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Elliott Sharp’s Essential Guide to Being Elliott Sharp

Elliott Sharp by Andreas Sterzing

By Elliott Sharp

Editor’s note: For many years, I’ve been challenged and inspired by the work of Elliott Sharp, who has etched a place as one of America’s most dynamic modern composers. He’s hard to pin down both musically and literally, since he regularly travels the world for performance, recording, commissions, and likely a bit of leisure, too. Some of the artists that he has worked with include Debbie Harry (Blondie), Kronos Quartet, guitarist Vernon Reid, poet Allen Ginsberg, actor Steve Buscemi, violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn, pianist Cecil Taylor, as well as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Hubert Sumlin, Jack DeJohnette, Sonny Sharrock, Christian Marclay, and Bachir Attar.

How does he accomplish so much? Is he really human or is he a superhero of music? So I asked him. Straight up. How does one become Elliott Sharp? What follows is a strange, wonderful journey into the world of a mad musician, composer, instrument builder and closet scientist. This is E# unfettered. — Jeremy Young

Improvisation and Composition

Improvisation and composition dance around each other in an interlocked feedback loop. I have always wanted my composed music to emulate the spontaneity and unpredictability found in an exciting improvisation and my improvisations to have the inevitability and satisfying narrative arc that a well-structured composition possesses. These polarities are not mutually exclusive. This applies across the board, whether I’m composing for a symphony orchestra or solo guitar piece.

Step One: Learn to see the lines that separate musical polarities as flexible, blurred, and dotted. Or, unlearn the parameters of musical compositional organization altogether.

Breakfast

Begin the day whenever possible with the elixir of life: caffe doppio ristretto. Repeat when necessary. Some mornings I like to start with a heart-pounding cup of drip coffee made with Bustelo: two heaping tablespoons of coffee in a paper filter and just enough water to produce an output of one half-cup. Electric drip coffeemakers are convenient but make bad-tasting coffee.

Elliott Sharp
E# Octal by Scott Friedlander

Guitar inspiration

Between 1966-68, my ears were first opened to the guitar on the acoustic front by country blues players such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Charlie Patton, Skip James, and Blind Lemon Jefferson and on the electric front by Jimi Hendrix, Link Wray, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, as well as the music of Captain Beefheart and the electric blues innovators: Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, Otis Rush, and more. I was thrilled by the vocal quality of the slide guitar and by the sheer range of possibilities, from total noise to pure lyricism, on the electric. The modern jazz guitarists with their melodic and harmonic mastery came in on the tail end of that wave: Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall. They all transmitted, simultaneously with the wonders of the music itself, a variety of technical approaches to the instrument, all important for me in terms of learning the history of contemporary American guitar and the sheer mechanics of producing a wide range of sounds with fingers and strings. Finally during this period, I was most excited to hear the new sounds in jazz guitar as exemplified by Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, and Larry Coryell.

I was thrilled by the vocal quality of the slide guitar and by the sheer range of possibilities, from total noise to pure lyricism, on the electric.

My father had an inexpensive and all-but-unplayable Harmony acoustic guitar that I would attempt to plunk on occasionally but I did not begin to study guitar in earnest until January 1968. I tuned the Harmony to an open D chord, laid it on my lap, and using a test tube from my chemistry set for a slide (I was a science geek — test tubes were easy to find but broken wine bottles were in short supply), began to learn Delta blues playing. I taught myself chords and scales in conventional tuning.

Eventually, I was able to purchase a Hagstrom III electric guitar and a small Fender amp and set out to make my way with the instrument. I had been using my knowledge of electronics to build fuzz boxes and other distortion units for friends and made a couple for myself and began to explore the sonics of the instrument in a process of self-discovery in a parallel path to developing traditional technique. In the summer of 1968, before my senior year in high school, I was off to Carnegie Mellon University for a National Science Foundation fellowship for the summer. In addition to my required lab work, I continued to work on effects circuitry for the guitar and experimented with an Ampex tape deck.

More importantly, I obtained a DJ slot on WRCT from midnight-4am where I could plumb the depths of their incredible music library and share the results on the air. This work at WRCT brought me to the music of John Cage, Harry Partch, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley, Györgi Ligeti, Henry Cowell, Bela Bartok, Morton Subotnick, and Steve Reich, not to mention non-Western musics from the B’ambuti pygmies, the gamelans of Bali and Java, Korean p’ansori singing and shamanic musics, Bulgarian choirs, Japanese shakuhachi playing, tibetan ritual music, and so much more. In the realm of jazz, there were Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, Pharoah Sanders, Charles Mingus, Don Cherry, Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, Milford Graves. So many sounds, each with their own identity, each channeling a unique mode of expression. My mission was to learn how these musics worked, how the sounds were made, how I could emulate, imitate, pay tribute, or just find a way to fit in and around with my electric guitar, a process that continues to this day.

