Best known as an improviser associated with New York’s fertile downtown music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Elliott Sharp is also a prolific composer, producer, installation artist and record-label honcho. I’m sure I’m overlooking something really important here that he also does: Elliott’s such a polymath it’s easy to forget entire strains of his career. He’s constantly working, playing, touring and composing, while in person he’s both relaxed and humble. I don’t know how many musicians you know, but please understand, these are rare qualities, especially when combined with actual talent.
Sharp’s densely packed and highly rhythmic music restlessly explores intersections: of beauty and chaos, of microtonal variations and larger musical gestures, of styles and genres that might seem divergent and unrelated until you hear him. Omnivorous and discerning at the same time, his approach is matched only by the equally restless John Zorn. Schooled at an early age in piano, Sharp plays every kind of stringed instrument (though mostly guitar) as well as alto and soprano sax; a science whiz in high school, he made his own guitar effects boxes in the 1960s, has since made his own stringed instruments and was among the first musicians of his generation to work with computers and sampling technology. He draws inspiration from scientific models such as chaos theory, biological algorithms and the Fibonacci series.
I first met Elliott in 1986, when he would regularly visit See Hear, a music-book and fanzine shop in the East Village, where I worked on the weekends. We got the chance to reconnect when his wonderful collaborative work Volume: Bed of Sound was installed at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery in the summer of 2001. Volume consisted of a huge bed interspersed with installed CD players that each played an original work from the likes of Tony Conrad, Lou Reed, Muhal Richard Abrams, Phill Niblock, Vito Acconci, and Sonic Youth. That piece seemed to reflect a desire to connect a galaxy of experimental sound with a larger audience, which has always struck me as one of Sharp’s greatest aims. We reconnected again via email for this interview.
Mike McGonigal What are your earliest musical memories?
Elliott Sharp My grandmother banging on pots and pans to get me to eat; music on cartoons, including Disney’s Fantasia; cowboy songs. I also studied classical piano very early on, from age six to eight.
MM Early piano lessons can almost turn you off of music altogether. What was it like for you?
ES I liked Liszt and Chopin, dark fast stuff, but did not enjoy the practice discipline as instilled by my parents. I also didn’t like the repertoire used to teach children. Wish I had known then of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos! I had good facility and was performing Liszt at seven, but developed asthma and nearly died. I’m convinced today that it had to do with the piano pedagogy. After recovering sufficiently to return to school, I studied clarinet. I liked the sound, and a wind instrument was good therapy.
MM Did the science of sound interest you early on? I know you were quite the junior scientist.
ES I liked noise and machinery a lot. My father designed speakers and microphones for University Loudspeakers, and I was very fond of going into the factory and listening to the punch-presses stamp out speaker baskets and then going into the anechoic chamber and listening to the void. There were always various texts on electronics and acoustics around the house, and I was encouraged to indulge my curiosity. This led me very quickly into the realm of sci-fi, almost from the time I first learned to read. At 11, I built a short-wave receiver and transmitter from kits and would often just listen to the sound of the layers of noise. On a good night, it was so three-dimensional as to seem infinite.
MM I know that science and music still overlap for you in a lot of ways.
ES There have been some very direct correspondences, especially in terms of fractal geometry and chaos theory, but also in terms of a more metaphoric translation of concepts into sonic and compositional strategies. Recently I performed twice in a series called “Entertaining Science,” organized by the Nobel Laureate chemist Roald Hoffmann, where he brings together artists and scientists to present their work to an audience. At the first of these, I performed a solo guitar piece using a tuning based on Fibonacci numbers in a program together with Benoit Mandelbrot, the discoverer of fractal geometry and a very inspiring thinker and personality. The compositions “SyndaKit” and “Radiolaria” for my ensemble Orchestra Carbon both make use of algorithmic approaches derived from the workings of recombinant RNA and the dynamics of bird flocking and wolf packs.
MM I’m really interested in where the art-making part of your mind and the science-fascinated part of your mind meet.
ES Mathematics and the various sciences are just ordered ways of looking at and analyzing all of the raw data supplied by the universe. It’s all about mappings and correspondences. At the same time, my work often takes a speculative and irrational/intuitive approach. I believe my work bears the same relationship to “real music” as science fiction bears to “real science” or “real literature.” For me it’s a mode of working that gives me the greatest freedom. I call it “Ir/rational Music” as it includes both the ordered and rational, the intuitive and irrational, and the acoustics of the ear.
MM You’re a lifelong fan of science fiction, and have even been interviewed by some sci-fi fanzines before. What is it that first attracted you to sci-fi, and which writers interest you now?
