Sept. 18 Lecture: Natural Models As Compositional Inspiration and Strategy - Parsons School of Design- Manhattan

This was the first lecture for my fellowship at Parson’s Center For Transformative Media. Nice to see a few friends and associates from my residency in the Future Guitar Colab of the previous semester attending as well as interested students and public. I took a semi-chronological approach to the talk beginning with the Hudson River Compositions of 1972-74, catalyzed by my life in the mid-Hudson Valley both as a student at Bard College and in the months after. I had lived in house in Germantown, NY with Steve Piccolo, Wendy Cogan, John Lurie, and Evan Lurie. It was an enjoyably volatile environment with lots of music, hilarity, and discussions both deep and absurd. A favorite activity was sitting on the back porch facing the woods. On hot summer nights, there would be an incredible population of fireflies whose bioluminescent activities always seemed to be just on the verge of coalescing into a recognizable image, perhaps a banner headline, a cartoon, some sheetmusic. Indeed, watching the fireflies sparked in me the notion of harmony not as an intentional placement of notes functioning within a well-defined system of chordal resolution but as a chance vertical synchronicity. Linked to this idea was that of rhythmic motion defined by individual asynchronous firings which I expressed by the line: “play pointillistically to build a groove - never play at the same time as any other player”. Other Hudson River compositions were created by superimposing images from a topographical map of the river branching or of densely flocking birds or by using one-line instruction sets: “play as fast as possible in rhythmic unison”, “chop -> space”, “play the opposite”. Two others were more technically oriented - “octave overtones - map speed to range”, and the proto-fractal “play and record a monophonic line slowed to half-speed, continue repeating the process”.

I then skipped ahead to a discussion of Fibonacci numbers, including where they might be found in nature, (see Lawrence Cook’s 1914 “The Curves of Life” published by Dover) and how they might be used to create tunings, structures, and rhythms. After discussing an epiphanal night in 1984 when I first devised some Fibonacci-based systems for guitar, I brought up Benoit Mandelbrot’s “Fractal Geometry of Nature” and the influence of fractals and chaos theory on my work of the time. I played a portion of the Soldier Quartet’s recording from 1986 of “Tessalation Row” to illustrate. Next up was a discussion of “Dispersion of Seeds” from 2003 and its inspiration in the discovery of a previously-unknown Henry David Thoreau natural-history book of that title. To finish, I discussed the derivation for the algorithmic composition “SyndaKit” in bird-flocking, RNA replication, and the computer game Artificial Life (aka Cellular Automata.) My orchestra piece “Calling”, was composed in 2001-2002 using the SyndaKit score as a construction set and we completed the event with an audition of the RadioSinfonie Frankfurt’s recording of the piece. (More info on the recording here: http://www.hr-online.de/website/rubriken/kultur/index.jsp?rubrik=2174&key=standard_document_858510&xtmc=elliott%20sharp&type=d&xtcr=23

Throughout the evening there were well-considered questions from the audience that flowed into open discussion.

