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Interviews

Elliott Sharp’s Instrumental Vision

What happens when traditional instruments won’t produce the sound the composer wants? Then new instruments have to be invented. A discussion about deconstructing, reconstructing, and ways to break the barriers of sound.

In the early ’70s, multi-instrumentalist (and Bard College student) Elliott Sharp started to make a name for himself with an ambitious blend of improvised and composed music. Even while studying formal composition at the State University of New York at Buffalo under the legendary Morton Feldman, Sharp refused to be a follower and refined his unique artistic hybrid by merging his passions for science and mathematics with a rigorous commitment to aesthetic perfection. After moving to New York in 1979, Sharp became ensconced in the downtown music community through early collaborations with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Mark Miller, and became known for his inimitable acid-hardcore style of music. In the mid-’80s, Sharp applied the Fibonacci numeric series—the mathematical sequence that reflects exponential growth in nature—to the tuning of his instruments and established a sonic foundation for his free-form rhythmic guitar pieces, string quartets, and orchestral compositions.

Always pushing the limits of music, Sharp invents his own instruments whenever he is unable to produce the sound he wants out of a standard one. For example, the “pantar,” one of Sharp’s numerous creations, generates bass tones with a resonance that cannot be matched by any other instrument. This stringed contraption, made from a barrel lid and a guitar neck, is an emblem of Sharp’s unstoppable pursuit of the unattainable.

I spent a morning with Sharp at Studio zOaR in the East Village, where he was completing a project for the Howl! Festival.

Elliott Sharp’s latest releases are Quadrature, and film scores for Rodrigo Rey-Rosa’s What Sebastian Dreamt and Jonathan Berman’s Commune: Free Land for Free People. All of these recordings are available on Sharp’s own zOaR label.

 

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Patrick Ambrose: What are you working on here in the studio?

Elliott Sharp: I’m finishing up Binibon—a music-theater production with writer Jack Womack based on the murder of Richard Adan by Jack Henry Abbott. [The murder happened] at the Binibon, a 24-hour cafe where a lot of us used to hang out. I was friends with the waiters and waitresses there. The Binibon was one of the few places we could call the center of the scene here in the East Village. Everybody who worked there was an artist, writer, musician, or an actor. And the owner of the place had been an actor, too. But this music-theater piece isn’t just about [the murder], but also about how it ties in more widely to the art scene, the commoditization of art and murder, and the transformation of the neighborhood.

PA: Did you know Jack Henry Abbott?

ES: I would just see him around because he was notorious after he got out of prison under Norman Mailer’s sponsorship. I had no personal contact with him, but I would see him around the neighborhood. I was at the Binibon the night of the murder. As we were leaving, Jack and his entourage were coming in. And I knew Richard.

PA: You knew the waiter who was killed.

ES: Not well, but I was friendly with him because I would come into [the Binibon] often.

PA: So, you also recently completed “Dispersion of Seeds,” a composition for string quartet—

ES: With computer processing. It was recorded last summer, and it’s an algorithmic piece. I’m also working on a new piece for string orchestra for the group Ensemble Resonanz, based in Hamburg, Germany.

PA: You mentioned that “Dispersion of Seeds” [listen to excerpt] is an algorithmic composition. Is that in the same sense as “Tessalation Row,” [listen to excerpt] another of your string quartets, where you used applied mathematics to come up with tuning ratios for the instruments?

ES: This is a little more abstract. It was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s lost work called “The Dispersion of Seeds,” which was recently re-discovered. And it’s about the propagation of biological and genetic material. I took off from that as a metaphor to create an arpeggiation technique that would [allow the musicians] to expand upon four chords. “Tessalation Row” was completely through-composed. I started with Fibonacci numbers and used them to generate tunings and rhythms.

PA: Some would call your use of applied mathematics an experimental technique. At some point, is there a breakdown between “the experiment” and your pursuit of an aesthetic ideal?

