Elliott Sharp

“My La Pavoni espresso machine is probably the most important piece of equipment in my studio,” asserts New York-based composer Elliott Sharp, and he’s only partially kidding. The 55-year-old guitarist, saxophonist, clarinetist, and instrument inventor has a work ethic that would give Donald Trump the heebie-jeebies. His most recent involvements include composing and recording the soundtrack for Spectropia, creating sound installations for the American Museum of Natural History, recording albums with his band Terraplane (featuring Hubert Sumlin) and guitarist Nels Cline, and composing works for the Sirius String Quartet and the Radio-Symphony Frankfurt—all while performing regularly and tending to twin two-year-olds.

A familiar face in New York’s downtown music scene for almost three decades, the über-eclectic Sharp has released nearly a hundred albums, ranging from suites of solo-acoustic guitar improvisations to full-scale orchestral works. Within this largely improvised and continuously shifting stream of material, some more-or-less stable structures occasionally arise—such as the free-jazz/drum & bass mash-ups dubbed Tectonics, the atonal ensemble excursions of Orchestra Carbon, and the high-voltage urban blues of Terraplane. Sharp’s most recent release is Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk! [Clean Feed]—a collection of five entirely deconstructed Thelonious Monk compositions performed solo on a Dell’Arte Anouman acoustic.

Sharp studied with master composers such as Benjamin Boretz, Roswell Rudd, Lejaren Hiller, and Morton Feldman while attending Cornell, Bard College, and the University of Buffalo, but he simultaneously indulged his fascination with physics and other sciences—which arguably affected his artistic aesthetic as much as his formal compositional studies. Sharp’s “extreme science nerd” bent has led to everything from building his own effects pedals to extrapolating guitar tunings from the Fibonacci series of numbers to being an early-adopter of computer-based composition and effects processing.

Is there a common center to the many different types of music you’re involved in?
The center has to do with the psychoacoustics of sound—at least in terms of my own music. In the case of guitar, that has to do with vibrating strings, and the various ways you can affect a string’s vibration to create other kinds of sounds. I like music that takes its models from nature. We can never really simulate the symphony of a waterfall or a thunderstorm, but we can take them as models. And in that realm, I was first influenced by fractal geometry and chaos theory. I hear things in systems as much as I do in notes. At the same time, I’ve always loved the craft of playing guitar, and the idea of filtering the sounds that I grew up loving—like blues guitar, and, to a lesser extent, jazz guitar—through my own ears and hands. Blues guitar was the Dionysian excess that really excited me, along with psychedelia, some surf music, and the free jazz of Sonny Sharrock.

What is your emotional connection to the blues?
The vocal quality—because the first blues I heard was country blues with slide guitar. I started with Fred McDowell and Blind Willie Johnson, and, from there, I began listening to everything I could. About the same time, I read LeRoi Jones’ Black Music, in which he talks about the New York free jazz movement. Jones said that even when musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor are playing at their furthest extremes, you can still always hear the blues in what they do, and that’s what keeps it resonating within the human soul. I’ve always tried to bear that in mind.

So, you didn’t discover blues through the British bands like so many other Americans.
Not so much. I enjoyed them, of course, but it was kind of parallel. That said, Jeff Beck has always been very important to me, and I still love his playing. He has the same originality as Hubert Sumlin—that vocal quality, and that quality of abstraction. He’s thinking on many levels simultaneously.

What is the most important thing you’ve gleaned from working with Hubert Sumlin?
Again, it’s that vocal quality. When he plays a solo, it really is a story—though not always a linear story. One friend described Hubert as “the Picasso of the Blues,” because his playing has this wonderfully fractured and angular sound, and he’ll use little asides and string snaps and slides of his fingers to make sounds that are truly vocal—like exclamations, grunts, and moans.

You use other playing techniques in addition to picking. Which are you currently most excited about?
I’ve almost completely abandoned the pick. I used to be a maniac who was able to pick at high tempos with a lot of notes, but that doesn’t interest me much anymore. I’m trying to slow down, and, when playing lines, to make them sing. These days, I’m mostly playing with my thumb, middle, and index fingers, so my technique has evolved more to hammer-ons, snapping, and rolling. I’ve also gotten deeper into tapping—particularly polyrhythmic tapping—and creating textures that don’t sound guitar-like.

Are you still using the EBow?
Yes. What I’ve been doing a lot recently is playing melodic material on the B or G string using the EBow, while tapping harmonies underneath with my left hand. You can hear that on Quadrature: Solo Electroacoustic Guitar. It’s a way of creating instrumental counterpoint—rather than just melodic counterpoint—by effectively dividing the guitar into two different types of instruments.

Do you have any tips for novice EBow users?
Listen to wind instruments and violins and voice—anything that involves breathing. In fact, I think one of the best things any guitarist can do is to take up a wind instrument, because it gives you a completely different sense of phrasing.

You began experimenting with fretless guitar back in 1975. Why?
I originally did it in response to sarod playing and Indian music in general, but also just in terms of theory. At that time, I was trying to play so fast that individual pitches would disappear—as well as bending notes to create various blurry shapes—and, at a certain point, I thought, “Why not just take the frets out and let glissandos be glissandos?” And I was just amazed at the sound. I also love tapping on the fretless, because you can make it sound like various non-tempered African string instruments.

How do you practice?
I don’t practice very much. It’s more that I play for enjoyment, and then I find different ideas lead me into certain directions—which is how Velocity of Hue and Monk came about. These were just things I enjoyed playing, and then I delved deeper into them, and they turned into projects. At this point, it’s more about pleasure than discipline. Finger dexterity is not so much an issue, but rather how I relate to the instrument sonically.