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Elliott Sharp Interview

Prolific, huh? You want prolific do you? OK then, I have an Elliott Sharp discography sitting here next to me with over 136 entries. Is that prolific enough? So he's hardly Sun Ra ... I know, I know. Of course, there's more to Elliott Sharp than just his astonishing work rate, but if the quantity of his music doesn't impress you, the quality and diversity will.

Even by downtown New York's excessively eclectic standards, Sharp is something of a phenomenon. Barely has he returned from a tour of Europe with his avant-rock group Carbon (their new album Amusia has just been released by Atavistic and Spectrum / Play It Again Sam) than he has to set everything else aside in order to write a composition for orchestra to a very tight deadline (Racing Hearts, written for the Bang On A Can festival's Spit Orchestra, was premiered in January). Since one rock group is clearly barely enough to keep the man busy, you could instead look out for his electric guitar quartet, Dyner's Club (album recently out from the Swiss Intakt label, they're already performing a new 50-minute composition), or Tektonics, where he controls a drum machine and other electronics via a Buchla Thunder, helped out by Melvin Gibbs on bass, KJ Grant and Dorit Chrysler's vocals. The most recent CD to arrive at ESTHQ was by the Boodlers, an improvisational trio with bassist Fred Chalenor and drummer Henry Franzoni. Straight improv is clearly too much like lazing around for Elliott, as this recording has been heavily sliced-and-diced via digital computer processing. It mostly comes over as more conventional in tone than much of Sharp's music, ditching angular tonalities in favour of rockist guitar solos and lyrical jazz tenor sax, but the digital confusion takes control on the collage-based Cambionics.

There are some people who would suggest that Sharp's rampant eclecticism falls prey to the "jack-of-all-trades" syndrome, and it's a suggestion that contains a grain of truth. But what's interesting about his output is that whether you're listening to a super-dense black-hole of a string quartet, to wired and wily solo blues guitar covers, or to one of his many bitstream juggernaut "rock" groups, there are ideas and attitudes that appear consistently.

Sharp's music embodies the revolution that science has undergone throughout the twentieth century. The age when Newton could formulate simple, precise rules with which to measure and explain the universe has long passed away, via a series of developments that have increasingly revealed the uncertainty principle at the heart of science: quantum uncertainty, chaos maths, fractals, strange attractors. All Sharp's music inhabits this meme-scape, reflecting the paradoxical combination of chaos and order that underlies the new physics. OK, I know, we wouldn't want to get carried away here, after all, it's just music, but however much your humble writer might back up Sharp's achievements with overblown verbiage, it's still true that the relationship between the rational and the irrational is what gives his music its on-edge, wired quality, and what makes it stand out.

I suspect that Elliott himself might be a little more modest, but he's clearly aware of the way in which his music acts as metaphor and representation for more than just a series of notes on a piece of paper. "Music is applied physics - at the risk of spouting 'new age sew-age' it is truly a direct application of vibrating energy systems. When I began to read as a child, I was sucked deeply into the world of sci-fi with Philip K. Dick being a major philosophical influence. A major lesson of both sci-fi and of recent science is that the borderline between them is rather tenuous. The paradigms of reality are continuously being shifted. Music is an abstract language that allows the composer and listener to continuously re-define reality - to process them, to post new definitions - a feedback loop."

If it's not too much of a jump, perhaps I'd better be a little more down-to-earth. Elliott's musical life began age six, taking piano lessons which led to taking part in a recital at the age of seven. "The 'practice' of piano took its toll on me", Elliott notes, "I hated it and developed asthma which nearly killed me. I long associated the collapse of my lung with piano lessons. I enjoyed the sound of the clarinet and began to study it at eight when offered it as part of school. It provided some sonic satisfaction and seemed physically therapeutic (although once again the so-called 'teaching of music' by bitter and incompetent idiots bothered me intensely)".

As a child, Elliott admits to having been an "extreme science nerd", and with track titles like Gigabytes, Calibrate, and Diffractal it's obvious his interest in science hasn't disappeared. He received a grant from the National Science Foundation to spend a summer at Carnegie-Mellon University.

