Music : Portfolio

A selection of pages from Elliot Sharp’s score Foliage, with an introduction from the composer.

All images from Foliage by Elliot Sharp. Courtesy of the artist.

“Using graphics software, Elliott creates the visual equivalent of what he does with audio editing software in a live performance. Altering what he sees the same way he alters what he hears, by modulating, distorting, filtering, stretching, multiplying, layering, inverting, blurring, and ultimately exploding the traditionally written sheet music.”

Excerpted from Christian Marclay’s forward to Foliage, London, August 2012

In its primary function, Foliage is a graphic score open to interpretation and realization by any instrumentalist or ensemble of any size; for an extended duration or a succinct hit; as a concert performance or sonic installation. Much of my composed work uses traditional notation, often the most efficient way to convey instructions to such ensembles as a symphony orchestra. Improvisation also has been extremely important for me, the best way to create social music. But there is another path between composed and improvised, that is often best represented with graphics. Foliage is a culmination of my work in this approach, the closest I’ve come to presenting the “look” of what I’m hearing when I compose in my Inner Ear.

A score may be a detailed roadmap for the performers but it may also be visual manifestation of the sounds the composer hears as they create a work. Music strictly determined in sound and time is well presented in traditional and common Western notation. Other musics require a visualization that reflects their inner workings: perhaps non-linear and tangential, perhaps governed by other rules than Western harmony and melody, perhaps suggesting structures more conceptual or algorithmic than architectural. Graphic scores at their lowest common denominator may be seen merely as pretty pictures. As someone who has loved making and examining visual art from an early age and from studies of works by John Cage, Morton Feldman, Anthony Braxton, Iannis Xenakis, and others, I found great resonance with graphic approaches and found using them opened up very fruitful channels.

Use of graphic scoring also brings forth certain concerns. Any visual input to a musical interpreter will somehow affect their output and thus, the performer creates a unique manifestation of that provided material. As a composer, one must acknowledge this essential activity of the interpreter and how these actions are often the final arbiter of the music, even in through-composed pieces. If one is to claim the mantle of composer, the sonic vocabulary and syntax of a given piece then must be defined to the extent that the identity of the composition will be clear and distinct even though the internal detail of the music may vary from performance to performance.

These defining parameters became apparent to me when I delved into algorithmic and graphic approaches with the pieces Noise Floor and Spectral Shift from 1972 and Hudson River Compositions of 1974. A major impetus in these compositions and work that followed was the creation of a consistent sound design and/or operating system for each piece. Often, a specific mode of manipulation of sonic raw materials was the defining characteristic of a piece and the basis of the approach. This strategy has continued to the present day whether working with orchestra or smaller ensembles and whether or not the score is absolutely fixed or with open elements. For example, the recent piece Oneirika for the ensemble Zeitkratzer uses a mixture of approaches while Foliage is purely graphic.

Since first plugging an electric guitar into a homemade fuzz and ring-modulator in 1968, my strategies for manipulation of sonic materials were shaped by evolution in both hardware and software. After acquiring an Atari ST personal computer in 1985, software control and randomization of various parameters became a viable strategy for real-time processing of instruments. Direct audio manipulation in a personal computer became possible in the early ’90’s and I reveled in the use of this means of creating sound and processing acoustic instruments. However by the turn of this last century and the reality that extreme sounds were quite easy to achieve with only a mouse-click, digital sound processing became devalued and began to lose its appeal for me. I was missing the “sweat equity” generated by more labor-intensive strategies. More importantly, acoustic instruments pushed to their limits with extended techniques possess a tactility, immediacy and complexity of timbre that is unmatched by electronics (for now). When the means of audio production is a vibrating string, column of air, a membrane, or a reed, one has a greater sensation of the movement of molecules in a space, a greater perception of the initial transients within which so much of the identity of a sound resides.

In desiring to rely more on acoustic instruments, I tried to devise means of evoking extreme sounds in scores such as Hammer Anvil Stirrup from 1988 which combined computer-generated images with text instructions plus traditionally notated rhythms and pitch-maps to strike a balance between explicit instructions and poetic ambiguity and a sense of process. Scores such as Hammer Anvil Stirrup dwell more in the realm of an oblique narrative, catalyzing the sounds in an arc of time rather than providing a one-to-one correspondence with precise instruction sets. In this way, the score depends especially on the creative interpretation of the performer, allowing them to go beyond any particular set of definitions.

For the string quartet Seize Seeth Seas Seen from 2007, I composed fragments in musical notation and saved them as graphic files which were then subjected to various types of processing in Photoshop. Seize Seas Seeth Seen was written for Sirius String Quartet but has also been performed by cellist Dave Eggar and various ad hoc groupings that I have assembled. The images were inverted, stretched, filtered, modulated with various waveforms, and otherwise distorted to create a score that retained a resemblance to musical notation while manifesting its own visual identity. For a generation of musicians raised on sonics, texture, densities, personal sound editing, and graphic notation of all types, the images evoked a fairly consistent set of gestures balancing both their own personal interpretation as well as my own input and desires. This approach has become the basis for later pieces including this one.

The process was refined further for Volapuk, commissioned by Gunnar Geisse for his guitar trio in Munich and premiered at the T.U.B.E. gallery there in December 2008. The primary focus for Volapuk was to create a score that would evoke very specific sonic manifestations but could be playable by guitarists whose technical and music-reading skills varied widely by generating visual elements that either explicitly referenced audio waveforms or were transparently descriptive in their appearance. Each page generally displayed one image and was designed to evoke less of a narrative than a sonic projection. Performance operations included having all players each play one page at a time in unison and assigning timelines corresponding to changing of the pages; giving players different pages to be played simultaneously; making mosaic patterns of timelines with each player having different sequences of pages with some overlapping and unisons. Ultimately, for the concert performance of Volapuk, I defined a structure for the manifestation of the score that combined all of the above.

With my participation in a performance of any of these graphic pieces, I might discuss with the players why a certain graphic appears as it does and what it evokes for me in terms of evolution of sound over the timeframe. I may ask the players to imagine a single sound and how that sound would be modified when applying the processes implied by the image. Parameters include smooth versus rough tones, varieties of modulation, randomness versus deep control. No sound exists in isolation though, and the decisions of any player will be modified by the sonic actions of the others in an ensemble feedback loop. These scores are dynamic, never fixed, so that music will be different with each and every manifestation.

With Foliage, players may “read” through the score sequentially or randomize the pages; focus on one page or encompass the total. Various simultaneous verticalities may be created by giving players different combinations of pages for use as unisons or separated parts. For ensemble performances, the pages of the score may be projected or enlarged and printed and displayed. As musicians move between the various stations, their sounds will be choreographed in a suite of movements that will both manifest the music spatially but also develop its narrative arc through the cumulative effect of the iterations, superimpositions, and transformations. There is never a notion of correct or incorrect in Foliage. I welcome any manifestations and hope that the reader, player, and listener may hear it as they see it.

The final aspect to be discussed in Foliage is the visual. It is a piece of retinal art as much as it is an instruction set for sound, form and function interlocked. The individual pages are complete in themselves, some more simple, others not so. One may also look at the pages as sequences and sub-sequences; when quickly scrolled, they take on the form of animations. All have been created through multiple layers of processing. The result is a manifestation of that internal synaesthesia that is the translation of thought, emotion, and process from one set of frequencies to another.

Elliott Sharp, New York City, July 2012

Elliot Sharp is a composer and musician based in New York City.

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