This interview was originally published in my webzine Udara, which covers fringe music
and science fiction
Elliott Sharp is a well-known avant-garde composer, sonic experimentalist, and guitarist who is a longtime participant in New York City's Downtown scene. His vast discography includes performances of his own compositions, musical projects such as Carbon and Terraplane, and performances with electric harpist Zeena Parkins and many other artists.
What most people don't know is that Sharp is also a science fiction fan from, according to Sharp, "when I first started to read." They might also be suprised to learn that he was recruited by the ]Sci-Fi Channel]'s Seeing Eye Theater to accompany readings by veteran science fiction authors Lucius Shepard, Pat Cadigan, Jack Womack, and Katherine Anne Goonan.
Udara did an email interview with Sharp about his work with Seeing Eye Theater, why he's a science fiction fan, and how his approach to music has been shaped by science fiction.
There are many authors who read for Seeing Eye Theater. Did you choose to work with Murphy, Goonan, Womack & Shepard or did Seeing Eye Theater introduce you to them?
I had met the producer, Tony Daniel, through Ellen Datlow, Jack Womack, and Lucius Shepard when doing a performance. He told me that he had followed my work. The next step was easy. I've followed sci-fi since I first began to read and had been a longtime fan of Jack's. Pat's, and Lucius.
We've performed together on a number of occasions and I had included all of them reading in a compilation of one-minute pieces called State of the Union. Tony, as producer, makes the choices. I certainly offer feedback. I did become a fan of Kathy Ann Goonan's after working with her on a Seeing Ear Theater production.
Which Seeing Ear piece was the most difficult to create? Which one was easiest? And why?
Can't say any was more difficult than any other - the hardest part is in the initial listening - this happens while i'm actually recording the reading and is the time that I must open myself to that gestalt of the "wordsound" - it feels very seamless to me, more so than some other kinds of work - when I have such a rich source of imagery to draw from, not to mention the wonderful voices of the writers, it's just a flow....
Did you do any advance musical or mental preparation for the recording sessions?
I try to get a gestalt feeling for the piece, try to "hear it" in totality, it's shape, emotion, textures. it has a lot to do with the author's reading as well.
When the orchestration reveals itself, it's easy for me to figure out how to manifest it, whether using "real" instruments like guitars, saxophones, percussion or using synthesizers and virtual instruments created and/or transformed in the computer using a variety of different software approaches.
I use a combination of improvisation (to generate raw material with a feeling of spontaneity around the reading) and then composition to arrange it and shape it. This last step is done in Pro Tools.
Can you recall any specific element in a Seeing Ear story (or reading) which inspired you to employ a specific compositional technique for that recording?
Certainly Pat Cadigan's evocation of Latin Larry's band clicked me into a warped "barband" mode and Kathy Anne Goonan's work brought me into an acoustic guitar "Americana" approach: open tunings, simple melodies with shifting harmonies. Lucius' story Mengele called for granular synthesis techniques and time-stretching.
Have you backed any spoken word performances before, and if so, what comments might you make about performing with a reader?
I've worked quite a bit with readers and text over the years. it's always a question of appropriate orchestration - how do you complement and enhance the reading and not get in the way? I always work with people whose work I admire - with Seeing Ear this is taken to an even higher degree.
What other spoken word artists/writers have you worked with? When and how often have you worked with SF writers before Seeing Ear (besides State of the Union)?
This is my first extended collaboration in the sci-fi realm though sci-fi imagery has been part of some dance-scores i've composed. Other writers i've worked with have included poet Allen Ginsberg, Brooklyn poet/performer Tracie Morris, Israeli poet Ronnie Someck, Barbara Barg, Victor Poison-Tete, Alva Rogers, and Lee Ann Brown.
If someone who was not an SF fan asked you, "why do you read science fiction," what would you say?
SF is a literary mode where imagination can freely go with the tangential, a mode I resonate with in my own work. Speculation about "different" possibilities, futures, alternate realities & interpretations all meet in sci-fi so that the abstractions are manifest in the realm of actual human interaction - theory made flesh.
In an interview, you said that Philip K Dick had a major impact on you when you were young. What is your favorite Dick story (or novel) and why?
