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: http://www.elliottsharp.com.
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