Sonic Sculpture: Adam Shead's "Adiaphora Music," a master's recital


Adam Shead

Adam Shead's mix of punk, free jazz, and university-trained music gives his compositions a combination of raw grit and deep study.

As someone with a bachelor's of music in percussion performance from Columbia College Chicago and, soon, a master's degree in improvisation from the University of Michigan, drummer Adam Shead sounds like an academic. But while growing up in South Bend, Indiana, it was hardcore punk that first informed Shead's attitude and artistic aesthetic. That combination of academic rigor and raw energy is what makes Shead's drumming such a potent force, which he'll get demonstrate live on Friday, Dec. 8, at U-M's Duderstadt Video Studio when he presents his master's recital, Adiaphora Music. The seven-part suite features 11 musicians along with Shead exploring his influences, which run from Chicago visionaries AACM, Ken Vandermark, and Tim Daisy to South Africa's Dudu Pukwana, and contemporary classical giants Morton Feldman and John Luther Adams to H.R., lead singer of the groundbreaking punk band Bad Brains. We talked to Shead about his philosophy, sound, and the meaning of Adiaphora Music.

Q: What did you call the suite Adiaphora Music?
A: Adiaphora Music is named as such for two main reasons. The initial reasoning is due to the fact that Adiaphora Music for mixed chamber orchestra will be the first physical release from my personal record label of the same name. The idea to start my own record label came about due to the influence of Chicago luminaries James Falzone, Tim Daisy, Ken Vandermark, and Dave Rempis, who all publish and produce their own music. At this point in time, the recording industry is dying or is, in fact, dead, especially the world of recorded improvised music. This is due to many factors, lack of listenership regarding improvised music -- which continues to dwindle as generations pass -- the extraordinarily long timeframes currently required to release a record through traditional avenues, and the complete lack of respect for new ways of knowing musical expression. Due to the time-based nature of musical performance, the average audience has no interest in expanding their sonic palette, which of course transfers over to the world of publishing recorded music. This lack of interest in time-based performance is directly connected to the over saturation of information we face in the modern world, turning artistic expression into nothing more than clickbait. Whereas a piece of abstract visual art may be acceptable to the broader public, a piece of abstract sound is not. It is as simple as if you choose to stop looking at a piece of visual art, you may; whereas musical performance chooses when to have you stop listening. This requires patience, introspection, and commitment -- something modern human severely lacks. Secondly, I have been increasingly more interested in the idea of adiaphora over the past year. Adiaphora is a concept directly connected to religion, being that adiaphora is an action that is deemed neither moral nor immoral -- or rather, indifferent. As Morton Feldman states in his collective writings Give My Regards to Eighth Street, if music is indeed some type of religion, then the purpose of musical expression is to uphold the tenets of said religion. While this may seem fine and well one must look at the ways in which said tenets are upheld -- controls, techniques, experience in the object -- these things hold little value to me.

If I am anything, I am indifferent to the tenets of the musical religion we currently uphold as a culture. Rather, I am interested in the experience in the self, the place in which a work exists, the authentic experience of a listener. While technique and structure are not absent from my work, they seem to be less important; the ultimate technique being one's self. Adiaphora, or indifference, may seem to be a negative outlook on musical expression but I find it freeing, a way to abandon the hierarchy, power structure, and systematic racism of composed music through the freedom of experience; an experience unattached to the religious constructs of music but rather attached to the constructs of one's self.

Q: I know you went to Amsterdam in the summer to study cultural memory. Would you talk about what this means and how it plays a role in the suite?
A: Cultural memory is a faculty that enables us to form an awareness of selfhood, the awareness of everything around us -- past, present, future -- personal and collective. The idea of cultural memory is extremely important to improvised music, especially during the inception of what we now know as free jazz. The idea of taking in a culture as memory, synthesizing it, and creating new ways of knowing and forgetting due to said analysis allows for both advancements in culture and art, which are in no way disconnected. The advent of free jazz brought about the resurgence of many Afrological streams of thought and performance in improvised music, especially after the codification of black American music through academic and capitalistic pursuits. If the reader is interested in learning more about ideas of cultural memory they must look no further than the writings of George Lewis, Dwight Conquergood, and Erving Goffman. Adam Shead

Screengrab from a live session Adam Shead recorded at AADL in 2017 with one of his professors, trumpeter Mark Kirschenmann. Check it out here.

Q: Who are the seven musicians you honor in the composition and what does each mean to you?
A: Each movement of Adiaphora Music is dedicated to a musical hero of mine; in chronological order of performance, they are as such: Dudu Pukwana is a South African saxophonist and composer most commonly known for playing with the Brotherhood of Breath. This group, the Brotherhood, is quintessentially important to me due to their ability and willingness to transcend the apartheid of their time. Bringing like-minded musicians together through groove. Secondly, The Vandermark Five. Ken Vandermark's quintet is a Chicago staple; they taught me how to improvise, whether they know it or not. John Luther Adams is next. Atmosphere, space, silence; quintessential to concepts of introspection and mindfulness. Fourth, H.R. of Bad Brains, I grew up playing hardcore punk; it was my first musical love. Bad Brains spoke to me on a level many other bands couldn't; feelings of being ostracized or stigmatized -- they are still with me. Muhal Richard Abrams, founder and president of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). The AACM is THE most important group in improvised music. They changed the paradigm, they destroyed dogmatism while maintaining the tradition of great black music. One could write a book on the AACM -- George Lewis did, go read (A Power Stronger Than Itself). We all owe them a great debt. Morton Feldman, visionary, influential thinker, this man can write a thirty-minute piece using three pitches -- enough said. Lastly, Tim Daisy. Daisy taught me how to play the drums. Daisy may be the most influential drummer I've ever played with; he's here and there, everywhere.

Q: What is the multimedia component to the concert?
A: Each piece of the suite is prefaced with audio and video interviews from my time interviewing some of the finest improvising musicians on the planet.

Q: I know you received an enterprise grant from U-M's EXCEL program to fund your upcoming tour with some of the Dutch musicians you met in the summer. What are your other plans now that you're done with grad school?
A: After school I plan to make music, with virtue, unapologetically.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

The world premiere of Adam Shead's multimedia suite "Adiaphora Music" for mixed chamber orchestra takes place Friday, Dec. 8, at U-M's Duderstadt Video Studio, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor. Doors open at 7 pm; concert starts at 7:30 pm. Free. Visit the Facebook event page,, and for more info. "Adiaphora Music" concert personnel: Marcus Elliot - tenor saxophone/flute Beth Anne Kunert - alto saxophone/clarinet Kaleigh Wilder - baritone saxophone Mark Kirschenmann - trumpet Matthew Wildman - bassoon Ezra Gans - contrabassoon Celia van den Bogert - harp Karalyn Schubring - Fender Rhodes keyboard Max Bowen - guitar Kate Derringer - electric bass Aidan Cafferty - double bass Adam Shead - drums and composition