The New York City Record Artist Feature on Elliott Sharp

Only a few days after his 60th birthday, the Issue Project Room (IPR) will be celebrating the work of guitarist and composer Elliott Sharp. It will be a mega-blow-out two-day event, staged at the old and new locations of this dynamic Brooklyn experimental music venue. Definitions of ‘old’ and ‘new’ are malleable. The current IPR manifestation lurks in the fetid Gowanus industrial swamp land, whereas the ‘new’ building is opening soon (it was originally built in 1925), in the organization’s impressive downtown Brooklyn surroundings. Already, though, concerts have been sporadically presented in its unfinished marble interior.

Sharp lives in the Lower East Side, but his long-established recording studio zOaR is situated in theEast Village. This 7th Street building is co-operatively owned, mostly by musicians. Besides Sharp, current inhabitants include Charles Gayle, John Zorn and Anthony Coleman. I interviewed Sharp there the day after he’d returned from a European tour, injecting caffeine at his mixing console and surrounded by his usual impressive assemblage of guitars. Sharp’s current activity was refining the 2002 score for an orchestral piece, “Calling”, which is being performed this month by the Sarasota Symphony. He’s‘re-engraving’ it, using superior software. “It’s the most tedious work in the world,” Sharp grumbles. “I hate it, but it gives me a chance to listen to [other people’s] music while I’m working.” As if there isn’t enough of his own extremely innovative music already littering the massively prolific Sharp’s daytime (and night-time) hours. He’s a certified omnivore, blessed with a complete understanding of and intuitive naturalness with both improvisation and composition. From string quartets to blistering blues combos. Solo guitar spontaneity to detailed computer shaping of electro-acoustic matter. Oh and Sharp can also switch, sometimes, to his saxophone and clarinet array. “Orchestral players are incredibly conservative,” he says, considering his screen of notation. “These days, there’s no money for rehearsals. You want to give them a score that’s absolutely perfect. There can’t be any discussion.”

Sharp possesses a dual nature. He appears scientific, diligent, organized and precise, carefully controlling compositions for large ensembles. Conversely, he’s eager to immerse himself in the turbulent flow of spontaneous musical interaction, improvising promiscuously with all manner of partners, from all musical genres. At his dirtiest, the guitarist will be spraying out scalding guitar solos in front of the Terraplane blues combo. The next day, he might be improvising fragile acoustic filigrees with a koto or pipa player. Or playing solo coruscations on his Godin eight-string guitar, as documented on the Octal albums for the Clean Feed label.

The first concert is a benefit to aid the opening of the new IPR premises and will be staged in this Livingston Road location. The second will happen at the out-going Gowanus factory space and will head deep into the night.

Actor and IPR board member Steve Buscemi will be hosting the first show with his wife, the visual artist Jo Andres. The evening will feature premieres of two Sharp pieces, underlining that here is an artist who might enjoy looking back, but only when taking the occasional break from looking forward. “I’ve known Steve since the early ‘80s, on the Lower East Side performance art scene,” says Sharp. “Jo is a film maker and choreographer who I began working with around 1984, composing music for a number of her productions.” In January, Sharp was busy preparing the double string quartet piece, “Occam’s Razor”, to be premiered at IPR. The other new work, “Trinity”, is written for the Godin electro-acoustic guitar, with narration by Buscemi and film by Andres. Sharp was drawn to the idea of a spatial quality, to take advantage of the new location’s impressive interior. For “Occam’s Razor”, two string quartets (Jack and Sirius) will inhabit alcoves to each side of the audience.

In assembling the works to be presented in this retrospective, Sharp paid careful attention to which pieces would successfully inhabit the acoustic spaces in question. He also wanted to emphasize works that have been created during the last decade, although many of these spring from artistic relationships that have their roots in the ‘80s, or even the ‘70s. Initially, Sharp approached IPR’s Zach Layton with the idea of a birthday celebration. “I like to observe certain milestones,” smiles the 60-year-old who looks more like a 50-year-old. It turned out that Layton was already on the brink of calling Sharp with this very notion of a retrospective.

Sometimes, when a record company gives him a budget, Sharp will record elements in an outside studio, but much of his work is laid down in the more relaxed environs of zOaR. “So long as I have good, solid drum tracks, I can do anything. A lot of times, I’ll redo vocals here, or I’ll have horn players come in. I think the most I’ve ever had here is six people. I renovated this place in 2000, put in a sprung floor, a layer of insulation. It’s actually more to keep other people’s sound out. The worst thing is the drug dealers, two floors down.”

Sharp enjoys his extensive music-tech firmament. “There’s a famous Harry Partch quote about him being a composer being seduced into being a carpenter and I feel like I’m a composer seduced into being an engineer. I was always kind of a geek, anyway!”

The essential question is, how does Sharp feel at 60? Has he attained his goals? “I think I’m just getting started. Mentally, I’m still that 17-year-old with an electric guitar and a fuzzbox. I always try to find a sense of discovery in what I’m doing…”

*For more information, visit
Sharp is at Issue Project Room Mar. 4th-5th and The Stone Mar. 15th with Alvin Curran and solo Mar. 23rd.

Recommended Listening:
• Elliott Sharp & I/S/M – ARC ONE: I/S/M(Atavistic, 1980-83)
• John Zorn – Cobra (hatOLOGY, 1985-86)
• Elliott Sharp – Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk!: Plays the Music of Thelonious Monk (Clean Feed, 2004)
• Elliot Sharp’s Terraplane – Secret Life (featuring Hubert Sumlin) (Intuition, 2005)
• T.E.C.K. String Quartet (Tomas Ulrich/Elliott Sharp/Carlos Zingaro/Ken Filiano) -String 4tet (Clean Feed, 2006)
Elliott Sharp – Octal Book One & Two(Clean Feed, 2007/2009)

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