the guitar player and multi – instrumentalist that connects the blues with mathematics and the theory of chaos says that he doesn’t like ”artificial divisions” in arts. For Elliott Sharp, being a musician isn’t an exclusivity. He did some visual work in the past, his instalations are getting as important as his performances and he has some projects with visual artists. One of them is Janene Higgings, with her intimate and very feminine video work. And he is an artist exactly when he is a scientist, because almost all of his creations explores elements coming from mathematics, physics, biology and so on. When we say that the author of “The Velocity of Hue” is an experimentalist, that’s true in more than one way – his music experimentations are also science experiences…an interview by Rui Eduardo Paes
Rui Eduardo Paes | How would you describe your partnership with the video-artist Janene Higgins? You already called the work you do with her “more a soundscape than music”. That doesn’t fit very well with what we know about your music…
Elliott Sharp | My partnership with Janene Higgins is both a “life partnership” and a “working partnership.” One cannot just walk away from differences in aesthetic approaches – we discuss everything and find a way to be both true to our individual visions and to create something that merges into a common work.
Edgar Varese had made the best definition ever of music: it is organized sound. This is simple and elegant and I suscribe to it completely. Of course, there are various conventions used to describe stylistic gradation and perhaps I am guilty of this in describing my work in this context as “more a soundscape than music”. My music has been described at various times by critics, other musicians, and the lay-public as “horrible noise,” “not music at all”, “just a big ‘fuck-you’.” So, perhaps in their own way, they are saying it is “more a soundscape than music”. I will say that in all of my work, sound and all that it includes (timbre, transient attack, the harmonic structure, duration, dynamics) are at least as important if not more than mere pitch relationships.
Rui Eduardo Paes | You have also a solid activity in the sound instalation field and you wrote and recorded several film scores. What you play in «Suspension», «Ombra» or «Prey» with Janene Higgins have anything to do with those two areas of work?
Elliot Sharp | All of my work activities inform and feed each other. I find odious the artificial divisions categorizing human experiences and activities. I don’t put barriers up – sound-design, improvisation, narrative musical concepts, principles of underscoring – these all come into play equally and transformatively in this collaboration.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Higgins work is known for the feminine intimacy of her videos. It’s a very personal world, and very gendrified. How do you interact with it?
Elliot Sharp | Gender issues have been very much a part of the mainstream of cultural/political discussion in American thought for many years now. While I may not address these issues directly in my own work, to be a progressive and activist artist means that one must understand and be part of the feminist movement! I don’t like didacticism and I don’t think Janene does either! In collaboration, one must find ways to support each others speculations, visions, acts – sometimes with understanding, sometimes without any calculations at all.
Rui Eduardo Paes | I know that Janene improvises sometimes with her camera, her tapes, laptop and mixers. You’re also known as an improviser, but I’m aware that you’re not really a devout of free improvisation. You said once that “improv can be fun to do but not always to listen to”. So, at what extent you’re going to improvise in this portuguese performance next September?
Elliot Sharp | In our performance, I map out areas and define approaches within these zones. We may also agree on points of intersection and cues. Within these parameters, I will improvise the internal detail of the sound within planned strategies or sonic realms. Besides my own vocabulary on my instrument, I may bring in soundfiles that I have prepared in advance. Finally, I sometimes use digital processing plug-ins in my laptop that have absolutely no predictability in their usage – this is certainly a type of improvisation.
Rui Eduardo Paes | You also said once “I don’t think of what I do as ‘improvisation’ or ‘composition'”. This is an old subject and many musicians today are not concerned with what is improvised or composed, solving the problem with the sentence that “improvising is to compose in the moment” or “composing” in the studio what they improvised before. I still think, anyhow, that things are much more complicated than that. What’s your position about this?
Elliot Sharp | “Improvising is to compose in the moment” remains a truism, however I choose to concentrate on other ramifications. I resonate to structures that map natural forms and processes and have explored a number of strategies over the years to manifest this. The most esthetically successful have been the algorithmic approaches utilized in such compositions as the recent “Quarks Swim Free” (2003), “Radiolaria” (1999), “SyndaKit” (1998) and a number of others dating back to “Crowds And Power” (1982) and “Tessalation Row” (1986). These pieces all use simple instruction sets to create a defined structure and operations that simultaneously allow for infinite variation of internal detail in the realization – the contradiction of a composition that is always the same yet different. I hope to create compositions that function more as living organisms and that take their operational metaphors from biological processes as much as the mathematics of chaos theory and fractal geometry and musical grammar.
