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
Randy Nordschow

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.

Inside Pages:

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.

– FJO

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