Elliott Sharp: guitars, basses, drum programming, sample manipulation, electronics.
Produced by Elliott Sharp. Recorded, mixed and mastered at Studio zOaR, New York City. Drum samples were synthesized as well as taken from the kits of Sim Cain, Tony Lewis, and Joseph Trump. All compositions published by zOaR Music – BMI Design and photography by Shigdig. Grazie: Fabrizio, Lila & Kai, and Janene.
Tracklist: 1. Pireps [7:38] 2. Umami [7:55] 3. Phosphenes [7:14] 4. Sigil Walking [9:30] 5. Messier 55 [9:10] 6. Finger of Speech [7:13]
Limited edition, 500 copies only, signed by E# and numbered!
Haptikon is a set of very-electric-guitar pieces accompanied by computer. Haptikon may be heard as an outgrowth of E#’s Tectonics project. Where Tectonics was a form of psychedelic noise jungle techno played on both saxophones and guitars interacting electronically with computerized grooves and processing, with Haptikon, the focus is on a more melodic and lyrical approach. E# pays homage to improvised traditions in jazz, blues, rock, Indian music, and even country & western! The results are cinematic in scope and give the feeling of a full band. Sharp’s virtuosity on guitar and originality as a composer are in full evidence on Haptikon.
Elliott Sharp interviewed by Cy Fore
CF: It’s been awhile since we’ve sat down and talked in depth – somewhat Ironic actually given the uniqueness of our situation…
E#: I suppose – but then again perhaps actually going through this interview is a sign of the emergence of a dangerous personality disorder that only musicmaking keeps in check …so let’s keep this brief.
CF: Ah… therein might be an explanation for your almost compulsive productivity. Speaking of which, whafs up on the gibbet today?
E#: It’s Haptikon – it’s been in the works for quite some time and is finally complete.
CF: I haven’t been able to keep myself from overhearing it as you’ve been editing and overdubbing, sometimes quite obsessively.
E#: I do try to be meticulous about certain aspects, especially structural and technical, though ultimately the playing should feel raw and spontaneous, especially when it comes to the final layer, the solos. Those are done with as much abandon as I can muster and limiting myself to one or two takes and maybe a few punches.
CF: Haptikon….it has something to do with the word “haptic”?
E#: Obviously …and given the nature of the techniques involved in guitar playing (not to mention programming and editing), the haptic is quite a good description of how it all goes down.
CF: It feels like a band playing, more or less, but I can’t quite figure out what kind of band. There seems to be more than a cursory nod to Indian music, and jungle, and psychedelic rock, funk, prog, metal….even some )azz…and, what’s that steel guitar? Country n’ western? Really? Is this some sort of….uh….er….mmm….fusion?
E#: You make that seem like a dirty word. “Fusion” should not be considered a genre or a defining term, and certainly not a limitation. The notion of a fusion of disparate elements was considered at one point in recent musical history to be adventurous, a path to new realms. I would contend that all modern musics are “fusion” – the delimiting markers of a particular style were put in place NOT by the innovators and most of the practitioners but by those who were packaging and selling or preserving a snapshot of a particular time and set of practices after the fact. For me, the use of definite styles and use of specific techniques are all woven into the musical DMA of a lifetime playing many forms of music (not to mention listening.)
This record is certainly weighted away from the conceptual end -I was more concerned with composing and playing tracks that felt functional and visceral. Plus there’s the notion of craft: I like playing guitar and I’ve always enjoyed playing in different styles, challenging the limits of my technique, channeling sonic personalities through my fingers. I’m not just trying on a hat – that’s my head (and soul) singing. I’ve been digging in with the guitar and other instruments for over four decades now and though I’m not technically impeccable -far from it -I do what I do and can get around a bit on the instrument. And about that C&W: that shouldn’t be any surprise – there were certainly those days in Ithaca 1969-71 while I was in school and in bands, especially Colonel Bleep, playing tunes influenced by The Flying Burritos Brothers, The Byrds with Clarence White, and the Grateful Dead, along with the more expected Hendrix, Captain Beefheart and Miles Davis. Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Burritos was a major hero! I had picked up an old Fender 100 pedal steel, the ancient one that used aircraft pull-cables and was impossible to keep in tune or prevent string-breakage. I’d run it through a Maestro volume/wah and a FuzzFace plus an Echoplex and it was possible to get some wild sounds as well as a bit of that bittersweet crying sound that steels are so good at.