ES Growing up in the ’50s, space was the place. Time travel, rockets, aliens and dinosaurs were always on my young mind, and I immediately gravitated to sci-fi from the time I first learned to read. Sci-fi writers I especially like now are Jack Womack, Greg Egan, Pat Cadigan, Kathleen Goonan, Lucius Shepard, Michael Swanwick, Jonathan Lethem, Rudy Rucker, and Tony Daniel. And I’ll always love Philip K. Dick and Cordwainer Smith. Not sci-fi but sometimes in the realm and absolutely worth reading are Richard Powers, Jack O’Connell, Jeffrey Ford, Tim Powers, and Haruki Murakami.
MM How did you find out about all the cool music you were digging as a teen? You were listening to Albert Ayler, the Fugs, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, Harry Partch, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ornette Coleman, Jimi Hendrix, the Master Musicians of Jajouka. . . . Damn, it would seem hard to get hipper than that in the mid- to late ’60s!
ES The great thing about that time was how much of that stuff was just in the air all around. Don’t forget, the Top 40 in those days included Hendrix, Cream, Airplane and so on. Journalists would write about these things and the records were available even in chain stores. I also used to go to the local library and hitch into New York to use the library here. There were great books by Harry Partch, John Cage, Xenakis, Henry Cowell, Frank Kofsky, LeRoi Jones—all pretty easy to find. Finally, when my science-geekdom took me to Carnegie-Mellon University on a National Science Foundation grant in the summer of 1968, I got myself a midnight-4 AM slot on the school radio station, WRCT, and played the weirdest stuff I could find in their pretty well-stocked library, resulting in my getting fired over the air when the station director decided unilaterally to change the format to corporate bubblegum.
MM Now, at college you worked with free jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, right?
ES Yes. With Roswell I studied jazz, especially Monk and Ellington, world music and improvisation. In fact, he was one of the main reasons I decided to go Bard College in 1972. He had a huge wealth of information to impart, but one of the greatest modes of learning was in “the hang.” I can’t stress this enough! I had a dog in those days, great dog, very smart. She’d sing duets with me when I played alto sax, but the sound of the trombone would really raise her hackles. She and Ros once got into a serious duet of blatting, growling, barking and tooting. Wish I had a recording of it!
MM What was New York like when you moved there in ’79? How hard was it to get started playing with folks?
ES I had hooked up with people like Giorgio Gomelsky, Bill Laswell, Mark Kramer, and Eugene Chadbourne before I moved to New York. Plus I had shared a house and played in a band up around Bard with Steve Piccolo and John Lurie, so when I arrived I met a lot of people pretty quickly. Still, many situations were locked up, so it took a while to really get going, especially to book my own gigs. The East Village was a real epicenter due to the cheap rent—also Tribeca, because of places like the Mudd Club and Tier 3. It’s amazing how much time was spent just hanging out. We lived on next to nothing, but it didn’t matter. Apocalypse was in the air and creative nihilism flourished.
MM Is that kind of spirit alive today?
ES One thing about New York at the moment is that most of the people I know here don’t buy into the fear-propaganda that is being put out by the government to terrorize people into accepting the current situation. Good old New York cynicism helps filter the jive. Unfortunately, we are still in the USA and subject to its rules. It could get to the point where all of this generates a burst of creative light, but it hasn’t happened yet. People are reeling a bit, still processing, and figuring out what to make of things and how to deal.
MM If you had to describe the ’80s for you musically in one or two sentences, what would that be? And the ’90s?
ES The ’80s were a time for going wild, exploring, finding new strategies and approaches. The ’90s were a time of development and dealing with the realities of being an artist in a world run by commerce.
MM You have a handle on tons of different styles and genres in your own projects, and you work with an eclectic group of folks as well. You’ve got the roots and blues thing down with your band Terraplane and your work with Eric Mingus, the blues singer (and Charles’s son), and you’re doing an increasing amount of orchestral work as well as a fabulous overview (on Tzadik) of your string quartet pieces from 1986–96. And just in the past year you’ve performed with eclectic guitarist Marc Ribot, “krautrock” singer Damo Suzuki, avant-rock guitarist Nels Cline, turntablist Christian Marclay, jazz pianist Anthony Coleman, Arabic classical virtuoso Zafer Tawil, powerhouse jazz drummer Bobby Previte and Japanese avant-pop musician Haco, among many others! Is diversity itself a goal, or are you just drawn to many different styles, methods and genres?
ES It’s more the latter. I’m generally interested in the full process of musicmaking: the acoustics and the subtexts, the language of cultural manifestation. I feel great resonance with many approaches—to do them is more an issue of orchestration and of channeling the feelings.
