It’s 1968, and for the 17-year-old Elliott Sharp, the world outside his window is fast converging with those depicted in the pages of his beloved science fiction novels. Soon, men will walk on the moon. Meanwhile, on his record player Jimi Hendrix is breaking through rock music’s event horizon, taking guitar to places as yet unheard. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Sharp had already built his own shortwave radio aged 11, listening eagerly to the layers of white noise it picked up. Now he experiments with his newly acquired guitar, using a test tube as a slide. At Carnegie-Mellon University’s science summer school that year, he constructs effects units in the lab, messes around manipulating tapes and soaks up everything from Xenakis and Cage to gamelan and decades’ worth of the blues during his graveyard slot on the college radio station. The possibilities seem endless.
Having bumped heads with Morton Feldman while studying at the University of Buffalo – the composer reportedly objected to both the improvisational and political content of Sharp’s music – the fortuitously named E# found more appreciative audiences on moving to New York city in 1979, soon becoming part of the downtown scene’s gritty 1980s stew of composition, jazz, blues, no wave and cross-pollination. Famously prolific and wide-ranging on a level similar to that of his contemporary John Zorn (his collaborators span from Christian Marclay, Zeena Parkins and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, to Steve Buscemi on a recent CD of William Burroughs texts) Sharp has continued to draw upon his love of science throughout his countless releases and appearances. Sometimes this is thematic, as in Spectropia Suite (2010), his Debbie Harry-featuring soundtrack to Toni Dove’s sci-fi noir film, or About Us (2010), his opera written for teenagers in which pan-dimensional beings visible only to the young arrive and spark their creativity.
More deeply embedded however, are Sharp’s scientific and mathematical approaches to creating his music. Already accustomed to filtering and processing the information overload of his adopted city, as he told Bomb Magazine in 2003, ‘Mathematics and the various sciences are just ordered ways of looking at and analysing all of the raw data supplied by the universe.’ The Fibonacci series, fractals, chaos theory, orchestras as a living additive synthesiser, flocking behaviour in birds, graphic scores twisted through computer processing until they look like warp-speed starscapes: all provide ways to harness order and complexity and turn it into sound.
Sharp’s music is far from predetermined and rigid, however: the algorithmic systems of a work such as SyndaKit (1998) apply cellular life cycles to rhythmic and timbral matrices but offer musicians formulas for freedom. The aim, he has said, is for his compositions to have the spontaneity and unpredictability of improvisation, and his improvisations to include structures and narrative of compositions.
In that way, Sharp’s music acts as both a model of the world, and a template for it. As he told EST Magazine in 1995 – a time when it was the turn of William Gibson and Philip K Dick’s writings to be prescient – ‘The paradigms of reality are continuously being shifted. Music is an abstract language that allows the composer and listener to continuously redefine reality – to process them, to post new definitions – a feedback loop.’