Aug. 14 - Terraplane - Spike Hill - Brooklyn

This evening was organized by Rootless Trio’s guitarist, Jeremy Hurewitz, at a club situated directly at the Williamsburgh epicenter on Bedford Avenue by the L Train stop. Amazing how quickly Bedford evolved from a seedy and sleepy little zone to a point where it now sustains a round-the-clock carnival atmosphere for alterna-tourists, a cross between some of the worst parts of Bleecker St. and St. Mark’s. Still, I found a buzz to the streetlife that wasn’t completely unappealing (especially after another week banging my head against the Port Bou score). The venue is a long and narrow room edged with a bar and a high stage at the rear. Ben Tyree’s BT3 were on when I arrived and they were blistering: fast, intricate, and grooving with “Bean” Clemons’ drumming a force of nature. Next, Rootless played an entertaining set mixing jazzy loping rhythms with sampled vocals and Jeremy’s wiry and looped guitar. After Rootless finished, we set up quickly with just a basic line-check. Within seconds of beginning Endless Path, I found the sound to be dreadfully amiss. I plugged the green Strat into the house Fender Hotrod Deville, an amp that shows up frequently in club backlines and one that I like very much. That guitar is also “old reliable”. Tonight, however, I couldn’t get a sound that worked. The guitar sounded muddy and flat no matter how much I tweaked. The bass also sounded muddy and the drums seemed absurdly loud even though Don was playing with great restraint. The culprit was most likely the high stage which was hollow and thus functioned like a bass resonator serving to obscure most details and adversely affecting the response of the instruments.  Tracie’s vocals were clear: one bright spot. I found it extremely difficult to hear my own voice when we launched into UAV. Don also found that his own monitor was not working at all. The house engineer jumped on stage to see if he could find the problem but soon retreated with no success. In situations like this there’s no point in getting upset - one must just plow ahead. Sometimes magic happens, sometimes not.  Mostly flying on radar, we did play an excellent version of Katrina Blues and a steamy take on Ain’t Got No to finish the night. I had brought my recently-constructed Hondo Les Paul for the slide tunes and was very disappointed in its sound. I’d used it in the recording studio and loved it then but was not at all enjoying it on this occasion. Again, this was probably the result of the overal sound issues. About two-thirds of the way through the set we were inundated with the heavy and not-overly-pleasant smell of frying fish. It was uncertain as to the source: either the club’s kitchen in the building next door or a fast-food joint on the opposite side. If we were playing a different flavor of blues it might have added a touch of authentic ambience but for tonight’s situation, it hit a big wrong note. Despite everything, we received a lot positive feedback and there was a fine post-gig hang including the wonderful surprise of the attendance of my old Buffalo friend Gary Storm with his wife and daughter.

Aug. 8 - Duo Nels Cline/E# - Stone - Manhattan

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Since returning from the Northwest tour, I’ve been totally immersed in composing Port Bou, my opera about Walter Benjamin’s last few moments of life. It will premiere in October at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn.

http://issueprojectroom.org/event/elliott-sharp-port-bou

Except for the July 16 SyndaKit gigs and a recording session with Scott Fields, there has been little respite from that big computer monitor. Thus, I was greatly anticipating the hit with Nels as it would be completely enjoyable on so many levels including the fact that we hadn’t played together since the previous October. Nels had his gleaming white National resonator and I brought the Godin Duet Multiac. No soundcheck necessary - I arrived around 9:20pm and we quickly plugged into the PA and checked the sound as well as rearranging the stage area a bit from Nels’ 8pm band set. The room was quickly packed so it was already sweltering when we began. Fortunately the night air outside was quite comfortable - if it had been any more hot and humid, the Stone would have been completely intolerable (though by the end of the set we still felt like we had gone through a sauna.) We commenced with a frantic vibe: rapid lines and stuttering chords and clusters. Textures changed frequently and we passed through areas of quietude, lyrical counterpoint, prepared gong-like textures, and fibrillating tremoloes. I used a dropped-Eb tuning for that first sequence, one that yields unusual voicings and a rich low end. We were both in dropped-D for the second long piece and at one point found ourselves dwelling in a bluesy slide area. We completed the set with a brief, fast, crunchy assault. After the dust cleared, we headed off to Bikinis for refreshments, joined by J and Eszter.