That particular guitar was pretty much unsustainable and I soon gravitated to regular guitars and lap steels. My steel sound is in evidence as far back as the ’80’s on records from Semantics and Mofungo. At some point I’d love to attempt the full-on pedal steel again but we shall see.
CF: Aren’t you afraid of making pastiche? Post-modem appropriation? Incoherent subtexts and markers? Unutterable kitsch?
E#: As a matter of fact (& record), YES. One has to tread a fine line and can’t always tell when stepping over it I try to trust my own internal sense of (necessary) objectivity. I especially hate the post-intentional pseudo-kitsch that was so popular in New York beginning in the 1980’s -I have no patience for it and don’t enjoy hearing the smirk. I’ve tried to make grooves and soundbeds that do refer to various sets of stylistic practices but these are doors to be passed through as part of the journey to places as yet unvisited. It’s good to bring along some company on such a trip and that’s where the listeners come in.
CF: On the geeky end of things, what equipment did you use to make this?
E#: The grooves started out as fragments of drum performances taken from various recording sessions that I’ve produced for Carbon and Terraplane. These were chopped up and reassembled into drum tracks. Once a basic structure is in place, I might process the tracks: jungle-ize them, superimpose them, generate fills and interruptions. Also used were some drum patterns synthesized from scratch in Ableton Live with similar processes applied. Once the drums were set, I would either play an initial guitar solo or bass track to further define things followed by layering and cutting, sculpting, molding. For the bottom, I used either the bass side of my old Ken Heer doubleneck, a 60’s vintage Hagstrom Concord hollowbody bass, or a Hagstrom 8-string bass, also from the 60’s. The bass track to Phosphenes was played on a Rogue Electric Sitar through an ElectroHarmonix MicroSynth. The bass on Sigil Walking started out as the drum track gated then convolved with a synthesizer and the results put through a modulation delay to generate pitch sweeps -I thought the result was pretty swingin’. A number of guitars were used – each a specialized paint-brush, each providing a sound or feel unique to that instrument: my old lime-green FrankenStrat, a korina-body Epiphone SG with a Bowen Handle trem, a Fender XII from the ’60’s, a greenburst Domino 12 also from the ’60’s, a Godin LGX III, a FrankenTele with 3-P90’s, another FrankenTeie tuned “Nashville high-strung” with a Teisco pickup added in the middle, a MusicMan StingRay II from the early 70’s, an Ibanez GB10 from the ’80’s, a bizarre small semi-hollowbody prototype made by Steve Carr in the ’80’s, and a DynaLap 8-string lap steel in modified Nashville tuning.
Finally, a number of different pedals were employed with an emphasis on distortion of various flavors: Rat, Fuzz Factory, UltraFuzz, Experience, FuzzBender, YardBox, plus Celmo SardineCan compressor, Echolution, Boomerang, Eventide TimeFactor and PitchFactor, Quicksilver, Whammy I, Peffco Randomatic, Ibanez AD202 analog delay. Recording was sometimes “direct inject” into ProTools through a MOTU 828 Mk.lll interface but also sounds were digitized through a Focusrite ISA220 preamp capturing a Royer 122 ribbon mic, Beyer M160 ribbon, or ElectroVoice RE15 dynamic on a ’50’s tweed Champ or a ’60’s Bronco.
CF: I see you’ve provided the usual cryptic titles. Care to provide some Illumination?
