Elliott Sharp
Void Coordinates
Liner Notes Intakt CD 163



Elliott Sharp 8-string guitarbass, guitar, soprano sax
Zeena Parkins electric harp
Marc Sloan electric bass, prepared bass
Joseph Trump drums, percussion
David Weinstein sampler, synthesizer

Intakt CD 163



By Elliott Sharp, NYC, Sept. 2009

A welcome plunge into the Void: I was thrilled at the prospect of reconvening the Carbon quintet of 1991-96, the band that manifested the music on Tocsin, Truthtable, Amusia, Interference, and Autoboot. I had suspended operations of this constellation to focus on larger ensemble projects that would return to the use of conceptual approaches and formal systems, more integration of acoustic instruments and real-time computer processing, and less focus on the “rock club” as the means to disseminate the music. Carbon, rather than disappearing, metamorphosed into Orchestra Carbon with performances and recordings of the longform compositions “Rheo~Umbra”, “Radiolaria”, “SyndaKit”, and “Quarks Swim Free”. Even though I was hooked into a nice jolt of electricity with Tectonics and Terraplane, I had missed the extreme dynamics and suppleness of this self-contained band of powerful musicians.

Carbon was first conceived in April 1983 and emerged from my work on the fringes of the early hardcore and improv scenes with my bands I/S/M, The Hi-Sheriffs of Blue, and Mofungo. Carbon debuted at the Speed Trials festival in Soho in May 1983 alongside performances by Lydia Lunch, The Fall, Swans, Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, and Toy Killers. The name appeared earlier as a song-title on my 1981 disc ISM and seemed perfect for the band concept of a sound that would be both earthy and ethereal, groove-oriented but jagged, and powered by cracked science and punk mania. The band’s first phase included Jonathan Kane or David Linton on drums and various guests. In addition to a doubleneck guitar/bass, I focussed on soprano sax and bass clarinet as well as using my invented string/percussion instruments: slabs, pantars, and violinoid. No digital effects were used – all sounds were generated using extended techniques, amplifier distortion, and volume.

In the fall of 1983 my growing disenchantment with the Downtown scene led to a seven-month hiatus from music. During this period I completely lost patience with the sacred totems of post-modernism: appropriation, deconstruction, and irony, and found myself attracted to mathematical studies that had been put aside for some years – especially that of the Fibonacci series and the geometry of the Golden Mean. One cold night in March of 1984, I set out to explore the sonics of the ratios of the Fibonacci series. In so doing, I found that certain ratios of adjacent Fibonacci numbers coincided with ratios of just-intoned intervals. I translated these ratios to a tuning on electric guitar with 1/1 = C and restricted myself to playing only the open strings and overtones using various picking and tapping techniques. The intervals from low – high were C (1/1) Ab (8/5) C (2/1) G (3/2) A (5/3) and C (3/1). I was astounded at the results – liquid harmo-nic melodies of a strange but familiar nature pouring off the strings. It was just after midnight when I began playing, sunrise when I stopped. The results were so encouraging that I decided to dig in deeper with a number of strategies for utilization of the Fibonacci series. Besides the primary approach of harmonic tuning, these included mapping the ratios to rhythms and to proportions for structures. In addition, the ratios were applied to various other instruments, including bowed strings (a natural); saxophones because I played them; and to trombones because I liked that instrument’s purity of tone and its ability to produce overtones as well as its ability in the wrong hands to produce an astounding array of onomatopoetic sounds, it’s relation to the didjeridu and the Tibetan ragdung, it’s pedal tones, and its essential simplicity. Over the course of the next two months, I composed the cores for six pieces that would fuse extended techniques and radical sounds with the Old Math; the natural overtone series; sounds and approaches from many of the non-Western musics that I loved and learned from; and the grooves of urban life. The band included Linton, Mark Miller, and Charles Noyes on a variety of drums and percussion instruments, plus Lesli Dalaba on trumpet. I played an old Hohner doubleneck guitar/bass that I had rebuilt, soprano sax, bass clarinet, sopranino clarinet, trombone, and voice. That first Carbon record was released simultaneously by my own zOaR label and the Atonal label in Berlin.