July 16 - SyndaKit - Spectrum - Manhattan

SyndaKit takes on a strong psychoacoustical component when performed by homogeneous ensembles and this night featured two such groups: all-acoustic strings at 7pm and all-electric guitars at 9pm. The 7pm lineup included John Pickford Richards & Chris Otto of JACK; Fung Chern Hwei; Judith Insell; Rachel Golub; James Ilgenfritz; Jeanann Dara; Kevin Ray; and Reuben Radding. There were a couple of last-minute cancellations so with myself on viola, a total of ten musicians played the set. With the instruments using open strings tuned to the target pitches of C, A, Ab, and G, the music was rich in overtones and drones of ambiguous tonality enlivened by non-pitched material and pure noise as well as short improvised pop-outs. Essentially a large living room, Spectrum’s space has a wood floor and plaster walls and ceiling making it just “live” enough to give the sound some juice yet maintain clarity. Wonderful interactions between these great players made for an exciting and satisfying set with tamboura-like drones transforming into ethereal overtones or jagged clangor. The set ended with clouds of granulated percussive knocking, beautiful and surprising. The guitarists assembled at 8:15 for set-up and a quick talk-through for those who had not played it before. While one could say that the 7pm string players fully populated the compact stage area, the 9pm guitarists made up a packed and bristling mob of the best kind. There was a wide variety of hardware in use making for an orchestral range and density of sound. I brought the Rick Turner electroacoustic baritone guitar, perfect for inhabiting the lower mid-range with overtones reaching the upper realms. It took a few minutes before the guitarists settled into some grooves and unisons but once everyone got it, they maintained it throughout the performance. Textures ranged from incredible delicacy to mega-brutal pounding skronk. The third iteration during this set entered into urban gamelan territory with the entire ensemble sound subsumed into one pulsing ringing grooving mass. Possibly the best yet of all of the all-guitar SyndaKit’s! Would be great to perform this in a larger room, whether here in NYC or elsewhere…

June 21 - “IN (Key)” - outdoors on Cornelia St. - Manhattan

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I normally like to keep these posts in chronological order but just realized this morning that I had somehow forgotten to put this one up!

While preparing to head to LHR for my flight back to NYC last April, I received an intriguing email invitation from Patrick Grant. He and fellow composer Jed Distler were planning an event for June 21 Summer Solstice to honor the 50th anniversary of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking composition “In C” for which eleven composers would write their own pieces extrapolated from the “In C” mode of operations with each of us taking a different key thereby covering the chromatic scale. Since E# is the enharmonic equivalent of F, Patrick offered that to me. I had first heard Riley’s music during my stint as a graveyard-shift DJ on WRCT at Carnegie-Mellon University while I was on a National Science Foundation residency as a “junior scientist” during the summer of 1968. The library at the station was incredibly well-stocked with all manner of sonic weirdness, from ESP Disks to Nonesuch Explorer series, Deutsch Grammophon avant-garde, Chess and Vanguard blues, to Imperial Records psychedelia. My time in the lab was mostly spent building better fuzz boxes for my newly acquired electric guitar which I was also “preparing” a la Cage and Cowell. Work as a DJ allowed my passion for music to flower, first as a listener and then later as a player. My early sonic explorations were in the direction of “faster, denser, louder” but using improvisation and a groove derived both from electronic oscillations and funk/rock/blues/jazz. I imagined a pulse-based music saturated with intensity and noise. “In C” provided my first inkling of how this might be manifested in a well-organized manner. Not only did I appreciated its joyful vibration but I liked the politics of its non-hierarchical system with the musical elements not fixed in time or position. From Riley I found my way to LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass - all of whose early works I enjoyed very much. Still, I found it easier to resonate with jagged and noisier composers such as Xenakis and Varese then I did with the Minimalists even though there was an undeniable appeal in the latter’s use of insistent pulse. As I developed my compositional language as applied to my own ensemble Orchestra Carbon beginning in the 1980’s and continuing through more formal situations, the use of pulse, filtered through fractal geometry and chaos theory, continued to exert its influence. Recent pieces Flexagons and Ile Tigre Lily made this explicit. For this event, I composed Yertrilrey, with 20 measures, modules in which the players can freely jump between top and bottom line and always reference an eighth-note pulse. Yertrilrey was in the last block of pieces with compositions from Jed Distler, David Borden (who I’ve known since Ithaca days and his Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company), and a rousing finale from Vasko Dukovski. Also on the program were pieces from the other composers beginning with the one that started it all: Terry Riley, Gene Pritsker, Lisa Maree Dowling, Eleonor Sandresky, Adam Cuthbért, John King, Brad Balliett, and Patrick Grant. A joyous energy prevailed throughout and we reveled in the great variety of approaches that still displayed the original DNA. An enthusiastic audience ebbed and flowed on Cornelia St. throughout the afternoon with many old friends stopping by. J brought the twins who seemed to appreciate the energy and pulse of the pieces.   Lots more info and photos here:

http://patrickgrant.com/InKey.html 

June 29 - Blues “house concert” - Rock Around The Clock - Portland

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When I began planning this Northwest mini-tour with Joe Trump, he suggested that we finish with a blues “house concert” matinee at his rehearsal studio. Joe was the drummer on the first Terraplane album and it’s always a pleasure to play with him, whatever the context. Fred Chalenor signed on as bassist and we agreed to hit without rehearsal, just playing standards. The loading dock has a full soundstage where concerts, video shoots, and parties are held. If the weather permitted, the door would be opened so that the audience could hang out in the parking lot as well as in the area just before the stage. Morning drizzle gave way to breezy sun so the event had the feeling of a party. John Butler lent me a beautiful and well-worn Fender 50’s-style Strat and Fred brought another Strat, high-tech and modern. Our first set had more of a country-blues vibe and I stayed in either open-G or open-D on John’s Strat and played slide almost exclusively with renditions of Rollin’ and tumblin’, .44 Blues, Love In Vain, Dust My Broom, Sittin’ On Top of the World, Cat Squirrel, Walking Blues, The Cuckoo, and more. I even croaked out some vocals! For the second set I changed to the new Strat digging in to an all-instrumental set that included Smokestack Lightning, Catfish Blues, Killing Floor, Pretty Woman, and other classic numbers that we stretched and pulled this way and that. Some of the audience sat in front of the stage in chairs, but many chose to hang outside with beers and other beverages. I was very happy to see Maria Traficante and her brother. Marie is Joe’s mother and a wonderful opera singer and educator.  Also great to see old friend David Bryant and his 2-year old twins!  After goodbyes and packing, we repaired to a nearby restaurant for food and drink after which Joe drove me to PDX for my redeye home. Seriously bad weather from Nebraska to Ohio made for two hours of bad turbulence, nearly half the trip. Caught a dramatic sunrise over Jersey as we made our descent.image

June 28 - Tectonics solo/Boodlers/Battle Hymns & Gardens/Foliage - Secret Society - Portland OR

It had been nine years since we last Boodled and we were all stoked for it. Of late, Fred has been playing with Robert Fripp’s Slow Music project and Henry busy with environmental advocacy work for the Northwest tribes. We arrived a little after 4pm to set up the projector and screen for Foliage, do pre-setup of drums, and get a bite. Secret Society has the inviting feel of a small ballroom with good acoustics.  The Jenny Finn Orchestra, a neo-swing band with three guitars, was playing for the 6-8 pm cocktail hour. When their entertaining and danceable set finished we began to build up the stage with audience in the room, foregoing any soundcheck. The stage looked to be quite spacious until we set up the drum kits of Joe and Henry Franzoni so Battle Hymns decided to set up in front on the floor.  I’m playing through a great-sounding rig: a tweaked ‘60’s black Fender Bassman head into a homemade 4x12 cab. Fred Chalenor has only a couple of pedals. My Tectonics set was first and the sweet but burly sound of the amp allowed me to exploit lots of harmonic feedback as well as my usual strategies. Saul Koll, builder of my guitar, was in the audience, surely feeling like a proud father. This guitar never fails to amaze me as it continues to reveal new possibilities. Battle Hymns were up next: two saxophones, upright bass, and drums, with a mellow but exploratory jazz sound, melancholic but a sardonic edge. Great players all! After, Boodlers made its return with a 35-minute set. We began with drums roaring plus noise excursions then settled in after a few minutes for a more dynamic series of landscapes, always grooving, Joe and Henry changing textures or locking in. Fred and I alternated groove support and soloistic sonics. After a short break, the members of Battle Hymns joined us for a 38’ version of Foliage. All of the players were acutely tuned in to the score and the piece took on an epic sweep with sounds ranging from feathery to all-out explosive abstractions, perfectly fitting the projected images.