E#: The news of the death of guitarist Pete Cosey was announced while I was working on Sigil Walking and hit hard so that track is dedicated to him: a tragic loss of a visionary musician who never got his due much beyond the insular world of out-guitar. His sound was a vital element of the Miles Davis electric sound (much maligned by critics at the time) and established him as an icon but digging deeper, one also finds his tracks with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and even John Klemmer displaying the depth of his unique personality – one might describe it as a funky mix of Jimi Hendrix and Karlheinz Stockhausen. I was having trouble deciding on an approach to the solo voice on this track but watching a clip of Cosey playing a Vox 12-string with Miles at a 1973 Wien concert gave me the impetus to pull out the Fender XII and attempt to channel a little of his special sound-world. “Umami” is a savory taste and I thought the combination of piezo and magnetic pickups on the Godin LGX plus a little finger grease gave more than a hint of that. Some months ago I was trying to explain to the twins a “figure of speech” and it was said back to me by Llla as “finger of speech”, and so that title. The others can easily be googled and the connection to the music inferred.
CF: I believe we’ve covered everything! I’ll let you return to solipsis while I try to cook up some other distractions.
Elliott Sharp | Photo by Tiffany Oelfke
Born in 1951, in Cleveland, OH; son of an engineer. Education: Earned degrees from Bard College and from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Addresses: Record company–Gaff Music, 719 E. Park Dr., Lincolnton, NC 28092-3219. Website–Elliott Sharp Official Website.
Critics have hailed Elliott Sharp as one of American music’s lesser-known geniuses. A guitarist and composer who works both within and at the fringes of New York City’s avant-jazz and experimental rock music scenes, Sharp has been putting out solo records and forming new and innovative ensembles since 1977. He is highly regarded among music writers as well as among his peers for the range of his styles and technical brilliance, but he remains largely unknown to the public outside of a small coterie of experimental music fans. In one of the few articles about his work published in the mainstream press, New York Times writer Adam Shatz wrote that Sharp’s compositions “tend to be brutally dissonant and repetitive, driven by an exacting logic that gives them an undeniable power, though it doesn’t make for easy listening.”
Sharp was born in 1951 in Cleveland, Ohio, and grew up in White Plains, New York. His mother was a Holocaust survivor of World War II. His father, an engineer by profession, was also a talented painter and woodcarver. Not surprisingly, Sharp emerged as a smart child whose parents had high hopes for him. “I played classical piano when I was a child, Liszt and Chopin, but I didn’t really care for the practice regime,” he recalled in an interview with England’s Birmingham Post journalist Martin Longley. “My parents were really pushing that. I was also trying to be a junior scientist at the age of seven. I hated the piano after that. I switched to the clarinet. I think it was encouraged that I do it partially as therapy for my asthma.”
But then Sharp discovered rock and roll in high school, and found his muse when he heard the music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and other groundbreakers of the mid-1960s. He acquired what would become the first of an impressive array of guitars in 1968, and built his own fuzz boxes and pedals. Still a top student, he won a National Science Foundation grant for creating an experiment showing that microwaves caused genetic mutations in fruit flies, but turned down the grant in order to become a music major at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. He remained intensely involved in popular music, working as a DJ and discovering dozens of new styles, from the blues to psychedelic rock to world music.
Settled in New York City
Sharp undertook graduate studies in music at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he often found himself in conflict with his more tradition-minded professors, and also became drawn into the student protest movement of the era. His first record, Hara, was an experimental-jazz effort released on the Zoar label in 1977. Two years later he released a follow-up album, Resonance, and then moved to New York City. In one of those occasional Manhattan real estate legends, Sharp purchased a small walk-up apartment in what was then a desolate, drug-ridden neighborhood—New York City’s East Seventh Street—for the sum of just $250.
Sharp continued to put out solo records that garnered a following among New York’s young downtown experimental music crowd, but he also played in a bar band that performed Motown covers; one of his bandmates was future Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. He also worked as a janitor at the Barbizon Hotel. The early 1980s were a ripe time for New York’s downtown music scene, and Sharp came to know composer John Zorn, guitarists Glenn Branca and Marc Ribot, and John Lurie, the saxophonist and actor. Still interested in political causes, he founded Orchestra Carbon in 1983. In physics, all matter can be reduced to carbon, and Sharp borrowed this idea for his band’s name, which linked to his interest in nuclear-disarmament politics. The band’s debut album, Carbon, was released on the Atonal label in 1984. “Carbon has always been my most personal project,” Sharp told Guitar Player journalist Joe Gore. “It’s where I work out concepts in a `rock band’ format.”