One of the important goals was not to think or listen or practice as a guitarist, but as a musician. This meant trying anything and everything and doing it obsessively. This led, in 1972 after I began studying with composer/trombonist Roswell Rudd at Bard College, to taking up the saxophone, practicing hand drums, and learning Afro-Cuban bell beats and claves, later studying viola and cello. This, in turn, fed back to playing the guitar.

Step Two: This section was long, and I apologize for that, but one’s path to musical inspiration is a line that is as long as you want to draw it, not as long as the page on which you’re drawing. It’s obvious now that my path to understanding the guitar was shaped by instrumentalists across a range of styles, time periods and cultural contexts, as well as composers who had no interest in guitar whatsoever. It’s up to you to be able to extract what you find so fascinating about the people that inspire you, and prod that curiosity by asking your own musical questions. And ultimately, seek out your own musical answers!  

+ Learn more: Take your band to the next level with the fundamentals of band leadership in our course, Building a Better Band.

Cheap Guitars

I’ve always loved cheap guitars, the kind that I saw in the Lafayette Electronics catalogs in the mid-’60’s. These were not top-of-the-line instruments by any means, but my favorites had a space-age/psychedelic charm that still holds true. Made by Guyatone, Hoshino, and other manufacturers, these guitars prove incredibly useful for adding color to a track or for kicking oneself out of predictable patterns. The pickups from these guitars have lots of personality and putting them into a Tele or Strat yields some wonderful results.

[Ed. note: Elliott runs a Facebook page chronicling his exploits in building Franken-guitars, check out “Jalopy guitars and other mutant instruments” here.]

Elliott Sharp performs “Free Society” on David Sanborn’s NBC television program Night Music in 1990.

Strategies for Guitar

The path to guitar knowledge ironically, depends on not taking the guitar itself as an iconic motivic force. I trod a dual path: one concerned with left- and right-hand technique, harmony, scales and patterns, improvisation within specific genres such as bebop and blues, et al; the other started with the conception of the guitar as a series of oscillators and a resonator, a sound-producing device devoid of stylistic history and dependent on intuition and experimentation.

I was also attempting to push the envelope of traditional technique to obtain different output: picking at extreme speed becomes texture, open tunings and close intervals lead to a different kind of texture.

Before I could properly play a major scale but inspired by my researches (especially into Cage and Cowell), I was using pieces of wood and metal to “prepare” the instrument, playing aleatoric patterns using gestural two-hand tapping, detuning the strings, feeding back, and using a homemade ring modulator. I didn’t think of my freeform noisemaking as either improvisation or composition — it was just a personal process that was incredibly satisfying to do. There was no concern with right or wrong notes, just the search for sounds in flux. I was also attempting to push the envelope of traditional technique to obtain different output: picking at extreme speed becomes texture, open tunings and close intervals lead to a different kind of texture. Around 1972, I found recordings from like-minded contemporaries and predecessors including Keith Rowe, Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne, and Hans Reichel and felt that I was not alone in my quest.

Step Three: In order to learn your instrument through and through, perhaps it’s best to strip it of its assumed or inherent properties. Try to see your instrument as a tool for vocalizing all the possible sounds you hear in your head. I like to think of it as working the instrument from inside out.

Walking

It clears the brain. Some of my favorite pieces of music have been composed while walking. There are streets I’ve walked on nearly every day for 35 years yet still see something new if I turn my head the right way at the right moment — this is music, too.

Either/Or performing Elliott Sharp’s “Venus and Jupiter” at The Kitchen

Composing for Ensembles

The symphony orchestra is an extremely powerful additive synthesis engine with a slow and cumbersome operating system written over 300 years ago. Once hacked, some amazing sounds can be produced but it means making sure that every little black dot is in the right place. The high technical level of symphony players means that one can write complex music and have a reasonable hope of it sounding as intended.

I’m not interested in creating challenges to the players just for the sake of a challenge. The sound of the music comes first and then whatever it takes to realize it properly is what is required from the musicians.

I like to transform instruments so that they are something that they are not — trompe l’oreille: getting them to function as percussion, finding vocal qualities in their margins, textural potentials.

This does mean that players must have a very high level of rhythmic acumen, good endurance, and the ability to get a wide range of sounds from their instruments. I like to use the extremes of an instrument’s range as there is a beautiful distortion that occurs in these areas. Simultaneous attacks and sustains from large groups of similar-sounding instruments in close intervals leads to complex transients and the micro-rhythms that occur from difference effects the tone. I like to transform instruments so that they are something that they are not — trompe l’oreille: getting them to function as percussion, finding vocal qualities in their margins, textural potentials. A challenge is to have the orchestra groove, now more possible than ever as the new crop of players who grew up listening to rock, jazz, R&B, et al. have a native and authentic feel for these rhythms and can imbue contemporary work with them, when desired.