ES: For me, the mathematics feeds the ideas. But ultimately when it comes to the music, I’m never defining things mechanically by mathematical processes or any kind of scientific process. I may experiment with some tunings or rhythms and see what happens if I manifest this idea using [an algorithm]. But once I get that into my ears, I compose the music based on how it sounds.

PA: Who would be your ideal listener?

ES: It’s hard to say. Fifteen-year-olds with a lot of money to spend on CDs? Beautiful fashion models? [laughs] No, really, I just want people to hear the music. I actually like listeners who don’t have preconceptions about things. A lot of times I play festivals in Europe—jazz festivals—and my audience is far wider than it is in the U.S. Sometimes I’ll play for 10,000, 15,000 people, and they love the music there. In Europe, you play at a jazz or electronic festival and it’s very eclectic. And they listen. They’re much more open [than Americans]. But this is changing, especially now that American companies are getting their hands on these European festivals and buying them out.

PA: You’ve been building your own effects boxes and instruments since you were 14.

ES: Any way that I can make sounds. To me, it’s all part of the process of exploring sounds and making music.

PA: Is the invention of an instrument done to obtain a particular sound or to resolve a certain principle?

I was very interested in Indian music—the sarod—and wanted to find ways to get notes outside of the Western intonation system. So I got a cheap guitar and pulled the frets out.ES: Sometimes it’s, “I want to make this sound—now, how can I do it?” Sometimes it’s literally finding an interesting looking piece of junk and asking, “What would happen if I amplified this? What would happen if I put strings on it?” When I was a kid, experimenting with fuzz boxes, it was, “How can I make more feedback, more noise? How can I get a gnarlier tone out of this horrible guitar that I have?” It’s really playful, in a way. Sometimes, of course, I’m searching for a sound that maybe I’ll find by tuning or building an instrument. Or maybe I’ll use the computer or analog electronics. It’s just finding the right tools for the job.

PA: Many of your albums feature homemade instruments, like the pantar and the violinoid. Could you describe these instruments and the principles behind them?

ES: The violinoid started out as an old violin, a beater that I had gotten for nothing in a junk shop and it eventually fell apart. And I had this neck and a bunch of guitar pickups. I [decided to] amplify this instrument and have multiple bridges so that I could have different sound fields coming out of it. And so I just slapped it together, and there it was. That was over 30 years ago. The fretless guitar, same thing. I was in search of a cheap guitar to make fretless because I was very interested in Indian music—the sarod—and wanted to find ways to get notes outside of the Western intonation system. So I got a cheap guitar and pulled the frets out.

PA: And the pantar was made from the lid of a barrel?

ES: I found this thing, this lid, in the trash. And I had a lot of guitar necks around from different things I had been working on. So I took the fingerboards and mounted them. This [pantar] has a contact pickup. I was eventually going to get a magnetic pickup for it, but the contact pickup worked pretty well [a pickup is a small microphone positioned under the strings to amplify the instrument]. This thing is way out of tune now, and in fact, it was in a museum exhibition and they broke the tuning pegs—two of the tuning pegs—which I’ll have to replace at some point. [The pantar] has a very metallic and resonant sound, really not like any other instrument. It generates a huge field of bass tones, but it’s kind of unwieldy to play.

PA: Could we go back to 1974? You were at SUNY Buffalo, studying with the great Morton Feldman—

ES: And Lejaren Hiller—

PA: You were doing graduate work there.
Elliott Sharp, photographed by Patrick Ambrose, copyright 2005
ES: Yeah, and Hiller was my adviser. He was a lot more sympathetic about what I was trying to do [than Feldman]. I was very interested in Feldman’s thinking, his views on aesthetics, his way of analyzing aesthetic situations was very exciting to me. Some of [Feldman’s] music I liked very much, but I wasn’t so interested in what he was doing in the ‘70s. I felt he had become predictable as a composer. His later pieces I think are phenomenal—the orchestral pieces—”Coptic Light,” “For Samuel Beckett.” A number of the other later pieces are just absolutely wonderful. But I used to argue with Feldman. He hated what I did. He hated the motivation behind it and he hated the sounds. But I think it’s really valuable to argue with someone like Morton Feldman. I felt like if I could hold my own in an argument with him about why I was doing what I was doing, then that was more valuable than finding someone who is just encouraging. Not that I mind being encouraged. That’s kind of nice, too.

