Perfect Sound Forever

Elliott Sharp

photo credit - jane chafin

Interview by John Kruth (November 2001)

The Hardcore Junior Scientist Reveals the Pure Mystery of Fruit Flies, Noodles and other Large Musical Forces

On my way over to Elliott Sharp's downtown flat, I walked past Tompkins Square Park, the site of the annual Charlie Parker Festival. There was a guy standing out in the pouring rain, squawking on an alto sax. The word 'commitment' suddenly popped into my noggin. Commitment - committing - or being committed, it's a fine line indeed. It's December 13th 1999, Joseph Heller, author of the brilliant novel Catch 22 (ah, I see a theme beginning to take shape here) died today and the world is certainly much poorer and less sane for it. As the century changes many of our best musicians, writers, artists and short-order cooks have gotten their hat and hit the eternal highway. Mr. Sharp, one of the most committed individuals the music world has known in recent years, continues to live true to his vision as an experimental composer, multi-instrumentalist, world-traveling performer and self-described "Zen-Groucho Marxist." He's often calculated, analytical and scientific. Yet Elliott understands the power of free expression, unleashing a flash flood of sound that gushes from his guitar and sax. Sharp roars in a language that reverberates the walls of our ancient caves while sonically spackling the hole in our souls left by such innovative forefathers as Son House and Sun Ra. It's all in a night's work.

I had recently made the aquaintence of the enigmatic Elliott Sharp, although we had been crossing paths for years. it turns out that he's been mesmerized by the Master Musicians of Jajouka as long as i have. Bachir and the brotherhood had brought their village to the city and we found ourselves down at the Knitting Factory for four consecutive infusions of cleansing fire. Along with violinist/guitarist Jonathan Segel who just arrived in town after his tour with Sparklehorse was cancelled after an earthquake in Athens, we joined forces with a tempermental Turkish drummer named Atilla and repaired to Elliott's studio to improvise a set of quirky instrumentals for the Sparkling Beatnik label. Moon Dog Girl by Noodle Shop (our name instantly inspired by a glanc out the window at the corner take out joint's neon sign) was cut live in five hours - start to finish and dedicated to late great Moondog, the famous sightless viking who sang opera outside of carnegie hall for years.

JK: Today the General Surgeon declared that one out of every five Americans is mentally ill.

ES: And another eighty percent have been already declared incurable! (Laughs) Then there's us, the twenty percent that's not taking Prozac. And what percent of that eighty-percent have guns? And what about the Signal to Noise readership? They're based in Vermont. Everybody up there has guns! (Laughs)

JK: I understand you're rather fond of improvised music.

ES: It's always been close to my heart. When I taught myself guitar I would set up pedals that I made.

JK: That you made?

ES: Don't forget I was a science geek. I got an electric guitar when I was seventeen. I had been a classical pianist when I was six years old and had been playing concerts when I was eight. The stuff drove me crazy. I was playing Liszt and it gave me asthma. I almost burst a lung. There was a lot of stress. My parents expected me to be a Nobel Prize winning scientist and a concert pianist. When I got out of the house I stopped playing piano and began playing clarinet, figuring that would help me with my lungs. I got an electric guitar when I heard Hendrix on the radio. I started playing in a rock band and built my own fuzz box.

JK: Wow! You built your own fuzz box? Cool!

ES: It's a pretty simple design. I had no money to buy one. Then I got this National Science Foundation grant to be a junior scientist at Carnegie-Mellon University for the summer. I did some research to show how microwaves mutate fruit flies. Of course everything mutates fruit flies! (Laughs)

JK: And microwaves mutate everything!

ES: So I immersed myself in the lab and built fuzz boxes and played with tape echo units. And had a midnight to four AM slot on the radio station on WRCT and played Fugs records and Stockhausen and Ornette. Any weird things I could find.

JK: I understand.

