An Auspicious Beginning for Elliott Sharp's Seventh Decade

ISSUE PROJECT ROOM | MARCH 4, 2011

Photo: Lori Baily

Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room is one lucky organization. Not only are they moving into an exquisite Beaux-Arts space at 110 Livingston near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, but their recent fundraising event, managed and attended by a who’s-who of New York avant-garde creatives, featured none other than the composer and axeman nonpareil Elliott Sharp, unveiling a world-premiere octet of titanic creativity, along with five other solo and collaborative pieces, celebrating his 60th birthday, no less.

Not only that, but Sharp was joined by righteous Brooklyn actor and event co-chair Steve Buscemi and experimental filmmaker and co-chair Jo Andres for the premiere performance of “Trinity,” a multimedia piece so named because it was a collaboration between the three. In “Trinity,” Buscemi narrated “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” from the Gnostic Society Library while Sharp played guitar and Andres’s film component—a series of goddess images—was projected. Buscemi’s narrative included these lines:

Hear me, you hearers
And learn my words, you who know me.
I am the hearing that is attainable to everything;
I am the speech that cannot be grasped.
I am the name of the sound
And the sound of the name.

Let’s be clear: To say that Elliott Sharp “plays” guitar is akin to saying that Bach wrote down some notes. Whatever it is that Elliott Sharp does to and with guitars while we, mere mortals, gape in stupefaction, is truly transcendental, and profoundly stimulating, and pleasurable beyond words. The evening’s second piece, “Velocity of Hue,” was a Sharp solo in which his technique included keyboard-style, multi-finger “tapping,” slick, fluid “glisses” (glissandos, or slides), and eerie use of steel spring and bottleneck. The familiar undertones of “Velocity” revealed Sharp’s forays into Mississippi Blues, as exemplified by his collaboration with guitar legend Hubert Sumlin. This solo, in which Sharp played the guitar as if it were part of his body, ended far too soon, leaving the audience thrilled and staggered.

Sharp’s solo was followed by two guitar/voice team-ups, the first with sardonic author Jack Womack, entitled “Fun City Days (Binibon Overture),” and the second an urbane, improvised “sound poem-song” with poet/vocalist Tracie Morris. In both cases, the problem of all such combinations I’ve ever heard—the inability to hear the words clearly—detracted from the experience. If the orator is just going for effect, the solution is for the audience to simply listen to the cadences and emotional flow of the sounds, ignoring meaning, which is, I suppose, fine. Assuming, on the other hand, that received words and meaning matter to serious wordwrights (excepting maybe Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, or Brion Gysin’s concrete “I am”), they need to project or provide “librettos” for the audience. Otherwise, they might as well be speaking a foreign language, with every other word comprehended.

The evening closed with two Sharp compositions for classical strings: “The Boreal,” performed (and previously premiered) by the JACK Quartet (violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland), and the world premiere of “Occam’s Razor,” a double quartet (i.e., octet) commissioned by ISSUE and performed by JACK and the Sirius Quartet (violinists Fung Chern Hwei and Rachel Golub, violist Ron Lawrence, and cellist Jeremy Harman), flanking the audience opposite each other. The intense and caterwauling “Boreal” was performed with bows and steel springs to electrical, white noise-like effect, and was the perfect setup for the longer, more ambitious “Occam’s Razor.” (Occam’s Razor is the philosophical premise that any phenomenon should be described as simply, and therefore as elegantly, as possible.) If “Occam’s Razor” was simple, it wasn’t obvious: For example, it wasn’t a five-note composition (the violin, viola, and cello together having five open-string notes: C, G, D, A, and E), and the layers of aural antiphony that arose and flowed between the quartets were anything but simple, as textural and psychoacoustical impressions flooded the mind, and diverse musical meme fragments swirled around the majestic hall. It was, however, most elegant, a tour de force of sonic splendor, and quite possibly Sharp’s most sophisticated work to date.

Describing “Occam’s Razor,” and indeed much experimental music, is challenging, as terms like atonal, atmospheric, sinusoidal, and dissonant fall far short. So, while the piece wasn’t beautiful in the “perfect fifths” sense of tuned strings, mellifluous melody, and major-key harmony, it was absolutely beautiful in Sharp’s cataphonic universe of fractal geometry and chaos theory. Here, we define beauty simply as something not previously experienced, and we crave innovative incomprehensibility, abstract ineffability, and trompe l’esprit (fool the mind) prestidigitation, a hounding half-step behind G-d.

P.S. To the question of why Sharp would work on his birthday, even for a great cause, the answer is that his birthday was several days before. Let’s hope he has many happy returns, so we can be graced by music that just keeps getting better in the hands of a modest genius who seems to have no limits, and whose manifest talent proves some progress, and suggests that our species may just, in fact, be divine after all.