In the early 1990s Sharp explored his interest in the blues through several projects. Terraplane was both the name of an ensemble and an acclaimed 1994 release of modern electric blues. Jas Obrecht, writing in Guitar Player, praised “Sharp’s roots-true blues,” describing them as “devoid of posturing and cliches.” He added that Sharp “plays the blues as if he’s spent the past 75 years in Mississippi.” The record also featured the work of an American blues guitar legend, Hubert Sumlin, who had worked with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Sharp had met Sumlin thanks to an Austin, Texas, blues singer named Queen Esther. She sang on Sharp’s 1996 Hoosegow project titled Mighty. Several tracks that the two co-wrote featured Sharp’s guitar, her voice, and no other instruments.
Moved Forward with the Times
In the mid-1990s Sharp ventured into drum-n-bass-style electronica with a host of other musicians, working under the name Tectonics. The result was a pair of 1995 releases, Field and Stream and Errata. The following year Sharp released an album of string quartet compositions titled Sferics, and won commissions for new works from the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra and other leading groups. Some of his works subsequently premiered at Carnegie Hall, one of New York’s most prestigious concert venues. “I sat in the audience and bit my nails while they read my score,” he confessed to Obrecht. “I write rhythmically complex music, and there was no room for interpretation or improvisation in this piece. For me to sit in the audience and listen to someone play the music is a lot more harrowing than being onstage making the mistakes myself.”
Sharp has produced a studio album nearly every year since 1977, and was extremely prolific during the 1990s, producing several releases each year. In 2000 he issued another Terraplane LP, Blues For Next, for Knitting Factory Records. The double-disc set featured Sumlin’s guitar on the disc called “Plus,” and solely instrumental works on its “Quartet” counterpart. Down Beat’s Jon Andrews liked the instrumental track “Rails” from the latter, and praised the way the song “departs from familiar blues-rock origins for a stunning excursion into electronica. Over [Sim] Cain’s electronic percussion, Sharp erupts with a raving, furious solo, evoking the sound of metal shearing.”
Another project of Sharp’s was Guitar Oblique, which teamed him with fellow guitarists David Torn and Vernon Reid. They recorded one live session at New York’s Knitting Factory, released as GTR OBLQ. Billboard writer Steve Graybow reviewed the finished product and found it “a fascinating look into an exceptionally rich musical dialogue. The perceptive observer can detect a conversational ebb and flow in the music, as the three guitarists spontaneously react to one another and to the sound samples that weave in and out of their collective tapestry.”
World Citizen, Devoted New Yorker
Still ardently interested in political causes, Sharpe, who was raised in the Jewish faith, is a supporter of the Palestinian self-rule movement and has worked to promote Arab-Jewish peace initiatives in the Middle East. In the summer of 2002 he was invited to take part in a New York concert that was part of the Lincoln Center Festival 2002, which featured many musical groups and stars from the North African and Middle Eastern worlds. At the event he performed onstage with the 13-member Al Mashreq All-Stars.
Sharp still lives in the New York City apartment he bought in 1979, but also has a studio next door. It is filled with musical instruments of his own design, most of them variations on guitars, which he furnishes with unusual names such as pantar and violinoid. He has remained relatively unknown outside of music circles even after a quarter-century, and admitted to Shatz that the heyday for experimental music in the 1980s had largely passed him by. “I’ve been really underground for the last 10 years,” he told the newspaper. “Sure, I’m disappointed sometimes,” he continued. “Without that corporate endorsement you’re not seen as an artist in America. At the same time, I’ve been really lucky. I do have great opportunities. I’ve been able to work with some of my heroes. I live comfortably, and I don’t expect to live in a mansion.” Sharp says he has joked with friends that he might someday like to leave the country and establish a base in Europe or elsewhere, but thinks he might be too rooted in New York City. “The problem is,” he told Shatz about living elsewhere, “there’s no place you can get good Korean food at 2 in the morning.” — by Carol Brennan
Sharp and his guitar-bass | Photo: Issue Project Room
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