ES: I'd make noise on the guitar. I didn't know it was improvisation. It was solipsistic. I'd lock myself in my room so I couldn't hear the yelling about the feedback and just play. Then I began reading books about music on Xenakis' Formalized Music because of the musical and the mathematical connection. I read Cage's Silence and Harry Partch, plus I was playing in weird rock and roll bands doing blues and Fugs covers. I tried to make the sounds I heard Albert Ayler and Coltrane doing except without the technique.

JK: Who did you find to play with?

ES: A buddy of mine was into Beefheart and Zappa, so the two of us played together. His father had the Coltrane record with Dolphy, Live at the Village Vanguard.

JK: And you heard "Spiritual."

ES: Exactly. Of course Coltrane blew me away but when I heard Dolphy's bass clarinet playing, it was like a voice from Mars. It was so vocal. It was like he was speaking in tongues. I knew I had to get one at some point. It was pure mystery. I was also listening to Ravi Shankar and other Folkways and Lyrichord records I got at the library.

JK: What happened to your science career?

ES: Well, when I saw what kind of lives scientists led, I didn't want to be one. I didn't know what I wanted to do but I knew I liked a lot of music, particularly non-Western music. I applied to Cornell and studied anthropology.

JK: Good move.

ES: Especially for attaining hallucinogens. I got involved in politics, anthropology and played in a rock band and took an electronics class with Robert Moog which was great. His factory was outside of Ithaca. I ended up going to Bard College. Roswell Rudd, who I knew about from Archie Shepp records, was teaching there. I studied Monk and Ellington and tried to develop my sense of being a composer. Now I feel that black dots on a piece of paper don't necessarily connote death (Laughs) but at the time it was such a European way of doing things and I wanted the music to be more alive and spontaneous. Again, coming from a mathematical and scientific background I was trying to figure out how to give a set of instructions to musicians so that the piece would be specific but could be manifest differently each time it was played. I also started fooling around with tape manipulation and ways of structuring improvisation. I'd jam with John and Evan Lurie (from the Lounge Lizards) who were in Roswell's class. I started playing saxophone and got back into the clarinet. Roswell was very encouraging about playing wind instruments. Then I went to Buffalo to do graduate studies and I ended up fighting a lot with Morton Feldman, who was my advisor. I love his music but he had an attitude. The short of it was he didn't buy improvisation. I ended up with a Masters' degree and that degree got me a twenty five cent an hour raise at the factory I was working at. Now that shows you the value of education, kids!

JK: For a guy who recorded for SST Records you're really quite a student. Didn't they give you an IQ test first?

ES: In those days, SST was great! Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, Sonic Youth, Negativland.

JK: That's quite a leap, from junior scientist to hardcore.

ES: At the same time I was involved in a systematic way of acquiring and applying knowledge, I lived in a street culture, though I wasn't into hard drugs, I felt it was necessary to have empirical knowledge of them. So I know a bit about consciousness alteration and playing in rock bands and improvisation. It was a good balance to my formal education.

JK: Then you moved to New York for a "real" education.

ES: I moved to the city in '79 and began playing at the Tier 3 and the Mudd Club. It was a good time to be here. You had to get on and burn for twenty minutes and then get off the stage. I wrote an electronic opera called Innosense for three improvisers that was performed in a basement somewhere in post-apocalyptic New York. The characters came in at random and sang gibberish and bits of news or read from natural history textbooks.

JK: I used to have a punk/blues band called the Whirlin' Dervishes back in Minneapolis in '79. We'd rip through Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail" in one minute and thirty-eight seconds. So when I heard your band Terraplane it made perfect sense to me, to mix blues with hardcore and aspects of free jazz.

