Elliott Sharp: Wide Awake in Alphabet City

Frank J. Oteri: You seem to be always doing something. Do you ever sleep?

Elliott Sharp: Well there is definitely sleep. I’d say most of it gets done here on the couch in the afternoon. Afternoon is not a time for creative work. Also, we have twins that are six months old. This little genetics experiment that we’ve embarked on has definitely transformed the nature of my existence.

FJO: You still tour a great deal of the time.

E#: Yeah, I’m trying to do less of it. I love touring, and it’s, in a way, the only way I can make my living. No one is really paying me to stay in America. I’m doing a little more film stuff in the last few years, which is also a good way to spend some time at home and in the studio. But touring is how I work. Also, one of the things I love doing is presenting my work to audiences that are enthusiastic. I do like traveling a lot. February was a busy month. I was in Portugal for a week, came back for ten days, then went to China for a week—just Beijing and Shanghai. I did solo concerts and some collaborations with Chinese musicians.

FJO: What sort of venues do you play in when you play overseas?

E#: Anywhere from, on the small side, art galleries or punk clubs up to bigger rock clubs or museums, sometimes theaters. Especially in Europe, I’ll play theaters as much as anything else, whether part of jazz festivals or as a presentation. I did a presentation at the China Electronic Music Center in Beijing just about the aspect of my work that fits in under the rubric electroacoustic music. We also played at the art museum in Shanghai, which was fantastic; it’s a very different flavor.

FJO: And what has been the reaction to your music?

E#: Incredibly enthusiastic. In China, I met a lot of young musicians. What they lack maybe in their musical sophistication, pure musical technique (which is, I think, not unimportant), they make up for in their enthusiasm and absolutely omnivorous listening. They may not be able to play a certain way, but they know what it is, and they understand why it is.

The kids in China are all so hooked up to the internet; it was quite a surprise to me. It’s not all that easy for them, and then they have to work harder, but maybe that makes it more valuable. And they’re always trading music, and this is the most important thing, to be able to download and trade music. A lot of people don’t have money to be able to go to the iTunes store, and they should be able to hear music. I’m very happy to hear of people trading my music, just like we used to trade cassettes at the time that the music industry was whining. They had this sticker, “Home taping is killing music.” No, it’s cutting into the profits of some idiot lawyers or accountants or CEOs; it has nothing to do with music. Most musicians are happy to have their music disseminated because they understand that if you start disseminating your music around, then your live concerts are more likely to have a good audience.

The good side of what is happening now with the music industry—which I’d be very happy to see collapse because I feel like I’m not part of it anyway, so I don’t care—is that live music is becoming more important. People go there for the smell of it and the sweat of it. To hear musicians playing in a room is something that no digital simulation, no laptop concert, no downloading will ever give you. To be there and hear the waves vibrate, that’s what it’s all about for music.

FJO: You’ve made many of your scores available for free downloading on your website. All you ask people who download from the site is to let you know if they perform your music. That’s a very utopian approach.

E#: The scores I tend to have there are the algorithmic scores, the open structure scores, which are about the strategy of syndicates, of flocking behavior, of cooperation. It is utopian music. But there are other scores that are so labor intensive, like when I work two years on an orchestral score. Of course, if someone says to me, “We have a group. We can’t afford parts. Could you just send us the score?” I probably will because I’m self-published. It doesn’t hurt me to go to the copy store and spend twenty-five bucks to put a score together and send it off to them. Big deal. And with PDFs, it makes it even easier, which is great. Of course, I have to live, too. This is the contradiction.

FJO: Two years! It seems peculiar that you would even want to write music for orchestra, given your political inclinations.

E#: Elias Canetti’s book Crowd and Power has a great chapter comparing an orchestra to a totalitarian system that Fellini used as a jumping off point for his film Orchestra Rehearsal. But the orchestra is an incredible synthesizer capable of producing sounds that you could never do with any computer simulation. It’s one orchestra of protean robots, and with an operating system that was written in the 18th century. So you have to hack it. I love the challenge, and I love the sounds. It was interesting to see orchestras in the ’60s and ’70s when there was a lot of money for quote-unquote avant-garde composers, and they could play with doing things with multiple orchestras and breaking down notation systems and the idea of the conductor. But that funding disappeared. So now an orchestra is very much concerned with its budget.