PA: Your graduate work was cut short by your arrest after participating in a prison-reform demonstration.

ES: It was about Attica. The Attica prison was within the assembly district of one of Buffalo’s city assemblymen—Arthur Eve. And he was sponsoring a bill in Albany for an amnesty against the extra charges that the Attica prisoners received as a result of the uprising. [Attica inmates revolted in September 1971, protesting their living conditions. At the end of the four-day uprising, 42 people were dead, mostly inmates and hostages.—eds.] All of the prisoners involved with the uprising were all being charged with murder because of the actions that the prison guards took. It’s not an easy issue to analyze, but the fact is that the conditions at Attica prison were absolutely appalling, and Rockefeller’s response was appalling. So anyway, we were demonstrating not about the prison issue itself, but about the fact that the university system at SUNY required every student to pay an activity fee. And the student assembly would decide what the activity fees would be spent on. Twelve hundred dollars had been allocated to pay for buses so that students from Buffalo could go to Albany with Arthur Eve to do teach-ins around the bill he was sponsoring. The president of the university [Robert L. Ketter]—an engineer, real reactionary—had written Ketter’s Rules of Order, a manual about how to suppress student dissent, how to create campuses that physically would not allow students to assemble in any number, how to arrest [demonstrators], and how to prosecute them. And he single-handedly revoked the use of this activity fee. We were marching to use the money that we had paid. It was fine to use the money for beer parties, but it wasn’t fine to use it for teach-ins. So we were marching through the administration building and they had surrounded us with hundreds of troopers and guard dogs and they said that we had five minutes to leave the building. And as people were debating what to do, they unleashed the attack well before the five minutes were up. And I was arrested and charged with stabbing the head of campus security.

PA: How did that happen?

ES: A plainclothesman grabbed my girlfriend by the hair, and I’m a gentleman, so I decked him. And he dropped her and—well, I can hardly say I decked him because I’m kind of a wimpy little guy—I mean, I hit him, distracted him from her. He dropped her and she was screaming—he was pulling her by the hair. And then they grabbed me, beat the shit out of me, brought me to prison, charged me with stabbing, which I didn’t do, of course. And we weren’t allowed telephone calls, medical treatment; we weren’t allowed to use the toilet. We were put into these stinking cells after being transported in dog-shit-filled vans. And then I was charged with the stabbing and they were asking 35 years to life. Fifty thousand dollars bail. It was quite a scene. I spent the next year and a half of my life dealing with it. We had lawyers to help us, who volunteered their services. Eventually, all charges were dropped in exchange for me agreeing not sue for police brutality and false arrest. I was banned from the campus and suspended from the university. It was a fairly traumatic time.

PA: After that, you came to New York City?

ES: Eventually. After my suspension was over, I finished my master’s degree in American studies under the mentorship of Charlie Keil, who is an ethnomusicologist, a really great thinker.

PA: And you met Bill Laswell and Eugene Chadbourne prior to moving to New York City?

It was the age of Reagan. Eventually, I got really disgusted and stopped doing all gigs in New York for a while.ES: I met Laswell at a gig in 1978 in Boston. It was a festival that had been put together by Giorgio Gomelsky and a critic in Boston named Michael Bloom. And Michael was an advocate of my work. He had heard a couple of records that I did and said, “I want to have this guy in this festival.” And that’s where I met Bill, who was playing in Zu Band at the time, which was the predecessor of Material. And they were backing up Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth, who were in a band called New York Gong. Eugene and I had been corresponding because of the experimental-guitar stuff. And I met [Mark] Kramer and a bunch of people that I would become more involved with after I moved to New York, like Bill, the other members of Material, and Kramer. Chadbourne had already left New York by this time, but we stayed in touch, and eventually did some playing and recording together.

