Elliott Sharp has been a central figure in the avant-garde and experimental music scene in New York City since the late Seventies. His education in composition included Benjamin Boretz at Bard College, where he was an undergraduate, and graduate studies with both Morton Feldman and Lejaren Hiller at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He also studied jazz (both composition and improvisation) with Roswell Rudd. His interests are eclectic unto an extreme, enumerated on his Wikipedia page as “ranging from blues, jazz, and orchestral music to noise, no wave rock, and techno music.” He has also explored algorithmic composition, most likely with Hiller, who was a pioneer in this area; and, like many modernists, he has an interest in Fibonacci numbers.
Today the Starkland label, based in Boulder, Colorado, released a new album of four of Sharp’s latest compositions, each involving different performers. The title of the album is The Boreal, which is also the title of the opening selection, a string quartet performed by the JACK Quartet. This is followed by the three-movement piano solo “Oligosono,” commissioned, premiered, and performed on this album by Jenny Lin. The remaining two selections are four-movement orchestral works. For the first, “Proof of Erdős,” David Bloom conducts the strings of Orchestra Carbon, which founded as a platform for performing Sharp’s works for large ensemble. The final selection is “On Corlear’s Hook,” performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Rundel.
Readers will quickly note that, when it comes to naming his compositions, Sharp has a decided preference for the arcane. “Boreal” is actually an adjective meaning “northern.” However, Sharp’s notes for the program book cite its use in two proper compound nouns, the Boreal Period of the Holocene era in geological history and the Boreal Sea, which was part of the supercontinent Pangaea. The root of “Oligosono” is “sono,” the Greek word for sounds; and the prefix “oligo” means “a few,” thus providing another synonym for minimality.
Writing as one with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a doctorate in applied mathematics, I have to confess more than a little delight in encountering a composition written as an homage to Paul Erdős. Erdős was the subject of a fascinating documentary, N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős. He was unbelievably prolific in his publication of mathematical results, but just as prolific in collaborating with others on those papers. His name became associated with the concept of the Erdős number, basically a measure of separation in the social network of published mathematicians. “Proof of Erdős,” on the other hand is less about the mathematician himself and more an expression of the composer’s own admiration of mathematics itself. Finally, Corlear’s Hook is the name of Sharp’s neighborhood in the Lower East Side, which has always had diverse immigrant populations throughout its long history.
None of these prodigiously cerebral titles, however, is likely to prepare for the listening experience of the compositions themselves. Basically, Sharp has committed much (if not all) of this work to developing what might be called a rhetoric of extreme noise. This goes beyond heavy superpositions of sources rich with harsh dissonances and loud dynamics. Even when Sharp’s music is soft, he tends to go for unconventional approaches to making sounds whose respective spectral contents involve particularly harsh timbres. Couple such a choice of sound sources with a proclivity for abrupt dynamic changes from barely audible to painfully loud, and the result is a repertoire that is not for the faint of heart.
Sharp is hardly alone in taking such a rhetorical stance. Indeed, he was not alone when he first assumed it. Before Sharp began his undergraduate studies, there was La Monte Young. In 1964 Merce Cunningham commissioned Young to provide the music for a new dance he was creating entitled “Winterbranch.” Young responded with a tape composition entitled “Two Sounds.” Since the title described perfectly the content, the work established Young as one of the earliest pioneers of extreme minimalism. What was left a mystery, however, was just what those two sounds were. One favorite conjecture was that one of them was heavy amplification of fingernails scratching a blackboard. Throughout the remaining history of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Cunningham never let “Winterbranch” drop from the repertoire; and its performance never failed to provoke at least some members of the audience.
It is unclear whether Sharp has deliberately chosen to provoke his listeners or just melt the wax in their ears (as a former colleague of mine liked to put it). My own personal feeling is that Sharp’s rhetoric is simply strongly committed to abstraction. He then lets the chips fall where they may, but he also seems to begin with premises that bias the chips into falling into some very uncomfortable positions. Nevertheless, for the listener capable of getting beyond the shock effects, Sharp’s music proceeds in many fascinating directions; and, under the hands of performers as capable as those on this recording, it is possible to approach his results as making for some very compelling listening experiences.