PKD's writing appealed to both my dark paranoid side and my "search-for-transcendence" side plus it was obvious that he had a very deep soul; issues of the nature of human-ness and of empathy so often appeared in his writing.
There are so many favorites. Of the novels, I've liked things from different periods including Eye In The Sky, Man In The High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, and Galactic Pot Healer. Two standout short stories for me include "Beyond Lies The Wub" and "Second Variety."
In your liner notes to "ARC3: Cyberpunk and the Virtual Stance," you said that you had taken "a hiatus from sci-fi for a number of years until I heard the buzz of cyberpunk and it rattled every nerve." Why did you stop reading SF previously?
The genre seemed stale: too many space operas (of which I've never been a huge fan), re-tread plots, weak characters. Also, my reading interests in the late-'70's/early '80's turned more towards post-Structuralist theory and political non-fiction (if that's not a contradiction in terms!) The life I was living (as a freelance composer/musician recently moved to NYC's burned-out and drug-ridden Lower East Side) seemed more sci-fi than the books.
What do you think about the term "cyberpunk" in the year 2000? What does it mean to you now?
Both "cyber" and "punk" as concepts are way overused and have lost most of their iconic power. However, the essence (as is the essence of any cultural movement before the marketing takes over) remains vital. With unforeseen technological change (along with its accompanying paradigm shift), there will be new modes to capture our imaginations. My own compositional work these days is making more extensive use of biological metaphors and algorithmic processes and I'm enjoying sci-fi that explores these realms. Some recent faves include Greg Egan's work and Greg Bear's "Darwin's Radio."
Above, you said that Seeing Ear Theater introduced you to the works of SF author Katherine Ann Goonan. What have you read by her and do you think?
I had only read a couple of stories (including "Solitaire") by Kathy Anne Goonan before working with her. "Mississippi Blues" and "The Bones of Time" were both very enjoyable - I really like her handling of nanotech.
Speaking of nanotech, I don't recall too many SF references to music and nanotechnology besides Ryman's "The Child Garden" (and that involves viruses). Have you ever imagined ways that nanotech might be applied to music?
I'd like to see instruments that could reconfigure themselves for new situations (even ones that arise within a single performance). I could imagine instantaneously changing scale-lengths on string instruments or a single horn that could change itself from a single-reed to a double reed mouthpiece or change the length of its chamber or the shape of its bell; instruments that duplicate themselves for ensemble passages or for furious group improvisation (without a group.)
In your Mondo 2000 interview with Glenn Branca, you mentioned two SF stories that feature music--Kim Stanley Robinson's "Memory of Whiteness" and Cordwainer Smith's "Under Old Earth." Would you recommend any other SF stories about music?
Jack Womack's "Terraplane" is not specifically about music but Robert Johnson and his music are very important to the story. There is also Norman Spinrad's "Little Heroes," Lucius Shepard's "A Little Night Music," Pat Cadigan's "Synners." Pat, Jack, and Lucius all have an incredible musical resonance in their works. I find this also in [Paul diFilippo['s writing, Jeter's "Dr. Adder," Lewis Shiner, Gibson's "Neuromancer" and "Idoru."
You mentioned Greg Egan. His works often discuss high-powered mathematics and physics; you have said in an interview that "music is applied physics." Has Egan, or other math-oriented SF writers like Rudy Rucker, inspired any of your compositions/compositional techniques?
It's not so much that these writers have inspired specific compositional approaches, but that their writing bounces along a ]parallel path] to my readings in math and science, and to the elements that end up informing the engines of my work . It's more that I feel generally inspired and excited by their writing, like a good short double-espresso.
In many ways, it seems that many experimental/serialist composers, like Xenakis and yourself, share aesthetic values with science fiction writers--including interests in mathematics and exploring the effects of technology and science on artistic endeavors. Are there any aesthetic lessons that avant-garde music can share with SF? Or vice versa?
I've always liked the thought that Amiri Baraka (]LeRoi Jones]) shared in his collection of essays "Black Music". In writing about the revolution in music of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor, he stated that no matter how "out" these musicians get, there is still the human cry of the blues in their sound - this gives any listener something to wrap their ears and heart around. One of the great features of the music of Xenakis is the incredible passion that burns in his music. I want to change the chemistry of the people who hear my music, just as I want to be transformed and moved by the literature that I read.