Elliott Sharp: On Tour At Home: E# NYC Residency Oct. 1-6 - Part 1

It's a rare and welcome opportunity to present 12 different projects in 12 sets over six days at one venue in NYC. The Stone is a stone's throw from my studio and the convenience also made the notion quite attractive. I wanted to perform both composed and improvised music and try to have a wide range of my usual collaborators take part in the series.
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It's a rare and welcome opportunity to present 12 different projects in 12 sets over six days at one venue in NYC. The Stone is a stone's throw from my studio and the convenience also made the notion quite attractive. I wanted to perform both composed and improvised music and try to have a wide range of my usual collaborators take part in the series. The opening concert would be the world premiere of Mare Undarum, a graphic score performed by Sirius String Quartet. The title literally means "sea of waves" and to create this score I used only Photoshop's waveform modulations on my "seed material," images exported as graphic files from notation written in Sibelius specifically to be used for this purpose. The plan was to make a 40-minute continuous piece in four systems, each processed using a progressive sequence of strategies. At sound check, we discussed how the musicians might interpret the graphic material. I asked that they try to translate the visual gestures quite literally on their instruments though not so much that their own interpretive powers felt diminished. Their choices would also be shaped by the choices of the other musicians, a feedback network. Sirius is led by violist Ron Lawrence and includes Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner on violins and for this concert, Adam Fisher subbing on cello. I brought an L5S Thinline with P-90-type pickups made from Warmoth parts, the Celmo compressor, an old Rat pedal, and the Eventide PitchFactor. The guitar's resonant properties made it a good match for the completely acoustic string quartet. Plugging into the house Fender Deluxe amp, I found I had to barely crack the volume open to get a sound that would blend with and not overwhelm the quartet. We tried a few minutes of the piece, discussing the mechanism of cues at each 10-minute mark that would bring us to the next system and then broke for refreshments. In performance, Mare Undarum felt seamless with the time flying by. The group displayed incredible restraint in dynamics so that when peaks occurred they felt especially dramatic. The sounds absolutely manifested a sea of waves and I was thrilled at how closely what we played corresponded to what I imagined it might be.

The second set that night was Bootstrappers, an ongoing electric improvising trio whose initial iteration in 1988 was with bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley back in my SST days. The version of this last few years has been with Melvin Gibbs on bass and drummer Anton Fier, two of my favorite musicians. This set would likely be substantially louder, so in setup I augmented the volume a bit to "3" on the Deluxe, not that loud, and found that it was ragged and distorted—not in a good way. I couldn't tell if it was a question of tubes or the speaker—it would have taken more time to determine than we had available. The amp was useless and displayed the careless maintenance policies of the venue. Fortunately, one of the ZT Lunchbox amps lent by Nels Cline saved the day and as usual, the Stone's volunteer door-person was extremely helpful. For his bass, Melvin tried plugging into a Rogue keyboard amp. It functioned tolerably well as a bass amp though on the quiet side. We tried it with a big and heavy cabinet but to no avail: no extension speaker jack! We were able to boost its sound a bit with the somewhat-operational P.A. to almost suitable levels. The Stone is certainly a valuable resource but at the same time there is much to be desired. Considering its international standing, its infrastructure is disappointing to say the least. I've performed all over the world in venues ranging from magnificent opera houses in Cremona and hi-tech art spaces in Stockholm to the meanest punk clubs just a stone's throw from the Forbidden City in Beijing, but this has to be the only joint I've played anywhere that does not have a working bass head, an investment of only $200 or so, a pittance. Bootstrappers tonight was, of necessity, restrained in volume, mostly a slow simmer though occasionally boiling up to deep heat. Textures shifted effortlessly into grooves and back as global listening took over. As we all know, volume is not everything and will never substitute for good musical interplay. When it finished we all were quite pleased and discussed strategies for getting the group recorded.

