The Unclassifiable and Unstoppable Elliott Sharp: “The Boreal” due out on October 30th

By on October 22, 2015

In downtown NYC if you say the name Elliott Sharp, people will think “guy playing loud guitar.” But there is more.

Sharp received the 2015 Berlin Prize in Composition. Last year’s powerful opera, Port Bou , about philosopher Walter Benjamin’s suicide, with visuals by his equally talented wife Janene Higgins, was a success. Violinist Hilary Hahn embraced Sharp’s ferocious “Storm of the Eye” on her Grammy Award winning album.

Now, Elliott Sharp has a new album being released Oct. 30th and it’s called The Boreal. Contributors include Jack Quartet, pianist Jenny Lin and conductor David Bloom. A key figure in the NYC Avant-guard scene, this project finds the unclassifiable and unstoppable Sharp working with a full orchestra, a string quartet, and a soloist.

Elliott Sharp

“Elliott. My god, good to see you,” I say, running into him again after decades. “Ok. You have rocked the world of Jack Quartet, and people are saying your new recording is “incandescent”. Who are you? How are you? You are staying in Berlin past your residency? Your twins are ten? Have you hiked in the Boreal Forest?”

Elliott laughs, “Yes. Boreal. The North. A nod to Glenn Gould.”

“Weather and isolation. I get it. So big picture. What are you trying to do?”

“I want to create something people haven’t heard before,” Sharp explains. ” I want to have my mind blown, and their minds blown. I’m trying to make psycho-acoustic chemical change, and not with sonic valium.”

“So it’s experiential, visceral?”

“Yes. A “hyper” life.”

“And that is why we make art?” I ask. “That’s why I sat down and composed a string quartet and now want to get someone to play it?”


“And it’s passed on, from performer to audience? Everyone gets in that state?” I ramble away. “Is it spiritual?”

“I wouldn’t use that word,” Elliott replies. “Then you get into religion and that’s a dangerous path. I like Spinoza’s idea that the infinite is in everyone and everything. Even if you only just get a glimpse of it.”


“Your wife. You create with your wife correct? How did you meet?”

“Creating and thinking together is absolutely a part of our relationship. I hired her to do the graphic design of an album of mine. It was a pretext on both of our parts.”

“You toured a lot when your children were young. Did she go crazy? I mean, I went completely out of my mind when my kid was young.”

“Of course. We both went crazy. It was the years of hallucinogenic sleep deprivation. I’d have all these musical ideas. I’d grab a few hours and throw the notes down when I had a chance. Finally this babysitter taught us how to get the twins to sleep at the same time.”

“What did you do when you first got to New York?”

“I backed up singers on bass, played in jazz bands, accompanied dancers. A club finally let me play my own work. My first gig was at the Ear Inn. It was still a longshoreman’s bar. Some guy threatened to beat me up and steal my bass clarinet. ‘Why don’t you compose something people would like to hear?’ My mom says.”

“Your parents.”

“Dad was an artist. When he had a family he got a job designing speakers. My mom was a Holocaust survivor. My younger sister has Downs syndrome. There wasn’t any support for that, then. Well, props to my mom. Let’s just say that.”

“They’re both alive still?”

“In their nineties and eighties.”

“Wow. You may see your grandchildren yet. Europe. New York.”

“They fund the arts over there,” Elliott explains. “This whole idea of emerging artists. What about submerging artists? I have to say, there is an edge to American artists because it’s so hard. In Berlin my children have a room the size of half this restaurant. They want to come back, they want to see their friends. But the price of everything here shocks me.”

“I know everyone’s saying artists can’t live in New York anymore, but I can’t live anywhere else. I tried. I love this damn city. You still have your studio on 7th st?”



“John Zorn is in that building too,right? The late Butch Morris was across the street. OK. Avant-Garde. Now.”

“It’s been codified. It’s just another style,” Elliott states.” It has to come from a need, from inside. It wasn’t like we knew what we were doing. You can’t be making something for any market. You just can’t. That’s not where it comes from.”

“Jack Quartet.”

“They can play anything. I asked them to use my spring bows – springs I got at the hardware store – and they said ‘sure.’ It’s not everyone who would use a piece of hardware on a two-hundred thousand dollar instrument.”

“What do you want to make, now.”

“Opera. This opera ‘Substance’ on Spinoza and his philosophy. Spinoza’s vocation was a lens maker…seeing life both macro- and microscopic. Units of the ‘godness of light.’ It’s a big opera – I’ve got to get a producer. The composer is the last person anyone wants to talk to.”


Elliott is gone.

I’m left with a dropbox of sounds.

I listen to “Proof of Erdos” played by Elliott’s own Orchestra Carbon, inspired by mathematician Päl Erdös. Incessant, rich with discovery, into a dreamy childlike space, eerie expansion and shrinkage, a second of nearly standard jazz, a migraine sawing of strings, string drumming, string spasms , into a defiant and abrupt end. The world Sharp explores in this piece is monstrous and emotional. A stunning deeply personal vision.

Jenny Lin playing “Oligisono. Overtones all over the place. Lin brilliantly exposes a delicacy inside Sharp’s relentless drive. Spacious and detailed.

Jack Quartet’s performance of “The Boreal.” Killer piece, killer musicians. Hitchcockian. No release then makes me crack a smile. The gut demands — and the players of Jack Quartet that dare to go there — breathtaking. A match made in aggressive musical heaven.

Elliott Sharp

Elliott Sharp in Frankfurt, Germany (November 5, 2007): Photo by Sascha Rheker/attenzione

About M.P. Snell

MP Snell has been published in No Tokens, Best of Ducts, Nerve Cowboy, Specter. She has recently completed her novel, Planet of Blue and Green. She has performed with John Moran and Ridge Theater, in venues such as Lincoln Center and The Guggenheim Museum. She can be heard on the Point Music/Philips Classics Recording of Moran’s Opera ‘The Manson Family’ with Iggy Pop. She writes articles on the arts, and in particular, has a passion for jazz, avant-guard and classical modern music. She composes music, as well