Elliott Sharp’s IrRational Music
“Things worthwhile generally don't just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from an unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.” — Branch Rickey
Artists and critics on the vanguard these days are suppose to be past the idea of genres, other than to set them up like bowling pins to be scattered by the force and momentum of insight and truth.
But we're not past genres, nor will we ever be, nor should we ever be. Genres are where the most interesting work happens, where formulas (and what isn't a formula) get stretched, mixed, and renewed. The preset characteristics of genre are not limits but avenues toward endless variation.
That is the key to the downtown music scene in New York over the final 25 years of the 20th century. What seemed to be an indescribable and indefinable conglomeration of styles and concepts was actually the juxtaposition of genres: punk with funk, jazz with film scores and commercial music, rock with avant-garde compositional techniques from the western classical tradition. And no one musician, not even John Zorn, embodied the practice and purpose of downtown music with greater range and substance than Elliott Sharp.
Sharp has always been best understood through lists; lists of instruments he commands—primarily guitar but also saxophone—lists of musicians he's worked with—a partial list from the early '80s runs over fifty names—lists of the music he's made, which begins with rock, blues, and jazz and extends into and through improvisation and classical experimentalism.
All that barely begins to plumb the breadth and depth of his musical achievements. In one memorable recent year he put out the album Sky Road Songs with his blues band, Terraplane, an excellent sax/bass/drums trio album on Clean Feed, and on his own zOaR label a compilation of recent classical chamber compositions, featuring a live recording of JACK Quartet playing The Boreal, a performance I was fortunate to witness at Ostrava Days 2011 and that remains one of the strongest musical experiences I've had as a listener.
This has been Sharp's path, as revealed in his graceful and insightful first book—digging deep into these varied genres has been the path of a musician searching for and making the music he loves, not constrained by any one idea or purpose, dipping into everything that means something to him. IrRational Music is a musical autobiography from a man who thinks critically about his own music and all that he hears around him. It's not that he loves music, which of course he does, but that making music is the way he understands his own place in the world.
In truth, though, Sharp has been driven by one essential idea all along, one that he explains as a search for the music in his "Inner Ear." For him this began with a childhood visit to the University Loudspeakers factory, where his father was a design engineer. The visual and aural synchronicity of the machinery stamped an indelible impression on Sharp and initiated his exploration of hearing what was in his head and realizing it in the external world.
The two constants in his musical life, as is made clear without unnecessary emphasis in the book, are work and socialization. He has seemingly done nothing but practice instrumental and compositional technique since he began undergraduate studies at Cornell, and he has gone out to meet other musicians, talk to other musicians, and play with other musicians every place he's been. If a band played polka, he played polka, or rock or funk or the blues or synthesizer improvisations, whatever was going down.
The importance of meeting other musicians and developing relationships though instruments cannot be overstated. Unlike writing or crafting the fine arts, music is a social activity—musicians make music, they do it together. Doing it together taught Sharp how different musics work, and honed his critical ear, most notably in improvisation. Coming out of the downtown scene, non-idiomatic improvisation has become its own international floating world, one that, as Sharp points out, can be as parochial and hidebound as any other. Coming out of both experimental and rock music, Sharp found some frustrations in a scene that rejected high volume music, or band-type interactions.
Sharp's prose voice is calm and warm; he tells a good story in a flowing, low-key way. And the story as a whole is as picaresque as a 19th century sentimental education—Sharp travels far and wide, soaks up every new musical idea he encounters, engages in new musical experiences as much as possible, and gets closer and closer to his Inner Ear. There are anecdotes that will amaze, or at least amuse, many readers—Sharp witnessed Julius Eastman's notorious performance of John Cage's Songbooks in Buffalo in 1975. This indirectly led to him chauffeuring Cage around New York City on occasion. But what sticks in the mind from Sharp's sojourn at the University of Buffalo—when it was arguably the most important center for new music in the country—are two things, his critical thinking and his personal values:
Steve Reich plays a recording of Music for 18 Musicians, and Sharp finds it "a bit smooth. I was a little suspicious of a sound world seemingly appropriated from African and Indonesian music." But a live performance of Piano Phase wins him over. And though he is a deep admirer of Morton Feldman's music—it has been important to him in his developing path as a graphic score composer—he found Feldman's bullying of students objectionable.
There is a constant sense that Sharp is in the right place at the right time, but that's because he put himself there. Sharp wasn't lucky, he went through the classic struggles of being a creative artist, living on oatmeal and coffee, practicing the tenor sax all day to keep warm because he and his housemates in Northampton couldn't afford to pay for heat. But he was always searching for knowledge and experiences—he hitchhiked across the country, he went to Buffalo, he was out at The Mudd Club or CBGB or Danceteria every night, checking out what people were doing. Compelled by his Inner Ear, he put himself out into the world, he put all his efforts into being a musician, and now stands as one of the major musical figures of the last forty years.
George Grella is the Rail's music editor.