"Rock in the form of the Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds, surf music, Byrds woke me up. I had discovered Jimi Hendrix and the many forms of the blues and bought a cheap electric guitar. I spent my time in the CMU lab designing and building fuzzboxes and playing with a seven-head tape machine. I scammed a midnight to 4am slot on the campus radio station. I would dig through the fairly extensive library and find all kinds of interesting records: the ESP jazz series (Albert Ayler is a fave), Xenakis, Harry Partch, Cage, Stockhausen, Indian music, Tibetan music, gamelan, B'ambuti pygmies, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, Ornette, Tod Dockstadter, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, Pierre Henry, Kagel, Ligeti etc. I immersed myself in sounds and in text about sound (Helmholtz, Cage, Partch, Leroi Jones, Xenakis all wrote important books about music, sound, acoustics; another important one was J.R. Pierce's Symbols, Signals, and Noise). My guitar experiments were informed heavily by all this stuff and the blues also. Blues guitar hit me extremely hard: the guitar was transformed through bending, use of slide, and distortion into a vocal instrument, transcending 'notes', melodies, chords, harmony.

"I played clarinet with a cheap microphone taped to the bell and plugged into a small amp of my own construction. I could do a pretty good imitation of Jeff Beck's ruder guitar solos. When I returned to finish my last year of high school (1968-69) I was more interested in psychedelic guitar noise in all its glory (feedback, preparations, 'extended techniques') than just about anything else (except for blues which I still listen to and play in Terraplane, which now features the vocalist Queen Esther) and I would play in as many situations as I could. I didn't think of what I did as 'Improvisation' or 'Composition'. This awareness came later as I entered into studies and battles in university with Roswell Rudd, physicist Burton Brody, ethnomusicologist Charles Keil, and composers Morton Feldman and Lejaren Hiller."

After a spell at Cornell University, where he performed in psychedelic bands such as St Elmo's Fire and Colonel Bleep, Elliott studied physics, composition, improvisation and ethnomusicology. He moved to the University of Buffalo to continue his studies. His studies with Roswell Budd, the composer and free jazz trombonist sparked an interest in ethnic music, which he developed at Buffalo with Charles Kell (he played guitar and saxophone in Kell's Outer Circle Orchestra). But if these learning experiences would have an obvious effect on his music, I was puzzled to discover precisely how well he'd got on with composer Morton Feldman, one of the teachers at Buffalo's Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the time. After all, the crazed abandon of psychedlic rockers like the Grateful Dead or Jimi Hendrix can still be heard in much of Elliott's music check out the guitar solos on Carbon's Tocsin for one of many examples. The blues have been an ongoing if often submerged influence - 1994's Terraplane album mixes Sharp originals with covers of songs by Otis Rush, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson and others. And it's difficult to find a Sharp album that doesn't bear the influence of ethnic time-signatures, harmonies, timbre or rhythm. Morton Feldman's music, which often relies on extremely slow playing, allowing (say) piano notes to linger beautifully, seems a pole apart.

"My encounters with Feldman remain perversely inspirational. I liked much of Feldman's music and enjoyed texts of his that I had come upon. At the University of Buffalo, he was the philosophical emperor of the music department. I took part in the Composer's Forum which held discussions (or rather Feldman held court and we listened) and presented our music. My first concert used a 90-second through-composed soprano sax melody played through a ring-modulator to tape, slowed down to half-speed, with a now 180-second melody, ring-modulated, over-dubbed. This tape was played back at half-speed again yielding a 360-second background over which I improvised again on soprano. Feldman called me into his office the next morning. In his thick Brooklyn accent with 2 inches of cigarette ash ready to anoint me, he pronounced 'Improvisation, I don't buy it!' and dismissed me.

"At our next Composers Forum event in March 1975 I presented my Attica Brothers piece based upon the eponymous prison uprising (I was involved in some support groups and activities around this). The piece used a microtonal melody (for maximum buzz and difference tones) for electrified string quartet plus conga drums, rock drums (the beginning of my association with Bobby Previte) and orchestral percussion. The parts (written out) were conducted by time-cards. The conga player played a 16th note pulse throughout. As we were about to commence the piece in a packed concert-hall, Feldman stood up and said 'Where's his music-stand?' pointing to the conga drummer. I replied that he didn't need one as he was cued by the conductor to begin and end. Feldman got up on stage, grabbed a music-stand and placed it in front of the conga drummer saying 'Now you can play it.' Again I was called into his office the next morning and told: 'You put too much sociology in your music - music should be listened to sitting in red plush seats and your music is for sitting on the floor!'"