June 27 - 20th Annual Olympia Experimental Music Festival - Olympia WA

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On the 26th, late start and a relaxed drive to Portland culminated in a great PokPok lunch and a free evening. Heading to Olympia in the afternoon of the 27th, we found early rush-hour traffic slowing our escape though we did have time to do pre-setup of our equipment before the festival commenced for the evening. We ran out for a nearby bite and bean but returned in time to catch some of a beautiful set from Knot Pine Box (a solo from Karen Hancock on guitar, voice, and electronics). Great to hang with Mark Hosler of Negativeland and did a short interview with Calvin Johnson of K-Records, both of whom I had not seen in years. Next up were Dead Air Fresheners with poet Jennifer Robin. This was confrontational and very entertaining spoken word with noisy Fluxus/Dada music in costumes. Composer and educator Peter Randlette followed with solo electronics, spatialized and intense, with accompanying film loops by Eric (whose last name I did not get) - hypnotic and gripping! Joe and I quickly moved our gear into place and I began with a solo. The room was essentially a garage with polished concrete walls and floor but an open-framed ceiling and surprised me with the positive quality of its acoustics. The attention of the packed house was incentive to find new sounds and strategies and layered feedback sounded especially sweet in the space. After 30 minutes I gave the nod to Joe who joined me for our first duo gig in all of the years of our collaboration. Wonderful dynamic range and grooves interlocking, clashing, and layering, sometimes turning into full-on rock noise, sometimes lightly textural. We ended in a long delicate fade. We were very pleased at the roar from the assembled audience and after there were many great conversations. Met a number of musicians from the area as well as longtime followers of my work. Quick pack then a stop at a convenience store for caffeinated fuel for the 2-hour drive in the rain back to Portland.

June 25 - Tectonics solo/Bootstrappers/Foliage - Royal Room - Seattle WA

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Early call to LGA for very pleasant flights to ORD and then to SEA - soon after landing I was in my hotel room for a relaxed afternoon. Drummer Joe Trump drove up from Portland and picked me up at 5 for soundcheck. The club has a friendly staff and relaxed ambience befitting the Pacific Northwest and a well-built stage, spacious even with a grand piano and Hammond B3 (both belonging to Wayne Horvitz) parked on the periphery. Besides Joe, the band included percussionist Greg Campbell, bassist Ian Sheridan, and trombonist Naomi Siegel. Setup was quick and easy with Joe using the house kit, Ian on acoustic and electric basses, Naomi playing acoustically with a mic, and Greg with a beautifully sprawling set encompassing homemade pitched percussives, drums, toys, and a French horn. I brought the Koll 8-string with the current default pedal set and plugged into a fat and spanky-sounding custom-built Anderson stack supplied by Brad, our sound engineer. We avoided onstage monitors allowing our natural sense of dynamics to keep the listening global. Tectonics set was a continuous build of loops and textures with Bootstrappers more of a crosstalk groove-fest with all of us shifting textures and dynamics and short solos coming to the foreground only to melt back into the flux. Foliage finished the evening with everyone beautifully tuned in to the graphic score for a very dynamic rendering of the piece. Great to see old friends Amy Denio and Rob Angus.