PA: How long after you moved to New York did you form I/S/M with Bill Laswell and Mark Miller?

ES: The first I/S/M gig was on Nov. 7, 1981. Previous to that I was doing different things, a trio called Surds, with Mark Miller on drums and Bill on bass. I was also doing a lot of solo gigs. I was working with a dance company, a regular gig with the Improvisational Dance Ensemble that was hooked up before I moved to New York through a mutual friend. So when I got to New York, I had a regular gig with them. I was playing bass in this band called the Must. You know the gossip columnist Michael Musto?

PA: Who writes for The Village Voice?

ES: Yeah. Well anyway, he had a band called the Must, which was an all-Motown cover band. And I played bass and Mark Miller played drums. That was fun. We played a lot of big clubs. I loved playing that music. James Jamerson’s bass lines in Motown music are still some of my favorites—very influential—so I just had a great time playing that stuff. I was also doing a lot of weird improvising gigs with different people—with Bill, George Cartwright, Michael Lytle, Charles Noyes, Wayne Horvitz, Bobby Previte, who was a good friend of mine from the Buffalo days, and he stayed here, at my place on Seventh Street before he got settled. We go way back.

PA: And you formed Carbon not too long after that—

ES: I formed Carbon in ’83. I had I/S/M for a while and then it fell apart in February of ’83. I had a night at this little hardcore club called A7, and I wanted to invite people from the improvising scene and people from the hardcore scene. I was playing in a lot of hardcore bands at that time—the High Sheriffs of Blue and a band called Crazy Hearts, and I wanted to mix the impulse of the hardcore and punk thing with what improvising musicians were doing because no one was doing that. I had these nights at A7 on Tuesdays at 1 a.m. and I’d invite different people to come in and play. The first iteration of Carbon was very angry. [listen to an excerpt of Carbon’s “Freeze Frame”] I was doing a lot of speed in those days and just enraged by politics. It was the age of Reagan. Eventually, I got really disgusted and stopped doing all gigs in New York for a while.

PA: What did you do during your break from performing?

ES: I had this girlfriend who was Mexican and Native American and we spent a bunch of time traveling in Mexico. She was in search of her roots and I joined her and we just lived dirt poor, traveling on third-class buses with the pigs and the chickens, seeing amazing stuff, visiting archeological sites. In 1984, one night, doing some mushrooms, I just had this idea to apply all of the mathematical stuff to the tunings, and I had always been interested in the Fibonacci numbers. I had worked a lot with them in one of my first music-theater pieces, which was called Innocence, in ’79 or ’80, at Public Access Synthesizer Studio. And that piece had an overall structure determined by Fibonacci numbers with layers of improvisation. So this one night I decided I was going to come up with a tuning based on the Fibonacci numbers. And I loved the way it sounded. I plugged in, put a blanket over my head, played all night long, and developed ideas for a number of pieces. I was thinking of leaving New York, very seriously, but [decided] to record some of this stuff beforehand. I assembled the group with [David] Linton and [Mark] Miller and [Charles] Noyes and Lesli Dalaba on trumpet and recorded the pieces that became the first Carbon album.
Elliott Sharp, photographed by Patrick Ambrose, copyright 2005
PA: What drove you to start up a blues band, Terraplane?

ES: I’ve played blues since I started playing guitar. When I first started playing guitar in the summer of 1968, I got a National Science Foundation grant to be a junior scientist at Carnegie Mellon. And I got a DJ slot from midnight to 4 a.m. And just immersed myself in music—guitar music and all of the weirdest stuff that I could find—Stockhausen, Xenakis, Harry Partch, and Cage, and a lot of non-Western music. And blues—the first time I heard blues, and country blues with a slide guitar, I said, “This is it!” and got a slide—first I used a test tube, of course, since I was a science geek—a variation of the old wine bottle of the traditional blues men. I just wanted to learn how to make those sounds.