As I said, Elliott's music is littered with pirated ethnic elements. From his early music I'd recommend the jazz-rock (now there's a fine example of how pigeonholing never works) Monster Curve CD collection. If the liner notes didn't tell you, you'd never guess that abstruse maths (the Fibonacci series) was used to generate tunings and structure, because it's the muscular, fevered, euphoric quality of the music that hits first. The up-front saxophones remind me of Moroccan ritual music, and the interlocking polyrhythms, overtone singing and tamboura-like strings (on Not-Yet-Time). This is hardly Paul Simon-style ethno-politeness, though, it's passionate music which re-creates the energetic rawness of the original inspirations rather than just the superficial trappings. The tracks originally from the Fractal album exemplify the musical paradoxes at work, combining these "ethnic qualities" with musical structures based on fractal geometry, although to my mind the turbulence thankly overpowers any hint of the ummm, algorithmic contents.

Similar ideas appear in a more extended form on the three-quarter-hour Larynx, a composition for four brass players, four drummers, string quartet and Sharp himself (playing sax, clarinet, sampler, electric guitar and bass). The brass players also play some of Sharp's invented instruments, including the pantar (a four-stringed, contact-miked large metal pan played like a guitar) and the slab (solid blocks strung as horizontal basses and bowed or struck like a dulcimer). The music owes a lot to the overtone-singing of the Mongolian tuvan, the Inuit or Tibetan Buddhist monks, with all the instruments tuned to accentuate the harmonic series. It's formidable, fertile music.

"As one throat-singer is an entire orchestra, I wanted an orchestra to function as my own throat. The source material was inspiration and metaphor. This piece was the culmination of my work with Fibonacci numbers, fractal geometry, and chaos theory. The Fibonacci numbers were used to generate structures, tunings (in just intonation), and rhythms. Macro- and micro-structures echo each other and appear in various forms throughout the piece - sonic ideas may appear in the strings in one place, in the percussion in another, in the homemades (slabs, pantars) in yet another place - always transformed, shifted in proportion or shape. Elements of improvisation would appear sometimes as foreground, sometime as background - even these roles could shift.

"The rich and varied functionality of music in non-western cultures has always been an important attraction for me (aside from the obvious: pungent and extreme timbres, complex rhythms, microtonality, incredible melodies). Music in western life becomes more de-valued everyday: a soundtrack for consumption. The extensive use of appropriation is as much the symptom as the culprit. In the 70s and 80s artists used appropriation to comment upon society and culture. Now it is used to disguise a general lack of originality and creativity. Icons are plucked from the datastream and recombined endlessly. Novelty effects are created - for me the affect is trivial. Witness the way samplers are put to use 99% of the time. A sure sign of a stagnant culture when the watchword is retro and people march full-speed backwards with a smug and 'ironic' smirk. Smaller and smaller chunks are re-cycled - now artists try to capitalize on nostalgia not for past decades but for past weeks or days. As we are surrounded by increasing amounts of raw data, we need some transformative mechanism to filter it and render it 'useful'."

The processing of data is a frequent theme in Elliott's music. To quote theorist Arthur Kroker,

"It entertains opposite impulses simultaneously. It's got the crusading spirit for the technical apocalypse. At the same time, it revels in a kind of violent primitivism ... It's perfectly schizophrenic".

He may have been talking about modern American culture, but it could just as well apply to Elliott Sharp's music.

"I see music as an agent of psycho-acoustic chemical change. Intent as a composer is of vital importance! I had always found it better to learn a technique or approach and then bend it to one's own talents or limitations. My own practice of khoomei singing is clearly related to its Tuvan sources but no one would mistake it for Tuvan. When I use this singing or some other 'extended technique' in a composition/performance, I'm providing a sound that has it's own resonant power in its inherent nature as well as providing 'markers' to steer the listener to other places and attitudes."

Elliott moved to New York in 1979, realising that it was probably the only place where he could pursue his musical interests, have an audience, and find like-minded people to interact with. "I had had some contact with some people including Giorgio Gomelsy, Eugene Chadbourne, Bill Laswell before I moved there and found it quite easy to make musical connections. I was living in cultural and physical isolation in western Massachusetts. Moving to NY was like 'coming home' - I immediately connected with the improvisors and played in the no-wave scene around Tier 3 and Mudd Club and Hurrah as well as doing session work, odd gigs and playing for dance companies. One day might include five gigs in extremely different environments, starting at noon and finishing with an after-hours gig at 6 in the morning. NY is about diversity - continuously changing scenes and casts of characters. A lot of the best musical experiences are social as much as musical. These factors can't be separated."

