Elliott Sharp: Always on the Cutting Edge
When you think of downtown New York music, one of the first names that probably comes to mind is Elliott Sharp. The iconic guitarist and eclectic-to-the-extreme composer graciously took some time out of getting ready for his gig with his mind-warping Terraplane blues project tomorrow night at Joe’s Pub to shed some light on what he’s been up to recently, and less recently.
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’re playing Joe’s Pub at 9:30 this Sunday the 11th. Are you going to break out the sax or is this strictly a guitar gig this time? Any special guests we should know about?
Elliott Sharp: Though I played alto sax and bass clarinet on the new cd Sky Road Songs, I won’t be playing them on the gig, just for logistical reasons. Our producer Joe Mardin will appear with us playing keyboard, guitar, percussion, and on vocals.
LCC: You’ve written rock, and film music, and jazz, and synphonic works. At this point in your career, what else is there left for you to do? Is there a new passion that you’re looking to explore further in the coming years?
ES: Though I’ve written a number of operas already, it’s what I’m most interested now. My oepra “Port bou,” about the last day in the life of Walter Benjamin is in the works for 2014 through Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, and through a couple of presenters in Germany
LCC: As chameleonic as you’ve been, composition-wise, your music has a consistent edge. Do you find that edge missing in New York these days?
ES: Certainly it’s missing in Manhattan, though I do find a lot of younger musicians are hungry for that feeling and one finds an audience in some of the Brooklyn venues such as Zebulon, Death By Audio, Freedom Garden…
LCC: You came up as no wave was peaking, and have been a pillar of the avant garde since the 80s. And now there’s a new documentary about you. Can you tell us a little about that?
ES: The doc is by filmmaker Bert Shapiro and was made a few years ago – he covered aspects of my composing, performing, and conducting with my ensemble Orchestra Carbon and had crews in Venice at the Biennale in 2007 and during my tour in China in 2006 shoot footage. It also delves into my personal life – my wife Janene Higgins has all the best lines. Our twins make an appearance as well – they were two years old then.
LCC: When I hear you play, sometimes I hear a little Sonny Sharrock, or James Blood Ulmer…or Eddie Van Halen. Yet as I understand it one of your biggest influences is Hubert Sumlin, someone you’ve collaborated with – and studied with. You’re probably aware that he was also Jimi Hendrix’ favorite player. What did you gain most from working and studying with him?
ES: I loved Sonny Sharrock’s playing when I first heard him back in 1969 – we got to be friends and collaborators later. Jimi was also a huge influence and Hubert of course from before I even knew his name, just hearing him on Howlin’ Wolf records when I was seventeen in 1968 and just starting to play guitar. The country blues players as well. Van Halen not so much – I was doing finger-tapping starting from when I first began playing, influenced by John Cage, Harry Partch, Stockhausen, Xenakis. I learned a lot from Hubert – from listening to his recordings, about phrasing, vocalizing on the guitar, making noises. Then after meeting him, watching how he kept his right hand so loose!
LCC: Your publicist says you can come up with a list of your five favorite moments onstage. I’m impressed: half the time I get offstage and I can’t remember a thing I just did. Can you give us a quick rundown of those moments?
ES: I’m cursed with an excellent memory. Can’t say “favorite”, but key moments include:
1. The first time really entering the void while improvising onstage at a rock festival in Ithaca, NY in 1971with my band St. Elmo’s Fire
2. Performing “samizdat” forbidden concerts in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1983 – this also extends to performing Hungary in 1985 and in the Soviet Union in 1989 the incredible intensity of the listeners! This was like life-and-death for them!
3. Performing my piece Crowds And Power for 21 musicians in 1982 at the Kitchen – my first chance to manifest some of my sonic ideas for large ensemble for a big audience at a historic NY venue
4. Performing for 15000 people outdoors at Pori Festival in Finland with a wild ensemble including Sonny Sharrock, Joseph Jarman, Andrew Cyrille, Edward Vesala, Bobby Previte, Connie Bauer, Tomas Stanko, and more
5. The first performance with Hubert Sumlin in 1994 backing him up with Terraplane at the Knitting Factory – we had met in Chicago in 1983 but this was different – an incredible honor and thrill.
6. The premiere of my orchestra piece Racing Hearts in 1998 by the RadioSinfonie Frankfurt conducted by Peter Rundel. An unmatched experience to hear my sonic ideas come to life in this way.
LCC: You’ve collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Deborah Harry…lots of people. Do you have a favorite among them? Is that even a fair question?
ES: Not really – every collaboration is different and to be savored for what it is. Ideally, you are each putting in equally and I usually find this to be the case. To improvise with Nusrat and his ensemble in a tiny radio studio was overwhelming. I enjoy a fantastic ongoing collaboration with the JACK string quartet – always challenging and stimulating. Improvising in duo with such old friends as Nels Cline, Frances-Marie Uitti, Bobby Previte, Reinhold Friedl, is like the continuation of a ongoing and wide-ranging conversation
LCC: You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want, but I’m always curious how composers manage to keep a roof over their heads, and I know that royalties have dried up for lots of folks in recent years. What is your money gig these days? I know you do a lot of film and tv work…
ES: I still tour relentlessly – with two young children it’s difficult to say “no” to anything.
LCC: I always think of you as pushing the envelope and exploring new turf. To what extent is Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane at Joe’s Pub an oxymoron? Or is this a natural progression?
ES: Absolutely natural. Terraplane has played there before to good response. There’s not too many decent places to play in Manhattan plus Terraplane is an odd fit – we’re too weird for the blues clubs, too raucous for the jazz clubs, too unclassifiable for the rock clubs.
Tickets to the Joe’s Pub gig tomorrow night are $20 and are still available; the show starts at 9:30 sharp.