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Brad Shepik: Sounding A Global Warming Warning

By Published: December 8, 2008
AAJ: Have you long been engaged on environmental issues?

BS: On a personal level, but not in a public way in terms of traditional activism. We recycle as much as we can, eat fairly locally; try to consume less of everything. I do try to stay informed and read about it. I've been interested in the writings of David Quammen, Jared Diamond, Alan Weisman and Edward Hoagland.

AAJ: You grew up in WA, correct? Does that mean you grew up hiking, camping, out in the woods and such?

BS: Yes, I grew up outside of Seattle and spent a lot of time hiking, camping and fly fishing, also skiing in the Cascades as a kid and a young adult when I lived in Seattle. We would also sail through the San Juan and Gulf Islands every summer on my Dad's boat. Also in and around the subdivision where I grew up there were woods and creeks where we played. Most of that has been developed since.

AAJ: Do you have any special memories of an individual place or outdoor experience that you connect to your interest in the environment or that came up during your work on this project?

BS: Many. I've been lucky in that I've traveled a fair amount, most of it because of music. I've gotten to experience natural beauty in Bali where I traveled for a month, Morocco, the Middle East, South America; many beautiful natural places in Europe including the Gorge of Verdone in France, Scandanavia, South America, Canada and many parts of the US. To me upstate New York is one of the most beautiful places I've been. And of course the Pacific Northwest.

Also this past spring I visited the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley which made a huge impression on me. To consider the time that it took to create those things and the forces that created them. Recently, I went to an outdoor exhibit in Paris that mapped the history of earth from it's formation to the present down a half a kilometer walk of 200 year old trees. It's in the Jardin des Plantes and runs through it from one side to the other. There were 6 billion years represented there and the appearance of humans was only the last 20 feet out of the exhibit.

AAJ: Have you seen climate change or other environmental problems that raised your awareness of the issue?

BS: I might have. But there's so little information, you really have to dig to find out what's going on. For example, as a New Yorker for the last 18 years I've seen several recent warm winters and huge temperature swings within 24 hours. But very little is mentioned in the media, so as laypeople we learn very little about what's going on unless we do the research ourselves.

Another big impression for me is the huge change I've seen the Seattle area go through since I grew up there; a large increase in population which begat rampant development, which led to more cars, traffic congestion and pollution. All of which puts huge stress on the environment which may have contributed among other things to the huge drop in the salmon population in Puget Sound.

AAJ: I'll confess to a deep personal engagement on this issue. Global warming is a tremendously pressing issue—a confluence of social, moral, economic, aesthetic, and multifaceted environmental issues. From global changes in weather patterns, to local shifts in our everyday environmental experience—changes in what trees we will see in our forests to loss of individual species. How did you grapple with this through your compositions?

BS: The same way I grapple with it in my every day life. There's not a day that goes by that it escapes my thoughts, probably because I'm a father. Basically I just try to be conscious of what's going on. However, to write completely programmed music didn't interest me. In jazz, we improvise, we tell our own story. I tried to set up situations for that, within the context of the individual movements. The piece has to succeed as music first. If someone says it doesn't have the slightest to do with climate change for them, that's fine—after all, some people don't believe human activity has a thing to do with climate change. In that case, all you can do is present the facts, with music all I can do is play it.

It's either perceived in a way that's intended or it's not—I'm not going to argue with a listener about how it should be perceived. I can present the context but anyone can ignore that. Aaron Copeland's "Appalachian Spring" was titled as an afterthought and had a completely different program than most people assume, yet it remains perhaps his most popular work. I think we can assume that music is expressing something sub or beyond verbal, no matter what program we attach to it.

AAJ: The title "Human Activity" could be interpreted as a direct challenge to those who claim climate change is not human-induced.

BS: It could be interpreted that way. But there's not any doubt in my mind that the speed of change we see recently is unprecedented. However the rest of the title is "Sounding a Response to Climate Change". I think humans have to actively and creatively work together to reverse the trend and figure out a way we can live on the planet or perish.

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Download jazz mp3 “Lima (South America)” by Brad Shepik