his composition and improvisation.
All About Jazz: This summer I had the distinct privilege of attending the debut of your new suite titled Human Activity. You have now recorded it and expect its release early next year (Feburary 7,2009). The composition is a commissioned work by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, correct?
Brad Shepik: The commission was from Chamber Music America and was funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
AAJ: The theme of the work is global climate change. Was this the Duke Foundation's requested theme, your vision, or a combination of the two?
BS: The project was conceived by myself. I wanted to connect my musical expression to how I felt about the earth and the environment we are creating for ourselves as a result of how we live. The idea to do that had been brewing in me for a long time. When I became aware of it I began to look for the right opportunity to undertake it.
AAJ: The composition is a 10-part suite, with the majority of sections devoted to a specific geographic region. Can you explain the conceptual underpinning of orienting the suite around these regions?
BS: The idea was to write a piece for each of the seven continents and five other pieces about factors of climate change such as carbon, desertification, the warming of the oceans, the changing currents. In preparation I did some research by listening to a lot of music from areas that I was less familiar with and also reading authors [like] Jared Diamond and Alan Weisman.
AAJ: You've had a lot of experience with world music. How do you define world music?
BS: It's a term of convenience, more useful in terms of marketing than a vivid description of a sound. How can one term cover such a range of human expression in sound? When I use it I'm referring to folk music that is indigenous to a certain area and is transmitted through a mostly oral tradition. It can get very slippery when defining exactly what that is in the modern world because of the spread of media and the ease of travel and communication. I meet musicians and music lovers from different parts of the world who listen and are informed by everything under the sun. Ultimately it all gets filtered through my own sensibility. Recently I was warming up at a sound check, improvising something and the bassist asked, 'where's that tune from?' I told him it's from Sterling Place in Brooklyn.
AAJ: What is the draw for you?
BS: The sound of human expression through musicunlike literatureI don't need to have it translated. We tell the same stories and ask the same questions about ourselves and our world. Since I was young, I was always interested in hearing different kinds of music. I would go to the library and check out records from the world or folk music bin. I used to spend a lot of time in used record stores too.
AAJ: Global warming is usually presented in the context of policy choices, politics, and scientific inquiry. There have been fewto my knowledgeaesthetic explorations of this terrain. What was the greatest challenge you faced addressing this issue musically?
BS: I don't know that instrumental music can really address this issue in a concrete way as well as songs with words can. That said, I tried to create a piece of music that takes the listener on a 90 minute plus journey around the globe and focuses on how these issues affect us as people living on the earth rather than people living in a nation. Hopefully, this context provides an opportunity for a greater awareness, and my hope is that it gets echoed from other directions.