Elliott Sharp

June 8, 2010

I first became aware of Elliott Sharp‘s music about five years ago. My friend Jason Price recommended his stuff to me. (And definitely click on that link to Jason’s site. He’s one of the most interesting and creative musicians on the scene right now. More on that in a later post.)

I found youtube clips of Elliott playing guitar with blues bands, improvising freely on both guitar and saxophone, leading his own ensembles, then reports about his amazing string quartets and orchestra music, his involvement with the punk scene, his approach to jazz standards, film scores, commercials, and on and on. It seemed there was nothing he wasn’t involved with. He also has an interest in just intonation and has written many pieces with alternate tunings. Further, he’s a bit of science geek and that interest often guides his music.

But beyond the phenomenal breadth of his creative output what really blew me away was how listenable his music is. Ranging from sweet and melodious to some of the harshest and noisiest stuff I’ve ever heard, the common thread running through his work is that it is music meant to be listened to. That may seem like a redundant thing to say, but it’s hard to write or improvise music that really works on an aural level. It’s much easier to create music that lends itself to philosophical discussion or analysis, whether theoretically or culturally. Elliott is one of the few modern composers/improvisers that I actually LISTEN to on a regular basis, whether in the car or with headphones. I like that about his music and I also like the freedom with which he moves between different settings and genres. As I’ve struggled over the years to figure out how to fit my own eclectic output into the marketplace Elliott has given me the courage to just pursue my own work in any way possible, without wasting energy worrying about how to categorize it.

After a few years of following his work I contacted Elliott to see if he’d be interested in writing me a solo marimba piece. I’ve commissioned a nice series of pieces from Charles Wuorinen, Bob Morris, Caleb Burhans, Stuart Smith, and David Saperstein, but none of them allow for improvisation and I really wanted a piece that might include some improvisation or at least some flexibility for the performer. Elliott was game and we met a few times to discuss the project.

We really hit it off. Not only do we share similar musical interests, but we’re both in the middle of balancing a life as creative musicians while raising two young kids. Elliott adores his children and is clearly as able a father as he is a musician. We’ve shared many thoughts about the complexity of our lives now that the children are present.

At some point I mustered up the courage to ask him if he’d be interested in playing a show with me. I was prepared for him to say no because of his busy schedule but to my pleasant surprise and honor he said yes. I contacted the folks at The Tank and they agreed to an evening. To say I’m deeply honored would be an understatement. I regard Elliott as unquestionably one of the most fluid and modern musicians in the world right now and a tremendous inspiration. Playing with him is literally a dream come true. I know I have much to learn so I’m going into the concert with my ears and mind open and my concentration high. So long as I’m focusing on the music rather than the situation something magical should happen.

This past Sunday Classical Jam and the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra Philharmonic performed my Concerto for Quintet, Orchestra, and Audience at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda, Maryland. I’ve known the members of Classical Jam for a few years now as they’ve been performing my little encore piece Devil Dance for a while. They are phenomenal musicians, each of them a virtuoso and collectively a tight and deeply musical chamber ensemble, but this was the first time I really got to hang out with them socially and get to know them better.

Marco is a deeply spiritual person, with a sunny optimism and a kind heart. He is always smiling and obviously at a very special place in his life right now as his lovely wife Lilly is pregnant with their first child. Marco is a graduate of Venezuela’s prized El Sistema program and is equally at home with choro as he is with classical and contemporary music. The flute cadenza I wrote for him is extremely difficult and he just ate it up.

I was glad to spend some time with Justin. We’ve crossed paths in the percussion world and of course know many of the same people, but haven’t had a chance to really get to know one another. He is extremely smart, with some interesting hobbies. (e.g., he’s a New Yorkaphile, and can tell you almost anything about all the major buildings and landmarks in NYC.) In addition to his formidable technique and musicianship as a percussionist he also has a background in theatre and is a committed educator. Last year I heard him speak with a general audience, discussing various sophisticated rhythms, and his presentation was hands down the best I’ve ever seen. Like the others, he had no trouble with his cadenza, despite the relentless athleticism it requires.

Wendy is really the driving force behind Classical Jam. She does the majority of the booking and business work and I think she was the generating force behind founding the ensemble. She’s an exceptional cellist, with a warm, rich tone, and excellent intonation. She also had no trouble with her cadenza, which is quite virtuosic and moves all over the instrument. Wendy has a natural grace and beauty and really looked and sounded quite stunning on stage. Her mother was visiting for the trip and I enjoyed meeting her as well. She even volunteered to be one of the speakers for the piece.

Cyrus is the newest member of the group. He is equally at home on viola and violin. For CJ gigs he mostly plays viola, though I think with the NYC Ballet he plays violin. He has an understated wit and humor, and has a lovely way of being sarcastically funny without being abrasive. His cadenza placed special demands on him as he had to both convey a sense of freedom with the lines while staying with the conductor, which was quite difficult for a lot of reasons. Like the others, his technique and musicianship go deep.

And then there’s Jenny. For some reason Jenny and I always end hanging out during car rides. Since we live near one another I’ve dropped her off at her house three times. Those are some of the most fun car rides in my life. She is as passionate about experimental music as I am and most of the time we hop from one track to another, trading ipods and blasting great music. Then we talk about music, life, our spouses, careers, etc. She enjoys gossiping—a trait I adore in any person as I’m a terrible gossip—but she’s never negative or vindictive. In fact she has a lot of positive energy and is complimentary towards people all the time and is quite excited about life. I respect her amazing musicianship and work ethic. She understands the hustle that goes into a career in creative music, something we talk about a lot. Her cadenza included the option to improvise and she took me up on that and the performance was scintillating.

As for the piece, I need to revise it a bit. The audience was willing to participate, but there are some ways I can make that work better. But people seemed to really like it, and I feel really good about it. It does what I wanted it to do, which is be a virtuoso showcase for CJ, but still communicate with a general audience. And some of my most beautiful writing is in there. Now we just need to figure out how to get more bookings. And the work goes on and on . . .