American Contraband: Alternative Rock and American Experimental Music

Pushed to define his particular niche in the music scene, Elliott Sharp found he had no choice but to coin a new term: “Ir/rational music.” He explains in an “auto-interview” on his Web site: He couldn’t consider himself a classical composer per se, having “no resonance with the academics. I used rock instrumentation and dynamics and tended to play in clubs and lofts but my own music was not considered rock by those who heard it. It definitely wasn’t jazz although filled with improvisation.”

As he revealed in the December 1999 issue of NewMusicBox, it was his acquisition of an electric guitar that set Sharp on his musical path, a path which led him to Cage, Xenakis, Stockhausen and jazz improvisation. Upon arriving in New York after graduate school, Sharp found himself drawn into the world of simliarly diverse and eclectic musicians in the Downtown scene, and in 1983 formed the first version of the band known as Carbon. With Carbon, Sharp was able to explore his interests in electronics and jagged rhythms, funk beats, speed and density.

Sharp’s interest in mathematics, particularly in the fractal geometry of Benoit Mandelbrot, had an increasing role in his compositions. Ironically, even though he states that he is not a rock musician, it was the California hardcore punk label SST, home to such seminal bands as Black Flag, the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, that provided Sharp with the means to release much of his music during the late ’80s, even when that music was performed by orchestra or string quartet when Sharp began seeing such commissions in 1986.

Nowadays Sharp no longer views Carbon as a band, but rather as “a pool of musicians who had learned the pieces, processes and techniques.” He has recently led a large ensemble, the Orchestra Carbon, in several performances of the large-scale work Radiolaria. Balancing this, however, he has also recently released a 2CD set by his blues band Terraplane, a classic sax/guitar/bass/drums outfit that allows Sharp to indulge his love of the blues… but with a distinctive Sharp accent.

From American Contraband: Alternative Rock and American Experimental Music
By Jason Gross and Steve Smith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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