June 15 - Master Musicians of Jajouka - Le Poisson Rouge - Manhattan

The music of the village of Jajouka in the Rif of Morocco first took my ears in 1971 when I found the album “Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka” at a department store in Kingston, NY. While I was familiar with various strains of North African music, this record was notorious for its connection to the Rolling Stones and visionary artist/writer Brion Gysin. The editing and psychedelic phasing effects used by Jones in the mix enraged ethnomusicological purists but added to the beautiful mystery of the record. It was a favorite of mine but was unfortunately lost to the ravages of my then-nomadic life. In 1980 I was able to buy a copy on the street in Soho from poet Steve Dalachinsky, my first meeting with him. I continued to get news of Jajouka from various friends who had visited the village plus I was tantalized by the brief excerpt on “Dancing In Your Head” of Ornette Coleman and Robert Palmer jamming with the Musicians. In 1988, Bachir Attar, now leader of the Musicians, was in New York and I met him through his partner, photographer Cherie Nutting. Bachir and I did a lot of jamming and he taught me many of the drum rhythms used in the village music, rhythms that I carefully translated into drum-machine programs on a Roland TR707. We began to play duo concerts together at CBGB’s, the old Knitting Factory, and various galleries. In 1989, we recorded an album “In New York” at Baby Monster studio with Bryce Goggin and Steve McAllister engineering. Over the drum-machine grooves, Bachir built up layers of overdubbed rhaita (a double-reed horn) or cane flutes with my guitars and bass and occasional slab. There were also two solo guimbri tracks and a song sung by Bachir over slide guitar. Jane Tomkiewicz added bendir on a few tracks. The record was released in 1990 and in that year Bachir joined my band Carbon for a long tour in Europe and again, for a shorter one in 1991 just as conditions for the first Gulf War were heating up. The full complement of Jajouka musicians were able to come to New York during the 90’s and it was truly an incredible experience to hear that music in its fullness. Bachir was spending most of his time in Jajouka and it was not until 2002 that we were to meet again and to perform together in a Lincoln Center Summer Festival project, “Mashreq Maghreb All-Stars” that I was directing, together with Natacha Atlas, Marwan Abado, the musicians of Mohammad Abu-Ajaj, Zafer Tawil, Hamid Drake, Michael Zerang, DJ Mutamassik, and Graham Haynes. In the initial planning for the recent William Burroughs Centenary festival, we had the idea to have Bachir join Steve Buscemi and I in our concert. Schedules did not permit this but Bachir and his brother Mustafa were to be in the US to work with Billy Martin in a new project and Bachir and I planned a concert. This ended up as the “opening act” for Billy’s band featuring Bachir at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village, a friendly and well-equipped venue. The old TR707 was long gone but I had prepared a number of drum tracks on my laptop built from sampled phrases taken from various sessions that I’d produced. These were not accurate Jajouka rhythms but I believe that they operated in much the same way with polyrhythmic and assymetrical grooves, sometimes processed using a number of strategies that one might hear in jungle, down-tempo, and techno. I brought the Koll 8-string and various pedals as well. At soundcheck, we had an opportunity to hone our sound on stage but we had just 5 minutes to go over what we might be playing. This was fine with us all as we had improvised so easily together in the past with our mode of functioning together deeply ingrained. The EBow with slide proved to be extremely useful in building up complex buzzing drones over which the flutes or rhaitas soared. Mustafa would sometimes switch to a large double-headed drum. Using various fuzz boxes, I could coax my guitar into becoming another rhaita. For some of the pieces, I took a more oblique and abstracted approach to accompaniment and built up shifting layers of interlocked rhythms and harmonics. A particular pounding groove was saved for the end of our set with the tune “In New York” which also included guest guitarist Al Maddy, a session ace and old friend and collaborator of Bachir’s. Billy Martin’s Road to Jajouka followed with a funky set spiced up by Bachir and Mustafa plus Marc Ribot, Shazad Ismaily, and DJ Logic. Nicely wild hang before, between, and after the sets including Donovan, a longtime Jajouka visitor and friend, spontaneously honoring Bachir on stage. The record that Bachir and I released in 1990 has now been reissued as a download-only album titled Jajouka-New York and includes three bonus tracks of Bachir with Carbon recorded at a festival in France in 1991. The album may be found here:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/jajouka-new-york/id856955006