PA: How did you meet Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist, and begin collaborating with him?

ES: Through the singer Queen Esther, who I made a record with on Homestead some years ago. She had been living in Austin and met Hubert and sang with him. And when we hooked up, she told me that she knew his manager. And we got in touch with him, decided to do a gig, and backed up Hubert with Terraplane. It was great fun and his manager liked the results. And so I ended up producing a solo recording of Hubert’s, which I still think has not come out. And then we continued to work together and when I got a budget to do the later Terraplane records, I was able to bring Hubert in on the projects. And we brought him to France for 10 days of concerts, and to the U.K. for two weeks of concerts. And then a tour the year before last, which was great.

PA: When you performed the Do the Don’t gigs, was Eric Mingus [Charles’s son] touring with you as a vocalist?

ES: Oh yeah. Eric is an important part of the band.

PA: Is any new Terraplane material coming out soon?

ES: We have a new record coming out in September on the Intuition label in Germany. I don’t know if they’re going to have a U.S. distributor. I certainly hope so. That record is called Secret Life, by the way. [listen to an excerpt of Terraplane’s “Oil Blues”]

PA: Your orchestral piece “Calling,” [listen to an excerpt] which you worked on for two years, was recorded in Frankfurt after less than two hours of rehearsals?

ES: Well, we recorded it in sections, so as a result, we were able to work on each section and get it pretty much as we wanted it to sound. Plus, these are phenomenally skilled musicians and they do a lot of film stuff—the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt—where someone’s writing out cue sheets and they’re recording the stuff right there. And also the conductor—good musicians without a good conductor, especially in a classical orchestra, would never work. Because this conductor, Peter Rundel, was so sympathetic and so knowledgeable, we were able to make it work. It’s not without bugs, of course. But still, I’m very happy with the recording.

PA: In 2003, you and Marc Ribot got together with some other musicians to raise money for United for Peace and Justice, the same group that sponsored the March 22 anti-war protest in New York City before the U.S. invaded Iraq.

ES: Not so much for United for Peace and Justice, but for the Al-Mezan Information Center [a Palestinian rights organization] and Gush Shalom, an Israeli anti-occupation group. So we worked together with United for Peace and Justice and they were one of the sponsors of the event. We did two events, actually, about a year apart, at the Knitting Factory, to raise money.

PA: One of the events was to raise awareness about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

ES: Yes.

PA: And most of the performers were Jewish musicians?

ES: Yeah, and some Arabic and Palestinian musicians. Both of the events were focused against the occupation. It’s a very complex issue, although I must say that I’m absolutely against the occupation as a Jew and as the son of a Holocaust survivor. You know, Zionism in its original form was a very spiritual movement. It was transcendent, metaphorical. It wasn’t about taking land.

PA: Herzl’s work?

ES: No, before Herzl and Weizmann. They [Herzl and Weizmann] turned it into a very concrete: “We’re gonna get this land.” And it became a blueprint for ethnic cleansing. You read what Milosevic was doing in Bosnia, and it’s exactly what Herzl and Weizmann were talking about doing in Palestine—getting rid of the indigenous population. If the U.N. had said, “We’re gonna give Texas back to the Native Americans,” you know that [the Texans] would be out in their Hummers with their assault weapons killing the native people. But I don’t want to get started on a rant. Don’t get me started because I hate hypocrisy and I hate the way that what’s good for one people with certain powerful connections isn’t good for another group of people that’s less powerful with less moneyed connections. And you know, the Palestinians have gotten screwed both by the Israelis and by the Arabs. The Arab governments have a very cynical view of things and they don’t do anything to help [the Palestinians] either. So in terms of finding clear heroes and clear positions—there aren’t any. There are a lot of people being victimized.