The next night, Oct. 2, would begin with pianist Jenny Lin performing three composed works of mine including the world premiere of IX-In Memoriam Iannis Xenakis. Jenny and I met at the venue at 6:30 and setup was quick and easy. The piano would be unamplified but one microphone would feed the sound into my laptop for the processing on Suberrebus and the new piece. I used a Digitech RP250 as an interface and preamp to route the audio from the mic into Ableton Live in which I'd prepared a patch featuring a number of GRM Tools as well as other processors with various continuous controller parameters effected by a Korg NanoKontrol. It took some effort to find two working channels in the mixing desk but once established, it all sounded fine in the room with the patch working beautifully. Jenny opened with "Suberrebus" in a version more compact but much wilder than the recording that appears on her CD The Eleventh Finger. The composition has through-composed sections as well as portions where she can loop written fragments to her liking. Next was Oligosono, written for her in 2004 and 20 minutes in length. The title literally means "a few sounds." Fragments of music are rearranged through multiple permutations and combinations as well as being transformed by register, attack, and extended techniques including inside-the-piano approaches. Some of these latter, including pedaled tremolo, are designed to elicit difference-tone effects from the generated sound fields. The performer has some latitude in determining the number of repetitions and their sequencing. Jenny's performance was frighteningly beautiful, her steely technique producing a marvelous manifestation of sonics. To finish the set, we performed the world premiere of IX-In Memoriam Iannis Xenakis, a dedication to one of my favorite composers. The score began its life in conventional notation for cello. After it was finished, I had received feedback from a few cellists stating that the piece was just too difficult which made me decide to take a different tack and apply my graphic strategies to this piece. I now feel that the allusions created by the graphics best convey what I wanted the performer to manifest in a realization. Jenny's reading closely follows the score's multiple systems and her prodigious technique and huge sonic vocabulary were put to good use. A few minutes into the piece I found that the faders in my NanoKontrol were no longer affecting their assigned parameters. To complete the set, it would be necessary for me to physically control everything by using the laptop's internal trackpad. This rendered impossible some simultaneous moves that were an important part of the sound-world of the piece. Still, it was possible to mostly present the piece as intended with keyboard glisses and clusters resonated to form gongs plus subterranean slides and arpeggiations yielding shifting clouds of sound.

The second set that night would be a performance of my longstanding duo with Nels Cline, a partnership that always surprises and delights. Whether we're geeking out over coffee about guitars and art and road tales or trading sounds onstage, our conversations remain dynamic, sympathetic, and unpredictable. For the duo on this night, Nels played his National resonator with built-in pickup and I had the Godin Duet Multiac with both running direct into the P.A. Soundcheck was again plagued with the problem of finding working channels in the desk but once that was completed, it went quickly. At the appointed time, we hit full-force. From warped hyper-swing to prepared-guitar noise clusters, floating EBow clouds to high-density riffage, we packed it all in. Nels even broke into a full-on boogie at one point and we ran the I-IV-V down. The music was both directly related to what we had recently released as Open the Door on the Public Eyesore label but at the same time, light-years beyond.

The first set of the third night, Oct. 3, would be the U.S. premiere of HAPTIKON, an album that was released last spring on the Longsong label from Milano, a guitar-intensive manifestation of my Tectonics project. I brought the solidbody Godin LGX3 as its combination of magnetic and piezo pickups provided the widest range of possibilities. Now that I knew which channels to use, soundcheck was quick. The laptop fed the P.A. with my prepared grooves and electronic textures and the stereo signal from my guitar effects (Celmo, Rat, UltraFuzz, Boomerang, PitchFactor) were fed into both the ZT amp and the keyboard amp. The structures of the pieces in HAPTIKON are clearly defined but my top layer in performance is completely open for improvisation. I presented the music as a single suite with the groove sections interspersed with textural interludes. The pieces come close to referencing a variety of specific musical styles without wallowing in cliches. I'm playing more line-oriented guitar in addition to the usual sonics and it's both a challenge and a liberation.

Second set would be SyndaKit with "all guitars"—one of my favorite manifestations of this self-organizing system as the open tunings and similar timbres can generate profound psycho-acoustic effects. A large resonant space works best but any room will do. I asked everyone to bring the smallest amps possible and we set up in a semi-circle at one end of the narrow space. It took the musicians a few minutes to settle in and figure out how to interlock with the others, to not worry about their individual sounds, and to try and follow and resolve the two basic prime directives of SyndaKit: to build giant unisons and to mutate and transform. Musicians may "pop out" with short improvised statements that may be looped by the others—a way of introducing new material into the flux. We performed three iterations of the piece and by the third, the group was working like a single beautifully monstrous entity. The players were Angela Babin, Cristian Amigo, Debra Devi, James Ilgenfritz, Zach Layton, Ben Tyree, Anders Nilsson, Zachary Pruitt, David Grubbs, On Ka'a Davis, and Marc Sloan.