On Musical Shepherding 


The figure of the shepherd came to mind recently as I was working on music. At first I pictured literally a shepherd—a guy in galoshes shepherding sheep in the countryside somewhere, gently prodding the furry fellows up and over hillsides. Let’s go guys! (Which reminds me of an excellent book about the subject, James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, a memoir about work steeped in tradition and connections to place.) Then I looked up the word to remember that a shepherd is not only someone who tends to sheep, but also refers to “a member of the clergy who provides spiritual care and guidance for a congregation.” Somewhere between those different images of the shepherd is how I think of musical shepherding.

What resonates with me is the idea of tending to, and guiding, a piece of music along its journey from an initial idea to a more comprehensive expression. At any given stage in the process of music production, it’s as if there are hundreds of sheep (sounds, parts, ideas, motifs, rhythms, chords, melodies, effects, my hopes) wandering somewhat aimlessly, in need of direction. There’s so many sheep that I can’t even see them all—surely some are already lost, getting into trouble over the hill, or have their heads stuck in a fence? It’s overwhelming and so the best starting place is a place of patience. The music needs my patience—it needs me to hear it out, it needs me to gently suggest ways to improve itself or carry on with confidence. Sometimes it needs to be told to settle down and get moving; other times it just needs assurance that everything will somehow work out. Like the herd of sheep, or maybe even the members of a congregation, the elements of the music are trying to self-organize and doing fairly well (considering the endless possibilities), but they need focus. As shepherd, my job is to intervene when necessary (and free that sheep’s head from the fence) by helping the music’s elements coalesce better, and also maintain a safe environment for this to happen. My general philosophy applies here: the music will thrive if it has a quiet and mostly undisturbed space in which to graze.

One final aspect of musical shepherding: I need to keep my impatience and all manner of other personal shortcomings from impinging on the music’s grazing. While the sheep might not know it, I have my own issues. For example, I’m impatient and I always want everything done today, but the music may need another four or five months yet. My impatience blinds me to tiny pockets of beauty, or brief flourishes of rhythm synchrony or accidental counterpoint that could be even better if I just gave the music more time and attention. Another shortcoming is that I want to know before I know—I want the music to be something that it may not be. Another: I want to hear the “good part” first without letting what comes before unfold into it. I’m trying to be a better shepherd because I think that the music will best find its expression when I get out of the way. Let’s go guys! 

In the countryside, up and over hillsides somewhere, if the music’s elements were sheep they would be look up and think, Could you like, relax a bit? We’re good. It’s nice out today.         

Resonant Thoughts: Thor Magnusson’s “Sonic Writing” (2019)


“Incarnated as a digital instrument…all your behavior can be redefined using a language of algorithms that can be written and rewritten to change your nature. Indeed you might not feel that you have a nature as such, as a new software upgrade might change your behavior so completely that it does not remind you of anything you’ve done before. You turn schizophrenic, polyfunctional, and metadimensional. The coupling between the user’s touch and what you output depends on the program applied at the particular moment, so you don’t really know your user’s touch. Unlike the acoustic instrument that knows its user very well, your user behaves differently every time you are played, and that is possibly because you direct the user in what is possible. What makes you really excited is when you are given the opportunity to learn about your user and establish a relationship. You memorize what has been played, you analyze their performance, and you can respond, suggest, adapt, reject, save, or tease as you like. This is where you find meaning in your existence.”

– Thor Magnusson,
Sonic Writing: technologies of material, symbolic & signal transcription (2019), p. 35.