PA: Are you encouraged at all by the Gaza pullout?

ES: I think it’s an improvement, but what a lot of Palestinians and other people are worried about is that the Israelis are just going to use that as an excuse not to give back the West Bank. So I’m a little bit wary of the whole thing.

PA: I had read somewhere that you disapproved of the use of the “Radical Jewish Culture” movement to promote one of your performances.

ES: No, what happened was in the first Radical Jewish Culture festival in New York I had—

PA: Did John Zorn participate in the event?
Elliott Sharp, photographed by Patrick Ambrose, copyright 2005
ES: Yes. That’s his thing. And to me it’s more about marketing than it is about radical Jewish culture because their idea of radical Jewish culture is Zionism. It’s like saying radical German culture is National Socialism. Zionism is a reactionary movement. And it was divorced from its context of a spiritual metaphor and turned into an idea of taking land. And when you look at who the Israelis are in bed with—these Christian fundamentalist Crusaders—the Israelis should be very wary of this because the only reason the Crusaders want to be in league with the Israelis is to help fulfill their apocalyptic fantasy of the end of the world when the 144,000 are raised up to heaven and everybody else is destroyed. And in their book the Jews are going to hell. The first radical Jewish culture stuff was actually started by this guy Edek Bartz, and Albert Misek, his partner, in Vienna. And they did some compilation CDs which I took part in. [But] Jewish culture has always been “radical.” If you look at it historically, it has always been either avant-garde or opposed to the general state of things. So, really, you don’t have to self-consciously call it “radical.” Just by the very nature of Jews’ position in the world, [Jewish culture] has been an oppositional culture. It has been a forward-looking culture. But when John started getting involved in this thing, and tried to create a movement of it in New York, at the first festival of it in 1992, I presented a piece called “Intifada.” And I introduced it by saying: “Judaism does not equal Zionism.” And people booed, and one guy yelled out: “What is it then, a bowl of fruit?” I said, “Judaism, whether you look at it historically, culturally or [in a religious sense], does not equal Zionism.” And this piece, “Intifada,” was not meant to be didactic in any way, I just wanted to present images in musical abstraction. And John was open to the idea of my doing this, but certainly, a lot of the audience members weren’t. And I was never invited back to do anything in a Radical Jewish Culture festival. [The festivals] became this kind of happy, klezmer stuff. I really had problems with it. The only other time I played in [the festival], John and Ted Epstein and I were doing a cooperative trio called Slan, which was kind of noisy improvisation. And I have to say that I consider John a good friend, despite our very profound political and ideological differences. But I don’t think that gets in our way. And John is also very supportive of my work.

PA: Where did the name Slan come from?

ES: It was named after an A.E. van Vogt science-fiction novel.

PA: You have a keen interest in science fiction.

ES: Ever since I started reading. Cordwainer Smith, and Asimov, who I eventually got out of. He became a little too reactionary. Philip Dick—I always loved his writing. Stanislaw Lem. Those are the main ones because they were weird. Oh, and Harlan Ellison, too.

PA: H.P. Lovecraft?

ES: Yeah, but Lovecraft I saw more in a horror vein. I liked the sci-fi stuff that had a more conceptual edge to it. And then when cyberpunk happened—Gibson’s first writing, Lucius Shepard, Pat Cadigan, and Jack Womack—I became associated with the cyberpunk movement because I was one of the first to use computers in performance, in an improvisational context, in 1986, with my Atari ST when I was doing a project called “Virtual Stance.” And then I switched to laptops in ‘91. I had the first PowerBook laptop—the PowerBook 100—and started doing concerts with that, using it to control various samplers and software devices. And that put me automatically in the cyberpunk vein. And a lot of my titles and concepts were informed by Philip K. Dick and things from cyberpunk, the things that Gibson talked about.

PA: What about noir? I recall that you liked James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand.