You know the piece Calling, which was premiered at Darmstadt in 2002? I had one 5-hour rehearsal. We recorded it just after that, so we were able to work on it a bit. It’s kind of crazy, when you consider the complexity of it, but that was just the reality. Actually, I had to laugh, performing that piece at Darmstadt, because I imagined the sound of Morty turning over in his grave. Of all people, I was there at Darmstadt. Darmstadt is kind of like Mecca. I remember Hiller used to talk about it as if it was the ultimate experience for a composer.

FJO: So how do you typically get your work out there?

E#: It really depends on the project. Sometimes people will come to me and they say, “We have a record label. We’d love to have you make a record. This is the budget we can afford. What’s possible?” Someone else might say, “Do you have anything recorded, because we would like to put out something—I mean we don’t have a production budget, and maybe you’ve recorded something.” And that’s part of the fruit of building this studio here, is that I can make absolutely professional-quality recordings without having to go to a commercial studio. I’ve taught myself engineering over the years. I was always a bit of a geek. Learning about synthesizers and engineering was always really important. Harry Partch had a great line. He said, “I’m a composer seduced into being a carpenter.” And I feel the same thing, except that I was seduced into being an engineer. I can bring musicians in here and produce a professional-quality master, right down to the mastering.

FJO: How do the orchestral pieces come about?

E#: I had done orchestral force pieces in the past. In 1982, when Ann Demarinis became the music director of The Kitchen, she wanted some sort of spectacle. One of the first things she did was ask me to do a large project. So I decided to expand the band I/S/M to a small orchestra of 21 musicians. That piece was called Crowd and Power. Of course I was thinking about the orchestra. I wanted to comment upon it at the same time that I wanted to make my own orchestra that worked with different kinds of strategies and different kinds of gestures. That piece used the Fibonacci numbers, which I’ve been obsessed with since I was a kid, as well as political gestures. You could say ideas of organizing the music based on external factors like the size of the ensemble—unisons versus the breaking apart of the unison.

The idea stayed with me to create a larger version of what I do as an improviser or as a leader of a small band. The group Carbon began in 1983 in its first incarnation. In 1987, the BAM Next Wave series asked me to put together a piece. Again, something big, so I put together an ensemble of 16 musicians to do the piece Larynx. That was the first Orchestra Carbon piece.

The formal orchestra pieces then came about because of Bernd Leukert at the Hessischer Rundfunk in Frankfurt, a longtime friend and supporter. I first met him when he was a journalist and I was performing in Frankfurt in 1983. He was in the position to commission a piece from me, and that was Racing Hearts. Bang on a Can was doing the first Spit Orchestra concert at The Kitchen, and they asked me for a piece, too. So the two came about simultaneously. The version I gave Spit was much more open-ended. It was a series of musical fragments and instructions on how the players were to manipulate them—more of an algorithmic approach. For the Hessischer Rundfunk, it was fixed. I ran a simulation and fixed one version of it and notated that.

FJO: So it’s completely notated: all dynamics, rhythms, and pitches?

E#: Absolutely everything.

FJO: That was probably dictated by the fact that you only had one rehearsal.

E#: Actually, with Racing Hearts I had a little more because I think the HR was a little more flush in those days. That was in 1998.

FJO: You talked about that period in the ’60s and ’70s when orchestras had more budget and could experiment. But now if you want the opportunity to do larger-scale things, you have to play by certain rules to some extent.

E#: Of course, this is an opportunity and you can fit into the opportunity and do what you will with it. I think it is possible. If I had more time I’d like to organize a community orchestra because I’m sure that there are enough players here who would be willing to do that for the love of music. Not everyone is working all the time or has to work all the time. I know there are many composers who have orchestra works who can’t get them played. The question then is where could you rehearse? Where could you perform? I do think an audience would come to it if it were presented in the right way.

I think audiences are far more adventurous than presenters make them out to be. Presenters seem to be ruled by accountants, and we understand why that’s come about. But they’re just such cowards; they’re so afraid that people will walk out or that they’re not going to get funding from the government, which is fine and maybe not such a bad thing. They want to please sponsors, and sponsors don’t want to see themselves as funding something that’s going to offend some constituency. Everyone is so concerned about offending somebody. It’s idiotic.