MM Your discography at this point includes well over two hundred albums. Did you ever feel you’d reach a point close to this?
ES I don’t really think in terms of generating numbers—I just try to do my work, and eventually it adds up. Sometimes I feel like I’m just getting started as a composer.
MM I read in another interview that you consider your playing an “outgrowth” of your compositions.
ES The various theoretical strategies of composing generate all sorts of sounds, techniques and approaches that can then be applied to one’s own instrumental playing. These may be brought to bear in an improvising situation. When improvising, I try to hear the entire arc of the piece even in the first few gestures. This is an unconscious process, yet it can have a direct effect on the nature of the playing.
MM Do you ever hear any of your music in your head first—say, while improvising?
ES Improvising is very much a real-time process, that is, it all takes place at the moment. However, “composing” really takes place internally for me—setting down what I hear in my head when I walk around or stare at the ceiling or out the window or in a state between sleep and awakeness. The question becomes capturing it in notation or in a sound recording before the state dissipates. My orchestral writing is almost all done “in my head,” with the computer used to notate.
MM What does it feel like when you are improvising?
ES When it’s really working, one is in a state outside of any thought or feeling. Sometimes it’s necessary to pop back “in” to listen, strategize, tweak something.
MM You mentioned computers; how long have you been using them on stage?
ES I’ve been doing live computer music since 1986 with my Virtual Stance project, in which I used an Atari ST with samplers, drum machines and processors, and early on I saw the limitation of a person onstage with a computer. It lacks the stink, the transmission of pheromones and the sweat equity that is the manifestation of passion. With the Powerbook, later, I was able to integrate interfaces to guitars, reeds and the voice, which brought in more complex acoustic source material to manipulate and also gave me more lateral room to maneuver in real time. With the piece Living Room, I use a small microphone that I swing over my head. I get both the microphone feeding back in the room and the mechanical sounds of the mike on its cable moving through the air as material to manipulate with the software. It makes a very real connection from the sound to both the space and the physical activity.
MM Are you still working with Eric Mingus?
ES Definitely! Eric has a huge amount of creative energy and possesses one of the great blues voices—it has power and range, and he also has the ability to take it into other realms. His voice and his poetic lyricism are a potent combination. We found it incredibly easy to write together and feed off each other in performance. Eric’s record (which I produced) should be coming out soon in the US once the business side of it gets straightened out. Plus he’s still singing with Terraplane.
MM How’s Terraplane doing, then?
ES There is a brand new Terraplane CD, Do The Don’t on zOaR, and we have a European tour in April/May with performances in Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Austria and then a UK tour in November.
MM What drew you to start that band in the first place?
ES I’ve always loved blues in all its forms and have played it in various situations since I first began playing guitar, in 1968. Blues was the music where I heard guitar transformed into voice. The first Terraplane record, on Homestead, was a way of giving thanks and paying tribute to all the great blues musicians who inspired and healed me over the years. The later versions of the group were a way of bringing contemporary grooves and guitar sounds and techniques I developed with Carbon into a blues context. With Terraplane, I worked with the legendary Hubert Sumlin, guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf for 30 years and a major inspiration to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Robbie Robertson, Henry Kaiser and many others. Hubert is on the new record and at 70 plays with amazing fire and inspiration.
MM You mentioned the business side of things a little while ago. As you maybe know, I started my own little record label, Sad Robot, last year, and I know yours, zOaR, has been going on for 20-plus years now. What is your best record-label experience? Is there such a thing as a great record label from the artist’s standpoint?
ES It’s been almost universally wretched, with some brief exceptions. Even though they don’t promote the records at all, John Zorn’s label, Tzadik, pays a decent advance and at least does a beautiful production job, and I trust John Zorn as a longtime friend and supporter of the artist. I’ve run the zOaR label since 1977 and have been ripped off by distributors left and right. At a certain point you say “Basta!” and only sell to the honest ones, as few as they are.
MM So what is your worst experience? I remember your being rather upset with SST back in the day . . .
ES Can’t really say who the worst has been. SST was disappointing because we felt they were “us,” that it was a community thing and that they betrayed that. Ultimately they paid a certain amount of royalties at least. One can never really know how bad it is, because it’s so easy to cook the books. They all do it.
MM I was recently in Austin for the South by Southwest festival, where rock/blues/ folk/et cetera bands were reinventing the wheel left and right, some of them doing an excellent job at it—most of them, of course, not. I realized that most of my peers have fallen into some sort of nostalgic trip, whereas I am always amazed by how much good music there is, despite trends that come and go. How do you see the state of music of late?