It’s taking the very powerful expressions of things and turning them into badges, markers. People think that to quote markers of hip stuff makes them hip. And maybe it was for a while.ES: I love his writing. I love his whole alternate history. I’m waiting for him to write his history of 9/11. His [work] just smacks of authenticity. I like [noir] when it crosses into the sci-fi realm a bit, which is why I like Jack Womack’s writing. Everything of Jack’s is great. Start with Terraplane. All [of his books] have been reissued by Grove Press.

PA: Was the name of your group Terraplane taken from the Womack book?

ES: We were both inspired by the Robert Johnson song. And that’s how Jack and I became buddies. I went to a reading of his and we got to know one another, and then I put on a gig at the Knitting Factory, must have been 10 or 12 years ago with Jack, Pat Cadigan, Lucius Shepard, and Siri Hustvedt—

PA: Paul Auster’s wife.

ES: Yeah. It was a bunch of us improvising—Charles K. Noyes, Zeena Parkins, and I think I had Mary Wooten on cello.

PA: Was it a spoken-word performance with musical accompaniment?

ES: It was like tag-team wrestling. We improvised to accompany them. It was really a lot of fun. And then sci-fi.com ended up commissioning me to create a bunch of programs for their website, where I accompanied the writers—Jack and Lucius and Pat—by making scores for their readings.

PA: Would you say that your record Radio Hyper-Yahoo [with Eric Bogosian, Steve Buscemi, and Eric Mingus] is along those same lines?

ES: There’s a few tracks that are instrumental, but it’s mostly collaborations with these spoken-word artists. And they’re all people I’ve been friends with for years. I asked everybody to make a piece that formed some sort of cultural criticism of the current state of things in America.

PA: Who are some cultural critics and social theorists that you admire?

ES: I like Walter Benjamin very much. To me, he was the most important of all of them. Also some Derrida, Baudrillard, and Deleuze. But mostly, I find that they just took whatever Benjamin was doing and expanded it into excess verbiage and obfuscatory texts—a hermetic jargon that’s completely unnecessary. Benjamin was soulful and he was trying to get to essences. He wasn’t in love with his own words so much like the French poststructuralists.

PA: In the past, you had stated your intention to work against the postmodern aesthetic.

ES: Yes.

PA: What in particular were you working against?

ES: Untrammeled irony. I like irony and I would say that I use it in various situations, but you have to be careful how you use it. And I feel like if you have an ironic stance on everything, then it devalues everything, and makes it all pretty meaningless.

PA: Like the claim by some that deconstruction turns in on itself?

ES: But deconstruction I see as just a technique—an overused technique. It’s so easy to deconstruct, you know? It’s much harder to construct than it is to deconstruct. And [the idea] that everything has been done already, all history is over, blah, blah, blah—all the standard postmodern cant, for me, I just didn’t buy it. [Postmodernism] was not necessarily a gospel that I really wanted to immerse myself in. I was tired of reacting against things and if you’re going to deconstruct, you’re always going to be pulling out someone else’s thing and recontextualizing it. The endless recycling strips away meaning, embodied meaning. I feel like it’s taking the very powerful expressions of things and turning them into just badges, markers. People think that to quote markers of hip stuff makes them hip. And maybe it was for a while. I believe postmodernism was important in the ‘70s, especially with Zappa and some of the visual artists who were starting to use appropriation, but I felt like by the time it entered the music world in the ’80s, it was already over. It was too easy. The Residents and Zappa did some great stuff with appropriation and deconstruction early on, but I would say after that, it no longer interested me.

PA: A couple of years ago some academic postmodernists assembled at the University of Chicago and declared themselves irrelevant.

ES: That’s very good. I hope they all committed suicide afterward.
 

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TMN Contributing Writer Patrick Ambrose resides in North Carolina. His other work has appeared in Creative Loafing, Timber Creek Review, and Mysterical-e. More by Patrick Ambrose