Elliott Sharp: Wide Awake in Alphabet City

Frank J. Oteri: I’ve been listening to your music for over 20 years, and to this day I’m still not sure I know what to call it. And that’s probably the right thing.

Elliott Sharp: Absolutely.

FJO: Since the publication of Kyle Gann’s book Music Downtown earlier this year, there’s been a lot of talk in the new music community once again about the Uptown/Downtown divide. In your mind and in your experience in the past and now, would you say that such paradigms exist?

E#: They certainly have. I think some people like to force them upon the world. For myself, I just don’t think about it. I don’t care, actually, because I feel if I listen to so-called Uptown music and listen to so-called Downtown music there’s music I like in both camps, and there’s music I dislike in both camps. It ultimately comes down to composers. It doesn’t matter to me where they live or what they think about. Some people make music that I like, some don’t. Some people I like to hang out with, some I don’t. You know I really try to avoid the ideology and the genre-fication. It’s funny. I’ve been the victim of it though. A certain well-known performance space Uptown would not program my work because I’m a Downtown composer. What is this kind of thinking?

FJO: Recently?

E#: I’ve had a couple of pieces played there just because ensembles that were playing there had works of mine included in the program.

FJO: But what does it mean that you’re a Downtown composer?

E#: To some, it means that you don’t really know how to make music. Taking it from the opposite end, I’ve had people come up to me who knew my avant-rock work with Carbon or I/S/M or had seen me play as a solo improviser or in collaborations, and they happen to see me play a blues gig or a jazz gig, which I do every now and then, whether for fun or for money, and they’ll be shocked and say, “I didn’t know you actually knew how to play guitar.” As if what I do is this sort of idiot savant randomness! They’ll take a score of mine and look at it and listen to it and say, “This isn’t real. You’re not an Uptown composer.” Even though it has notes on paper just like real music does. It has relationships between the sounds like real music does. I try not to think about it because it makes me crazy.

FJO: These divisions in new music seem particularly antiquated because the walls that once stood between new music and other genres seem less circumscribed than they once were. I’m not even sure those walls are still in place anymore.

E#: I feel like they’re more in place because the definitions are controlled by marketing people, and they have such a stranglehold on how culture is perceived, especially in the United States. It’s starting to be that way more and more around the world. One of the less beneficial exports of the United States is that commerce now completely dominates culture. Culture is in service to commerce, rather than the other way around. At different times in history the relationship has been in different proportions, but right now genres are so strict.

It doesn’t matter to me ultimately because I am able to do what I want to do. I enjoy doing what I do, and I wouldn’t really want to do it differently. Just thinking about how some music needs to be concentrated on in order for it to be valid or strong and some music needs to be thought of in a different way, I find that the different genres feed each other. If I’m playing blues one night and then have an orchestra piece the next day, there are aspects that can’t help but work their way in. There’s a certain feeling that comes from playing a certain instrument in a certain style. And if you put that into a different context, it can add something to that other context that might not have been there before.

In Europe, you could have a jazz festival and there will be a string quartet and maybe people doing just electronics, and there will be a rock band and some people playing bebop and some people playing free jazz. It’s eclectic. People have ears, and they have a sense of history. They’re willing to listen. They don’t want to just see whatever the media tells them is the now thing of the second. But, in the U.S., the improvisers will be suspicious of me because, “Oh, that’s not really improvisation.” And the rock people say, “Well, but that’s jazz.” And the quote-unquote classical musicians say, “That’s some Downtown music or not really composed music. He’s not really a composer because he has a guitar in his hand sometimes.”

FJO: Perhaps we’ve replaced genre names, like, say, classical, jazz, or rock, or even something like Uptown versus Downtown, with commercial versus noncommercial.

E#: I like to paraphrase Salvador Dali when I say, in terms of my own music, that the only difference between my music and popular music is that my music isn’t popular. I don’t even see it in that way. Ornette Coleman had a good definition. He said that there’s music with singing and music without singing. You can look at the motives of composers or music makers in general—because I don’t even want to use [the term] composer because it’s such a battleground. Different people have different motives for why and how they make music. And even those of us who operate in a lot of different ways may find ourselves drawing upon one realm of our needs or desires to make a certain type of music as opposed to another.

When I’m making music for, say, MTV—I did a bunch of themes and other interstitials and titles for The Carmen Electra Show a few years ago—I’m just thinking about what works for this image and what works for the parameters given to me. It’s purely commercial. When you’re working for a film director or a theatre director, a lot of times what you do is completely divorced from its original intent. So once it’s out of your hands, they do what they will with it.

FJO: But would you say that all of the work is you?

E#: Absolutely. One might look at some of this music and say, “Well, I can’t really tell that this is the same person.” But if you analyze it more deeply you may hear certain sonic things, certain strategies used to create melody, certain types of harmonies that I favor. That’s really something for musicologists. It may not be important to anyone. Certainly there is a core of music where I say “This is my music.” I hate that term really, but I would point to some of my more formal writing for orchestra or string quartet or some of my electronic things, electroacoustic things, even some of my rock projects.