Certainly improvisational ideas from the 50’s-70’s make their appearance at times within the operating systems of these pieces yet they are not at the central core. So-called “free improvisation” became a rigid genre very early on with its own set of dogmas and rules, high priests and inquisitions. It did not interest me much except for those few individual players whose own personalities transcended the typical. I especially disliked the antipathy to rhythm and groove in this movement – these elements remain vital for me. More and more in recent days, I am asked to compose for ensembles that do not improvise – orchestras, contemporary ensembles. One wants to preserve the vitality and visceral quality found in the best improvisation. I try to use algorithmic processes to create one version and “freeze” it to create a fixed score. One may hear this in such orchestra pieces as “Calling” (2002) and “Racing Hearts” (1996), both performed and recorded by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt.
Rui Eduardo Paes | I never heard you talking about what you do in this area as intermedia actions. You’re always more concerned with the sound/music part of it. Does that happens because you do this seeing yourself as “a musician” and nothing more?
Elliot Sharp | I’m not often asked to speak about things other than musical or sonic! When I describe my installations, I try to remain simply descriptive or technical. When I work with musicians in ensembles, I more often use visual and mathematical metaphors to describe the desired processes. I define successful installations or compositions as having “inevitability” – one can only describe it and its synaesthetic effects by hearing it – it escapes being reduced to verbiage. My first and most concentrated artistic activities were visual: my obsession as a child was drawing and painting and I even exhibited work at the ages of 8 – 13. My activities were discouraged by a few idiotic and destructive teachers and so the visual work left my focus.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Some of your music deals with technology. What’s the importance of technology in your work? Does technology enable you to do things that would be impossible without it?
Elliot Sharp | Technology has always been a fascination but ultimately, it’s a tool and tools have always been a way of catalyzing intellectual and physical evolution – they are extensions of our complete selves, whether it’s a stick used to dig out honey or plug-in used to achieve real-time granulation – a means to an end and the end is infinite! Growing up in the 50’s, science was everywhere and touted in the propoganda as the means by which war, hunger, poverty, ignorance, would be eliminated. I was a science geek growing up and thought I would be a scientist. At age 17 I received a National Science Foundation grant for work I had done – this allowed me to go to Carnegie-Mellon University for the summer of 1968 where I immersed myself in extreme musics as a DJ at the radio station and spent most of my time in the lab experimenting with multi-head tape decks and designing and building boxes to process the sound of my newly-acquired electric guitar.
I also made the connection between the funding of science by the Pentagon and Defense Department and decided I did not want to contribute to the Vietnam War or any other militaristic activities. But technology and sciences remained an interest and I delved into synthesis and sonic experimentation. I had sounds I wanted to make, processes I could imagine, but lacked the means to realize them. In this service, in addition to extended techniques and procedural strategies, I embraced first analog and then digital delays and later, by 1986, samplers. When the first personal computers became available, I acquired an Atari ST and in my Virtual Stance project starting in 1986, pioneered the use of personal computers in onstage realtime improvisation and processing using the software M, a precursor to Max/MSP. This extended to using the laptop onstage when it first became available in 1992, both in solo work and in my ensemble Carbon. The computer allows one to “play” with sound, to mold it, to easily try out unpredictable processes and see if they resonate with the inner ear.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Almost in the opposite end of technology (if we forget microphones and studio devices) we have “The Velocity of Hue”, a record with simply an acoustic guitar, playing what I like to call, in the good sense, of course, “broken blues”. Simplicity and blues are synonimes for you? Are the blues always in the roots of everything you play and compose, regardless of the situation, even those in which you use Fibonacci series, algorithms, fractals, strange atractors and so on, factors of complexity?
