Guitarist, composer, and artist Elliott Sharp operates on a very, very different wavelength from the rest of us when it comes to how he approaches his craft. Even relative to the avant-garde guitar-tweaking cognoscenti he calls friends and co-conspirators, Sharp’s musical works are stand-outs, resulting in listening experiences that are unusually challenging on both sonic and intellectual levels – and this is saying quite a bit if you’re familiar with the warped soundscapes and imaginative deconstructions of cohorts like Henry Kaiser and Wilco’s Nels Cline.
Sharp appeared on stage a few minutes after 8:30 Saturday night, looking very much the part of an evil ’60s science-fiction villain in a dark, sharply cut suit, era-correct ankle boots, and a completely bald head. The man’s music matched his look perfectly, often sounding like the soundtrack of an old sci-fi flick, or perhaps the sonic backdrop to one of those super high-definition documentaries about physics.
Although widely known as an early experimenter of electronics and synthesizers with guitars, Sharp brought only an electrified nylon-string guitar and a few assorted gadgets to the small, blacked-out Miami Dade County Auditorium. Clearly, Elliott Sharp isn’t bound to the electronic tools he helped pioneer and relies only occasionally on an EBow (electronic bow) or less obvious objects (like springs from a desk lamp) to produce unique flourishes of sound from his guitar.
The first piece performed was a solo feature — just Elliott and his guitar. Beginning with a series of raked and muted harmonics, Sharp pushed the instrument via aggressive taps and scrapes, rarely playing the guitar in a conventional manner. There were no discernable beats or defined melodies here, just chaotic sound that created an ever-rising air of tension never entirely resolved at any given point in the evening. What this particular piece, titled “Momentum Anomaly,” lost in not having any defined sense of time or melody was remedied by Sharp’s incredible use of tension and release. There was no defined beat, but the music seemed structured and planned, every nuance of the chaos completely controlled. At one point, Elliott licked his thumb and dragged it across the top of his guitar to make “seal” noises, earning him a few chuckles here and there. Sharp, however, remained stoic throughout this seal session.
Following a brief intermission, the musicians behind Miami-based improv-collective Fridamusiq took their places in front of the small audience. The group began with Sharp at the helm conducting the 12-piece — comprising UM music students and alumni — through a series of ascending stabs and free-flung blasts of improvised sound. This piece of music enjoyed all of the chaotic tension Sharp had just impressed on the audience with his guitar, but on a decidedly grandiose scale. A young woman’s scream faded into operatic bursts, and then melded into a bark as the group constructed and deconstructed their repetitive noise-scapes. Bjork vibes abounded.
Throughout the ensemble experience, instruments were used in atypical ways: the tubes of a xylophone were hit with the hard end of a mallet, while a pianist dug around her instrument’s bowels, manipulating the strings manually. As the conductor, Elliott Sharp visibly relished the experience of leading these individuals through his work.
Finally, Sharp joined the group on guitar to lead them through his composition “Syndakit,” a conceptual piece incorporating the “magic” Fibonacci sequence – a number series found throughout nature – to weave 144 separate fragments of music together. As Mr. Sharp explained, “the piece is always different, but always the same.”
Unfortunately, Sharp never elaborated, and the magic is not readily accessible. The men sitting in front of me with their index fingers planted firmly in their ears through this final piece sort of said it all – and before you go assuming they were ill-prepared for a noisy-performance, one of them was wearing a Screamers T-shirt.
Now — in the name of full disclosure — I’m a huge guitar-nerd and a huge fan of a lot of Sharp’s NYC-based contemporaries. However, Sharp’s music has always been difficult for me. His body of work is massive, incredibly varied, and as the show on Saturday proved, really hard listening. The term “avant-garde” is so frequently applied to art these days that it’s kind of become a safe harbor for a lot of bullshit. Call me a skeptic, a tough sell, perhaps a snob, but as I scanned the audience for looks of approval or enjoyment, I couldn’t help but feel as though the joke was on me somehow. I wouldn’t consider myself close-minded, but everything I heard felt overcooked. There is a great deal of thoughtfulness behind what he does, but it is so overly thought-out that any intended impact was lost — at least on this reviewer.
That said, one audience member made the point that it was interesting to witness someone making noise-based art with an almost entirely organic ensemble and a nylon-stringed guitar — an inherently pretty-sounding instrument. And while I’m personally a bit at odds with free-jazz and noise in general, the facts remain that beneath all of the perceived nonsense produced by Sharp’s fleet-fingered attacks and percussive tapping lies an incredible sense of musicality and dynamics, a fact driven home by the occasional peaks of harmonic sunlight he occasionally allows to peer through the dense, note-laden fog he spent most of the evening creating.
By David Von Bader