ES: In his book Black Music, Amiri Baraka, back when he was LeRoi Jones, said that no matter how far out free jazz got, you could still hear the blues cry in it and I agree. The vocal quality in free jazz always resonated with me. I'd been playing in a band called High Sheriffs of Blue in the early eighties and was looking for that meeting point, where I could bring the Albert Ayler/Ornette thing in on my horn. I formed Terraplane in '91 but we had some personnel problems and it just didn't gel. Now I've got Sim on drums who used to be with the Rollins Band, Mr. Bottom, David Hofstra on bass, and he also plays tuba. And Sam Furnace who is burnin', he turns up the heat with his saxophone. At the same time I was dealing with the logistical problems of how to organize large musical forces in New York with no time, money or place to rehearse.

JK: How large of a force are we talkin' about?

ES: 22 musicians.

JK: You're a hard guy to keep track of. You've got so many projects going.

ES: People dis me for that but I'm a composer. A composer isn't just a dead European guy with a powdered wig. As you can see I wear no wig! (Sharp says with a laugh, brushing his shiny shaved head with his hand). You get a sound in your ear and then you want to orchestrate it -whether it's for solo acoustic guitar or an orchestra.

JK: A lot of people are walkin' around just full of ideas but you've got an uncanny knack of conceiving a project and seeing it through - getting it performed and recorded.

ES: I came up through the mid seventies/punk/do it yourself independent music scene. I've always been a workaholic. It's what I love doing and I was independent from an early age I've had very little resources so I had to find a way to survive because I could never have a normal job. It would just kill me! So I've had to be extra resourceful. Plus record companies would never touch my music.

JK: As a composer don't you find being a multi-instrumentalist extremely helpful? Are any of your compositions ever dictated by a particular instrument?

ES: Actually my playing is an outgrowth of my compositional work.

JK: For me it's just the opposite.

ES: It used to be that way when I was into a more technical aspect of playing back in the early seventies. I loved Mahavishnu, Weather Report, Miles and Coltrane was a massively technical player. So I did a lot of woodshedding on my instruments. I used to write jazzy pieces for rock and funk bands that would come out of my instrumental technique. Now I'm not as good a player by any means. I've lost a lot of technique but I'm a much better musician because my hearing is better.

JK: Being a mandolin player and a multi-instrumentalist myself, I played a lot of folk, blues and rock. My interest in improvised music was originally sparked by Indian, Moroccan and Eastern European hoedown music I'd hear on old Nonsuch Records when I was a teenager. I got into jazz through guys like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Don Cherry and Yusef Lateef, the fathers of world beat. But I listened to the Master Musicians of Jajouka much more than say Weather Report or Chick Corea.

ES: It was great meeting you backstage at the Jajouka show. We both knew Bachir (Attar). We both loved his music and the more we talked the more I thought, "yeah, we could do something."

JK: Hence Noodle Shop with Jonathan Segel (of Camper Van Beethoven/Camper Van Chadbourne fame) and Turkish percussionist Attila Engin.

ES: It was a great session. We had fun, trying a lot of different things, mixing all those traditional and folk sounds and we barely scratched the surface! I liked the fact that we didn't have any preconceived notions and we came up with some tunes. I always liked improvisation but I felt that musicians left to their own devices would fall into predictable patterns. We seemed to improvise song forms, creating short things, knowing there was a certain arc that would end over a course of five or ten minutes instead of just noodling.

JK: I have little patience for incessant noodling. As a songwriter and an arranger I constantly found myself being the anchor or straight man, which is pretty scary when you think about it.

ES: Jonathan really brought a strong sense of structure to the session too. And Bryce (Goggin) is an incredible engineer. He really pulled it all together. There was a certain perssure and intensity knowing that it was all being recorded live to two-track.

JK: And a guy none of us had met out in Missouri (Phil James) put up the money for the session. Unfortunately my ghaita (the Moroccan oboe played by the Master Musicians of Joujouka) was out of commission, so we'll have to try it again some time.

ES: Well, it was a good trip.

Noodle Shop's album Moon Dog Girl is available from Sparkling Beatnik Records at (800) 636-2291

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