FJO: This morning I randomly pulled out four things of yours to try to hear common ground. I started with I/S/M: R, which is basically a rock album, and then right after that I put on Tessalation Row, which could be construed as contemporary classical music.

E#: I/S/M: R, which was the second of my I/S/M projects, was a documentation of a live band. It was really a rock band. But I would pack things into the songs. The titles all represent the structure of pieces or the strategies used in a given piece. I would use a lot of the same tunings, but we really did function like a band. We played in punk clubs and hardcore clubs.

The place on the corner of 7th [Street] and [Avenue] A that’s now just some yuppie bar used to be the center of the New York hardcore punk scene. It was just a tiny little hole in the wall that was open from one in the morning ’til like eight or nine in the morning. No windows, so you didn’t know if it was day or night if you didn’t look at your watch. I would have every Tuesday night there, and I would invite punk musicians and improvising musicians and rock musicians to get together and see what would happen. I eventually filtered it down after, like, six months of doing this every Tuesday to the band I/S/M.

Tessalation Row is a string quartet piece, but you can almost say it’s a transcription of what I was doing on solo guitar at the time, using Fibonacci numbers as a tuning system, more stripped down to essences and formalized in terms of the building blocks of the piece—the tessellation, the tiling.

FJO: I’ve always been fascinated that the original LP of Tessalation Row came out on SST Records.

E#: Which was a punk label.

FJO: That’s the label that released Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, and some of the early Sonic Youth records.

E#: We all got signed at around the same time. And, in fact, Tessalation Row—which is a pretty extreme string quartet record—sold probably 8,000-9,000 records, which for a string quartet record is not bad. I used to play shows in California and hundreds of punk kids would come to hear solo guitar or a string quartet piece, and they loved it.

FJO: You’re probably the only guy on SST who studied composition with Morton Feldman and Lejaren Hiller!

E#: Feldman was brilliant and to hear him talk about aesthetic issues was incredible. As a composer, I loved his music very much, the different phases of it. As an educator, though, I thought he was lacking, but I should change my mind about that. He was brilliant because all he did was argue with me and force me to defend what I was thinking about and how I wanted to do it. But he was a very ungenerous person as a teacher, whereas Hiller operated like a scientist. Hiller’s idea was to think about pieces as having operating systems, to figure out the nature of a piece of music and how to best realize it.

FJO: I can sense the influence of Hiller in your scientific approach to music. With Feldman, it’s almost like you went in the exact opposite direction. His music was all about being very quiet, but a lot of your music is deafeningly loud.

E#: Yes. Well, yes and no. I think I am appreciating a larger dynamic range these days. But back then, loudness was important because certain sonics happen with loudness. You would be in a room that was resonating, amplifiers feeding back—and the instruments would sound larger than life. I always wanted that hyper-real quality. The rhythms were really packed, that’s why we’d have two or three drummers all playing interlocked parts, sometimes playing unisons or sometimes just playing across-the-board noise to create walls of sound. I was very interested in density. Xenakis was a very big influence on me. So I tried to translate some of these ideas to a rock band, having multiple musicians playing similar parts. Whether they were phased or layered or they were just trying to oppose each other was all part of the strategy.

FJO: How much of this theoretical thinking did you communicate to the punk musicians you wound up playing with?

E#: We didn’t really talk about it. I mean a lot of times when I played with people, especially when I’d do the Tuesday nights, I would just invite people and say we’re going to improvise. I had my ideas that I would keep in my head, and then I would play them on bass or guitar. Some of the musicians I had worked with for a long time. Bobby Previte and I go way back to Buffalo. So if he was there then he and I always had this communication, and the other musicians would fit with it, add into it, and that, of course, would modify the whole process. It was a big feedback loop, an interactive system between players where you create ideas that exist somewhere outside of each of your own individual spheres.

FJO: So then, if the theory was something that you kept to yourself, how important is it for a listener to understand the theory behind all of this music?

E#: I don’t think it’s necessarily important. I think a listener can bring new modes of listening to music by understanding how it’s constructed, but ultimately the music has to hit your ears. That’s really what music is. When I was a student at Bard College, this was probably, what, 1972, Benjamin Boretz—and I know this is one of his classroom tactics—brought in a big printout, and he would announce to the class, “This is the best piece of music I’ve ever written.” And someone in the class would take the bait, “Ben, what does it sound like?” And he would smile and say, “Well, that doesn’t matter.” I think he’s changed his tune about that approach to music, but certainly I just wanted to hit my head and run out the door screaming.

Music is an acoustic process. It’s about psychoacoustic chemical change and what happens when ears process information. Of course, when an ear processes information, it’s interacting with everything that you know, everything you remember—which for some people might not be much—and everything you might imagine. So it’s a much larger system than just a bunch of notes, than just harmony and melody.

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