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Posted on Wed, Feb. 22, 2012
Avant-garde guitarist Elliott Sharp plays in Miami Saturday

By Bob Weinberg
Special to The Miami Herald

Guitarist Elliott Sharp
Before his political activism and subsequent arrest got him booted from campus, guitarist and composer Elliott Sharp was enjoying all the stimuli available to an open-minded grad student at Bard College in the mid-’70s.
He shared a house in the scenic Hudson River Valley with fellow sonic adventurers Steve Piccolo and brothers John and Evan Lurie (of Lounge Lizards fame). The proverbial kid in a candy store, Sharp snared a work-study job maintaining Bard’s electronic-music studio, and even dabbled in the nascent computer-music field.

But the brainy, Ohio-born musician also harbored a profound love of nature. Rambles along the tree-lined Hudson sparked his imagination and fired his intellect.

“When you’re in that environment, it’s very beautiful and inspiring,” says Sharp, a major figure on the downtown New York experimental-music scene, who will perform Saturday at the Miami Dade County Auditorium.

“I tried to find strategies, from what I observed, to make compositions. Like sitting on the porch, watching the incredible number of fireflies. I was using them to imagine musical structures, or taking the image of the flies and splattering them across music paper. Or using the way a river divides into tributaries as a musical stream. I did some graphic scores in those days, and some conceptual scores, which I still use today. … It’s always about interlock and the sound between the spaces.”

Sharp, who turns 61 in March, built a career around exploring sonic relationships. A self-professed “science geek,” he’s utilized concepts such as the Fibonacci number series and fractal geometry in his tunings and compositions, and pioneered the use of computers in performance.

But as cerebral as the origins of Sharp’s music may be, his sound is surprisingly visceral. Taking a page from John Cage’s playbook, he seeks to find methods of making a guitar — or saxophone or orchestra — sound like something other than what listeners expect.

The guitar “has 2,000 years embedded memory in us,” says Steve Malagodi, former host of WLRN-FM’s Modern School of Modern Jazz. “And Elliott was one of those post-Cagean people who would say, ‘This instrument is not just about replicating the historical, cultural memories of the guitar.’ The kind of sounds that can be derived from strings, fingers and a platform is really quite extensive, outside of all this cultural memory.”

Sharp does occasionally dip into collective consciousness. His avant-blues band Terraplane recorded with guitarist Hubert Sumlin, marking one of the last studio sessions by the legendary blues figure. The album, Sky Road Songs, is due later this year.

“I’ve always loved Hubert’s playing, because it isn’t just notes,” Sharp says. “He was always making sounds. That vocal quality is what I loved about it. Without Hubert, there wouldn’t have been Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix.”

Or Elliott Sharp, who might have had a promising career at Monsanto or IBM if the Yardbirds and Hendrix hadn’t grabbed his ears.

Sharp took up guitar shortly before a National Science Foundation grant brought him from Cleveland to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University for a summer residency at age 17. He snagged a midnight-to-4 a.m. gig at the school’s radio station spinning country blues and free-jazz, and took advantage of the school’s labs to “design and build better fuzz boxes.”

The son of a Holocaust-surviving mother, Sharp continued his anti-war and free-speech activism while studying at Cornell and then Bard. At the latter, he was accused of stabbing the head of campus security during a student protest. It took him a year — and got him barred from Bard — but Sharp beat the rap.

He would find sympathetic ears on the experimental-music scene in New York City. His ensemble Carbon squalled to life alongside postpunk and noise rockers Lydia Lunch, Sonic Youth and The Fall.

“If you were at all interested in the New York avant-garde scene, Elliott was inescapable,” Malagodi says. “He was just an integral part of that whole scene.”

For his show in Miami, Sharp will perform solo and with Fridamusiq, a group comprising current and former UM students. The ensemble will perform Sharp’s Syndakit, an algorithm loosely based on the way RNA replicates and the way wolf packs hunt. Alone, he’ll play electro-acoustic six-string or eight-string hollow-body processed through a laptop or foot pedals. Once again, Sharp’s signature mix of brains and brawn will take center stage.

“As much as I was a science geek, I was always totally into sci-fi and just thinking about the world in a speculative way,” he says.

“So, with guitar and electronics, I thought immediately, ‘Well, what will happen if I plug the guitar into a synthesizer, or if I plug it into these pedals that will make it do something other than what it’s supposed to do?’ ” With a laugh, he adds, “And I couldn’t not do it, put it that way.”

© 2012 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/02/22/v-print/2653006/avant-garde-guitarist-elliott.html#storylink=cpy

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