He also found time to run his own label, Zoar Records, releasing his own records as well as albums by Robert Previte, Mofungo, Guy Klucevsek and Charles Noyes. Zoar was also responsible for the classic downtown New York compilation State of the Union. Then, of course, there were the bands: Semantics, Bootstrappers, The Sync, Frame, Scanners, GX4, Sonicphonics, Terraplane, Slan, Dyners Club, Boodlers etc where Sharp teams up with Samm Bennett, John Zorn, Mike Watt, David Linton, Anthony Coleman, Geoff Serle, and more other left-field, mostly-NY notables than you can shake a microphone at. Elliott's own band, Carbon, have been the most long-lived and prolific of them all. For the most part, they've purveyed neurotic, angular funk-jazz-rock, at times as inoffensive as the worst of their NY neighbours, at times both looser and more edgy. I'd suggest Monster Curve, Datacide and Tocsin as suitable introductions. Expect relentless polyrhythms; trembling, pointillistic sax; guitars that sound like hammering on electrical cables; pointless tangents and pointed chords.

He has also remained visible in the world of free improvisation (see, for example, EST 6's interview with Nicolas Collins), although none of his recent recordings have been entirely improvised.

"I was never a devout free improvisor - intent and structure (information in process) were always too important. Improv can be fun to do but not always to listen to. I had always had strong feelings about how I wanted music to be manifested: the sonic elements, the structural elements, the balance of order and chaos, use of improvisation. I tried to pull these ideas together in 1980 as 'ir/rational music': ir being a bad pun on the ear and hearing. Rational having to do with structure, order and intent. Overall is the irrational: the tangential and spontaneous. Improvisation brings the music to life. Music should be MUSIC - the thing that can't be defined but that which maps sound to other natural forms and processes. Not all elements are always perceivable. I like it when the music reveals itself in layers and over time and when a given composition can have a very clear identity while manifesting unique internal detail with every performance. The various elements may exist as major guiding forces at one point and then become merely tools of orchestration. I have found these tools to sometimes recede in usefulness and then return again, screaming for attention. Fibonacci numbers are one such element: in my recent orchestra piece for improvisors, Cochlea (commissioned for the Inner Ear festival in Linz, Austria, March 1995) the fibonacci numbers were a predominant factor. As one applies these principles to different groupings of musicians or playing situations, an overall style emerges, no matter what the situation."

Sometimes, Elliott's music structured on some abstruse mathematical algorithm sounds as chaotic as the freely improvised music, and vice versa. It's not unlike serialist composition where however clear the mathematical structure behind the composition may be to the writer, it's rarely if ever audible. Fortunately, with Elliott's music, the structuring principles are just means to an end. If he often uses fibonacci-related tunings (the fibonacci series comprises the numbers 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 etc), it's because they sound good, as much as anything else.

Elliott has also become increasingly known for his compositions. Larynx stuck to an expanded version of the typical Carbon instrumentation, as did Sili/Contemp/Tation and the unreleased Redrum and Serrate. K!L!A!V! comprises "extreme music for various keyboards", encompassing sampler, commercial keyboards and piano. Sharp's Skew appears on the album First Program in Standard Time by the New York Composers' Orchestra (mostly a brass/woodwind ensemble).

Several albums exist with music for string quartet or similar instruments. Abstract Repressionism (the title is a Bob Black quote, trivia fans) is for the "Orchestra Carbon", and shows that Xenakis and Penderecki weren't the only composers who liked to fashion chaos and energy from the paradoxically taut, nervous quality of stringed instruments. It's a difficult, atonal, fractured piece, but a rewarding one. Hammer Anvil Stirrup, featuring the Soldier String Quartet (and combining the title track with the entirety of the earlier Tessalation Row album), is a more mixed affair, although the swirling, squawking layers of stringy, metallic wires on Tessalation Row; work well against each other, and there are even moments of lovely slow droning amidst the more usual storm of rapid-cut bowing. Cryptid Fragments (which, irritatingly, features some but not all of the Twistmap album) also features the Soldier String Quartet, but is more cartoony in style. On the track Shapeshifters, squeaky string harmonies vie with creaky door movements, tippy-toe plucking and rubber band rabbit hopping, suggesting that John Zorn isn't the only musician to have learnt a trick or two from Carl Stalling.

Interview conducted by eMail, March 1995, by Brian Duguid.