ES There is certainly a lot of current music that I like, though I really only get to hear what comes my way—stuff people send me, stuff I hear at festivals or the few clubs I go to. I’m unfortunately quite ignorant of a lot of new bands and players. I do hear a lot of good things, people trying to do deep work. I just don’t hear much that burns and pushes things in any new directions. It’s too easy for people to settle into a postmodern approach of appropriating, imitating or paying tribute to the past and doing the obvious. There’s too much “nice” music—and on the other extreme, too much noisy stuff that seems to lack heart or interesting structures or forms.
MM The second attempt at a hostile takeover of Iraq has recently begun. How are you coping with this shit?
ES Of course this war jive has me furious. Since the coup d’état that passed for the 2000 election, I’ve been raging and raving about the state of things—writing music is good therapy, as is web research, talking and correspondence. It’s just amazing that Bush and company are able to do what they do so blatantly; they’ve had this agenda in the works for years and most Americans are too ignorant and complacent to comprehend it. The activists have a huge task ahead. We all can just do what we can, build international networks of resistance in various ways. Music is certainly one of them.
MM I was just looking at a book about the Living Theatre. And while some of their work doesn’t seem to date very well, it—plus the war—really got me thinking about the varieties of political art. In what ways is your music political? Is simply the act of asking your public to question general assumptions about music, or to perhaps hear things in a new way, a political act?
ES There are various ways of being political—sometimes I’ll compose commentary or reaction to specific events or actions. An approach I favor involves encoding “pointers” to be followed and investigated. These take the form of actual musical materials, and extramusical materials in the form of samples or references in titles.
MM What are some examples of those kinds of references?
ES “Free Society,” with its samples of Pat Robertson, “Just Cause” from “Datacide” and the pieces “PKD” and “Kipple” with their references to Philip K. Dick; “Kargyraa” is a reference to a particular type of Mongolian throat singing, “High Rise” to the Ballard novel and “Oil Blues” to the current state of things. To get back to the larger question, on a more abstract front, organizational ideas within the music also map philosophical and social ideas. Because this is not pop music, these ideas have a longer life span but take a proportionately longer time to develop. They do work their way into the flux if they are vital enough. And finally, it’s most imperative to take part using one’s music in progressive political activities, especially fundraising benefits. At the moment the most important of these are activities against the war and governmental repression on all fronts and also against the Israeli occupation in Palestine. The last of these is especially resonant with my experience as a Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor. When Jews say “Never again!,” they’re unfortunately saying it only for themselves—this allows them to justify alliances and activities of the worst sort. Nothing makes a Jew angrier than to see other Jews acting like Nazis. Everything else is just a continuation of work that began with the free speech, civil rights, reproductive rights and antiwar movements of the ’60s. As we move into a new feudal era where the corporate oligarchies rule across national boundaries, education is only for the wealthy while the middle class is decimated, and the least we can do is keep bringing out information and trying to catalyze people to take whatever actions they can. Related to this is the Al-Mashreq All-Stars, a project I did last summer at Lincoln Center as part of the summer festival—I served as music director, arranger, composer and player. The theme of the festival was the Middle East, so I wanted to bring together a small orchestra to play its members’ music in a way that transcended individual and regional styles. It was an incredible collection of musicians and included vocalist Natacha Atlas, multi-instrumentalist Bachir Attar, from Jahjoukah in Morocco, cornetist Graham Haynes, Palestinian oudist and vocalist Marwan Abado, turntablist DJ Mutamassik (Giulia Lalli), Chicago drummers Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang, the Bedouin musicians of Muhammad Abu-Ajaj and Palestinian multi-instrumentalist Zafer Tawil. It was truly a beautiful experience that I hope can be duplicated somewhere.
MM What haven’t you done yet that you most want to do?
ES A completely staged opera or musical theater production, and also a film. I’ve worked on ideas for a number of such projects. It’s a question of focusing on one of them to bring it to fruition.
MM I totally want to know more about these things!
ES I’m loath to talk about the specific ideas publicly until the biz is solid, but let’s say that I hope to realize some of these projects within the next two years.
MM Which musicians out there are you dying to work with that you have not?
ES I’d very much like to collaborate with Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor—they’re all longtime inspirations, with massive creativity and comprehensive visions. I’ve worked a little with Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, and we’ve discussed further collaboration—likewise with NY’s Ensemble Sospeso. That would be fantastic, as they are all amazing musicians.
MM If you had to write a mission statement for yourself, what would it be?
ES To manifest sonically!
—Mike McGonigal is a writer and editor (and sometimes sculptor/musician) living in Seattle, Washington. He edits the art journal, Yeti, coruns the record label Sad Robot and is writing a book about the making of the movie Love in Vain.