FJO: In offending nobody they wind up also not exciting anybody.

E#: I hear many people complain about the series presented at various art centers across the country and why people are so disinterested because they’re looking for the bland most common denominator. It’s not that music has to be harsh all the time or challenging all the time. It’s just that there are a lot of different languages in use. Some of them can resonate with people, especially if they get to hear them more and more.

FJO: So what could resonate with people in work that’s harsher or more transgressive than most institutionally sanctioned offerings? What necessary button does such work press that other work doesn’t?

E#: For one thing, the unfamiliar. There are so many aspects of how we think about a given thing, but most work only operates for a very predictable set of responses. It looks to take a typical narrative arc. It looks to satisfy certain people’s needs for harmony, rhythm, melody. All of these things aren’t bad. It’s just that there’s a lot more to the world out there, which is why music of other cultures can be presented as exotica and people will like it because it’s framed in such a way that they say, “Oh, this what these weird people from over here do.” We can take that in and enjoy its quaintness and strangeness.

FJO: You can change a few of the parameters here, and you get the packaging of classical music.

E#: Instead of the foreign country, it’s the foreign time period. But the world music that’s most successful now is quote-unquote world music. It’s more bland. It sounds like Western pop, like maybe somebody is singing in a West African language, but over a funk track with one quote-unquote ethnic instrument and a bunch of synthesizers.

Americans don’t like to be challenged. They want to be comfortable in everything. Music that makes them think about who they are, where they are, what they’re doing, isn’t going to work for them. It works for kids who are more flexible in their way of thinking. I hate to sound like an old fart talking about the kids, but the thing about being young is that you remain open. You have to remain open to new things and new ways of doing things. We all become habituated in our processes, whether as listeners or even as composers. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of the fine line between style and self-parody. You really have to challenge yourself. Why am I making this piece of music? There’s too much music out there; there are too many CDs. Does this piece of music really need to exist? You have to answer that. Maybe I don’t always answer. Maybe I don’t think about it. I say, “Well, I’m going to try this again. I’m going to do this until I get it right.” It’s hard to say, but at the same time you can look at it as Darwinian. Each piece of music is like an organism that has to fight for its survival. Should it survive? Should it be allowed to reproduce?

FJO: So in your view, what would constitute a failure?

E#: It depends on the situation, especially if it is a piece that is open-ended. If it involves improvisation or if it involves an interpretation of an algorithmic score, you could say maybe I didn’t present the ideas clearly enough, maybe the musicians didn’t understand it, maybe it was the wrong group of musicians for this, so many factors. The other thing is that you’re not always correct in your assessment of whether a concert works or not. I’m trying to escape the notion that I have to judge something.

I’ve played concerts where I felt I was brilliant, and the audience loved it and said, “Wow, this was great.” Then I listened to the tape six months later and said, “This is terrible. I was going through what I already know. I was pandering to this feeling.” Everybody loves it and you feel good, but it wasn’t necessarily good music. And sometimes there’s a concert where you feel like you’re pushing against a headwind, where the audience is grim, and you’re not enjoying what you’re hearing coming out of your instruments or your group. Then you listen to a tape and say, “This is amazing.” And then again you listen to it another time, and your perceptions are completely different.

If I have a fixed score, then I could say: “These musicians didn’t play this correctly; the entrance was off; the tempo was wrong.” You know there are objective qualities and subjective qualities. And the subjective qualities, by their very nature, are going to change every performance, and so you have to step outside yourself to decide which factors are important at this time. Am I hearing this in this way or am I hearing this in that way? It involves a lot of framing to determine what you’re hearing and whether you think it’s good or not. What is good? This is an important issue for anyone involved in aesthetics.

FJO: In terms of documentation, there are literally hundreds of records that you’re part of. In a perfect world where everything could be available, would you have everything be available: the stuff you love as well as the stuff you don’t like?

E#: Sure. Once I release something I don’t think about it too much. There are times when out of curiosity or out of masochism—I don’t know—I’ll pull out a certain record and think, “Oh man, this mix is terrible, or why did I do this or why didn’t I do that there?” But, you can always write more music and get it right.

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