Elliot Sharp | When I first began to delve into the world of music, I was very much influenced by the 1966 collection of writings by LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) in his book “Black Music.” In speaking of Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, he spoke to how they always retain a blues feeling, a human voice, no matter how “out” they get. I took this to heart and found equal blues feeling in the music of Blind Willie Johnson, Iannis Xenakis, Archie Shepp, Muddy Waters, and Harry Partch. I always try to apply this. “Velocity Of Hue” makes a very explicit connection. While it sometimes overtly references blues gestures, it equally deals with my own extended technique vocabulary created in the service of exploring the overtone series and other sonic realms. It’s not at all about “simplicity” – blues music may be very complex: sonically, structurally, emotionally.
Rui Eduardo Paes | Your atraction to science and mathematics is explained also by what atracts you to technology (wanting to see how things work)? But… what about your fascination for sci-fi literature and cinema, in which is the imagination, the impossible, that matters? I know that you like the little games played by the equation between order and chaos. Why?
Elliot Sharp | Sci-fi was always a means by which an author could speculate on future possibilities as a relatively safe way to analyze and critique the present. I see my own work defined as “ir/rational music” bearing the same relationship to “music” as science-fiction bears to “science.”
Rui Eduardo Paes | Even if you’re influenced by new music, classical contemporary, free jazz and several ethnic musical traditions, I can’t stop seeing you as, essentialy, a rock musician. The use you make of all those references seems to me filtred by a rock vision. Am I wrong? It bothers you, to be seen as a rock musician? Well, not a very common rock musician…
Elliot Sharp | It doesn’t bother me to be called a rock musician any more or less than it does to be called an improviser, a noisemaker, a jazz musician, etc., etc. As I mentioned before, I don’t like genrefication. I really see myself as a composer who uses a number of approaches to manifest the sonic work. At the same time, I certainly was first and most inspired to get on this path by the innovations of guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds but it was only a question of months before I found my way to Stockhausen, free jazz, and the wider world of non-Western musics. Rock at that time was the “voice of my generation” and it resonated loudly against the government and for open attitudes towards everything. But rock soon therafter became stolid and stagnant and is now quite reactionary (at least musically).
Rui Eduardo Paes | Man of many interests, scientific, literary, artistic and musical, you’re also a multi-instrumentalist. You play several members of the guitar family, but also the soprano and the tenor saxophones, the bass clarinet, and you invented some stringed instruments. I see a relation there. You’re feed by multiplicity. I suppose you’re conscious of that?
Elliot Sharp | I do believe diversity provides the greatest fertility for creativity. I try to keep my eyes and ears open. As to the various instruments, one might see this as an act of orchestration – an attempt to channel the feeling of each particular activity through the filter of my own personal strategies (and to delve along the way into the great histories of these instruments).
Rui Eduardo Paes | In a very different way from the American mavericks in music, who tried to reinvent almost everything (OK, Cage loved Satie, an European composer with a big historical burden at his back, but look what he did with him), you and other musicians in the same circunstances can’t have the same, let’s say, “innocence”. You’ve heard everything. Does that determine what you do in some way? Does that limit you, or is it the condition to do something else? But it’s really possible to do what anybody did before in the present day? Do you have notice of any new directions in music?
Elliot Sharp | I find all of the innovators of the last century (Cage, Ornette, Cowell, Varese, Ayler, Partch, Coltrane, Xenakis, Monk, Hendrix, Stockhausen, Miles et al) to have VERY strong roots in historical thought and activity. Their innovations are certainly real but have to be seen as part of the greater flow of ideas. I don’t believe this has changed much for many of us – we look back and forward simultaneously. But for younger musicians perhaps the extremely wide-ranging activities of the last part of the 20th century is a troublesome burden as if there is no turf left that they may call their own.
I hear a lot of work that seems to define its parameters of operation within a very tiny range – composers that ONLY explore glitches, or granulation, or sinewaves, etc. To me, it’s like a writer that says they will only use vowels or the letters between J and Q. There is also an incredible feeling of ambivalence in many of the scenes I have experienced. But i do believe it is possible to remain “innocent” and therefore excited – we certainly haven’t heard everything or experienced everything. That is the unfortunate premise of post-modernism with its reliance on appropriation and smug irony. There is always something new to be discovered, to be heard, to be played – we are not yet inhabiting a static entropic planet. If we could imagine the next paradigm, then we would be able to define it. But since it’s beyond our imagining, we can’t know it until we are part of it – living Godel’s Proof!
Elliot Sharp web page