Elliott Sharp: Wide Awake in Alphabet City
Elliott Sharp in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
March 22, 2006—3:00-4:30 p.m.
Edited and transcribed by
Frank J. Oteri, Randy Nordschow, and Lyn Liston
Video presentation by
I was an undergrad at Columbia when I picked up my first Elliott Sharp album. It was a rather cryptically packaged LP with a blurry photograph of a bunch of skulls on the cover. All the titles were just initials. Even the name of the band and the title were initials—I/S/M: R. Sonically it seemed like rock, but it was nothing like any rock music I had ever heard before. It seemed more like free jazz improvisation, except it was a lot more confrontational and abrasive.
Back then, I couldn’t really relate to rock music. Believe it or not, since I was a fan of stuff like Stockhausen and Cecil Taylor, I/S/M seemed like a possible way into rock for me. I wanted to like it, but I still couldn’t wrap my brain around it at the time. A few years later, after finally getting interested in bands like Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü, I picked up another Elliott Sharp record, Tessalation Row, which was on the same label that they were on: SST Records. But, lo and behold, the music on there was for string quartet, and it involved alternate tunings derived from the Fibonnaci series. I loved that one on first listen but was even more perplexed by who Elliott Sharp was and what his music was about.
Sharp’s music continues to perplex me in how it defies expectations. Of course, this is part of what makes it so exciting to listen to. I started following his music and heard him do remarkable performances on solo guitar. Then, two years ago, I heard a piece he wrote for the Meridian Arts Ensemble, which is a really fabulous brass quintet. Elliott Sharp for brass? If that wasn’t enough, at the gig he handed me a CD of music he had written for orchestra. Later that year, I spotted him in an ensemble performing the music of James Tenney on bass clarinet. Then, when I did some research on minute-long pieces, I tracked down a fascinating 3-CD anthology containing some 171 compositions called State of the Union. Turns out it was produced by Elliott Sharp. Overall I must have charted nearly a hundred projects that Elliott Sharp has been involved with either as composer, performer, or producer.
Does this man ever sleep? I had to find out. The result of my investigation proved to be a wonderful conversation that touched upon myriad topics accompanied by many cups of really strong coffee.