The “classical approach” can be a somewhat impersonal. At the opposite end of the spectrum from working with a classical orchestra is having one’s own ensemble or collaborating with small groups of like-minded players. Bands at their best are flexible socio-acoustic systems and one can make a very different kind of music with them. I like to make scores that are algorithmic: instruction sets that create a unique set of rules and processes that define each composition yet allow the internal detail to vary with every performance. SyndaKit and Quarks Swim Free are representative of these kinds of works.

Besides algorithmic scores, graphic notation may also be used to give the players great latitude, yet forge the music into a unique identity for each piece.

Open yourself up to the act of translating the things you see, hear, learn, experience and think about into your work in the areas of sound that concern you.

The recent score Sylva Sylvarum is in the form of a movie animated from 250 individual score pages created by processing the graphic file of the notation with filters and modulation strategies, much as one might process the sound of an ensemble in performance with hardware effects or plug-ins in a laptop. In many of the images, the musicians can easily see the effects of a modulating waveform, for example, and use that same shape in effecting their sound.

+ Learn the foundations of composition with our course, The New Songwriter’s Workshop.

In performance, a reflexive situation is created: the ensemble is performing the score as displayed by the movie (a musical approach) yet also performing a soundtrack to the movie (a visual approach). These open approaches may be improvisational but they are not in any way “free improvisation” as the players are operating within a number of given parameters. The graphic scores also function as retinal art for the viewer — a positive double identity. I’m trying to achieve the synesthetic in these pieces where there is no separation between the abstract visual representation of the music and the making of the actual sound.

Step Four: Composing for performers other than oneself, allows you the freedom to explore boundaries outside your own instrument. Whether you are challenging the musicians, yourself as a composer, or challenging the structures of the music itself, your DNA flows through this music in a very different and unique ways than the music you make. It is hard work to write music for other people, but it can be a deeply rewarding experience from which you can only ever grow.  

Weather

I’ve always wished I could make music that had the power, beauty, and unpredictability of weather.

Elliott Sharp performing “Spectropia” with Debby Harry, Toni Dove and R. Luke DuBois.

Music for Picture

Scoring film, video, and theater is a very different process than creating formal music as it’s essentially being “written to order” to external specifications. This does not diminish the creative process in use, it’s just that the success of a piece is not necessarily determined by one’s own standards — it has to perform a certain function for the larger work. The director or music editor may have a completely different idea from the composer of how the music will be used. The sound mix for a picture may isolate or eliminate certain parts, and the end result might be radically different from what the composer heard. The overall production is the larger creation of the director, and one’s own ego as the composer has to be subsumed. It can be surprising, liberating, and exhilarating.

The positive side of this type of composing is that one might create music that would never be part of one’s own “personal” work. In working out an agreement to compose for film or television, I always retain the right to release “the composer’s mix” so that the music may be heard as I intended it to be.

Step Five: Scoring for picture changes the nature of your input as an artist, and you’re forced to respond to source material in a very specific way that limits those output decisions. I’ve always been a fan of restrictions, though, as they exercise the creative brain. It can be one of the most satisfying experiences ever, as a music-maker, to see your work illuminated by a visual component, and to see how your sound illuminates that visual work of art.

+ Read more: Interested in film scoring? Check out our interview with William Ryan Fritch and 3 lessons from film composer, Michael Giacchino.

A Small Rant

Nothing irritates me more than “nice music,” whether made by intent or ironically — prettiness is not beauty.

Rehearsing and Working Method

There’s no choice in the matter: to live is to hear, to translate, to make sound. I believe creative work is a translation from the core impulse to the appropriate spectrum of its output. Why does it happen? How? Can these questions even be answered? The genesis of the music may be the hearing of an abstraction of a sound or musical gesture or a process in the inner ear: the construction of an algorithm that will yield sonic results or an image that must then be somehow rendered — synesthesia pops up again! It could be a book I’ve read, an experience of the weather, speaking with family or friends, that third espresso. When I recognize it, the manifestation begins.

The act of composing music may happen at any time or place. Reliable favorites for me are while walking or when lying awake at 3 or 4am just listening in the dark to the sounds around me, both real and imagined. I no longer have any regular practice routines. I have a number of guitars and horns of different flavors lying around my studio such that it’s simple to pick one up and noodle. It’s always a solitary activity: it may be working on a particular piece of music or a song, on a traditional blues or jazz tune, an attempt to master particular techniques (perhaps Vietnamese vong co one day, Django-style swing the next). There is the urge to try something not attempted before which might lead to the development of a new technique which then leads to a composition.

Step Six: Recognizing that any experience of sensory input can have an influence on the decisions one makes in designing the experience of output, is a powerful way to train the brain to think of creative work as a culmination of or inspired by a variety of thoughts and occurrences. In other words, open yourself up to the act of translating the things you see, hear, learn, experience and think about into your work in the areas of sound that concern you.

If this hasn’t piqued your interest enough, please follow this link to check out a really spectacular documentary made about E# in 2007.

Elliott Sharp
Frankfurt 07: Elliott Sharp by Sascha Rheker/attenzione

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