The next phase consisted of building a performing band and repertoire. The band concept clarified into a loose pool of players who learned the vocabulary and syntax of the pieces and my approach to the why of them. Carbon varied from a duet to the nine musicians required to perform the longform “Marco Polo’s Argali”. In 1985, I became aware of the fractal geometry of Benoit Mandelbrot through an article in Scientific American and became increasingly excited by it. I felt a resonance with Mandelbrot’s mapping of mathematical functions to forms and phenomena from nature including turbulence, chaos, and seeming randomness and felt that an ideal music could also be a mapping of these elements. Exploring on my computer the many regions of an iterated Julia Set, I sensed that I was looking at a picture of time not linear but jagged, reticulated and looping. With the album Fractal (1986), I set out to construct pieces based on various aspects of fractal geometry. Each piece had shifting elements of structure and guided improvisation, layers of interlocked order and chaos. I looked to the math for catalysis, inspiration, and allusion I was not interested in generating tables of fractals to construct musical material too mechanistic, too academic. At this time, I also began using a MIDI converter on the guitar-half of my doubleneck to drive a sampler. By sampling sounds, processes, and phrases produced through the extended techniques that were to form the sonic cores of compositions and from the various homemades, an additional reflexive and recursive element could be layered into the mix as well as greatly extending my timbral range.

“Larynx” was the piece that prompted the next manifestation of the band, the genesis of Orchestra Carbon. Commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival and performed November 13-14, 1987, “Larynx” was composed for a 13-member version of Carbon including the Soldier String Quartet, four drummers, and four musicians doubling brass instruments as well as slabs and pantars. “Larynx” is analogy: the orchestra as throat. It follows as corollary to the throat as orchestra: throat-singing as practiced by the Arctic Inuit and the khoomei singing of Siberia and Mongolia, as well as by related jawharp techniques found throughout the world. The natural overtone series is the melodic core of much of these musics and of much of “Larynx”. The Fibonacci series was used to generate tunings, rhythms, and melodic/harmonic material as well as shape general structural proportions while my studies in fractal geometry provided a conceptual framework. I wanted the music to dance on the always-changing boundary between a structural geometry derived from the Fibonacci series and a fractal geometry of turbulence, chaos, and disorder. The explicitly-ordered materials are embedded in a dense flux of multiple processes – layers of micro-melodies and micro-rhythms, active cross-talk between the players. With each transformation, new landscapes and new processes emerge. “Larynx” is con-structed in six major sections with five interludes. The opening and closing use all four drummers: Bobby Previte, Charles Noyes, Samm Bennett, David Linton; the remaining sections each feature one, with the others playing slabs or samples. Each drummer has developed a unique sound and vocabulary; I enjoy the contrast between them as well as their understanding of my strategies. This also applies to all of the musicians in Carbon who are given instructions of varying degrees of specificity in the different sections (ranging from exact rhythms, notes, or playing techniques to more general notions of density and texture). The same processing algorithms are mapped into each section, cross-referencing them while yielding radically different sonic results. One is transported (via the interludes) into each section – the terrain is different yet the functional identity of process is the same (an analogy from topology applies: a torus is a torus is a torus). The interludes form a cycle of their own while connecting the cycle of main sections. All string instruments were tuned to the Just ratios of 1/1, 3/2, 8/5, and 5/3. Throughout the piece, string instruments were predominantly played using only open strings or their overtones while brass instruments used open pedal tones of these notes and their overtones. There are, however, a number of places in “Larynx”, where the players are called upon to use the variety of their own idiosyncratic extended sound-production techniques, well outside any system.

After “Larynx”, I wanted to return to a small band-format and assembled Samm Bennett on drums, percussion, sampler; Linton on drums and tapes; and electric harpist Zeena Parkins doubling on slab and keyboard. All players had a huge timbral range – anyone in the group could deal the woofers or the tweeters, beats, melodies, or pure noise. This group played a few versions of the longform “Jumpcut” and a number of short pieces, issued as Datacide in 1989. Personnel went into flux again and the European touring band in 1990-91 included Ms. Parkins, bassist Marc Sloan, samplist David Weinstein, and Blind Idiot God drummer Ted Epstein. For these tours we were joined by Bachir Attar, the leader of the Master Musicians of Jahjouka, on rhaita, guimbri, and flute. The Carbon sets were filled with 3- and 4-minute blasts – the sets with Bachir were stretched-out and pulsing psychedelia, an imaginary locus halfway between NY and Morocco. For the next record, Tocsin, Joseph Trump replaced Epstein on drums and more explicit song-structures ruled. For this phase, I did not want Carbon to hew to any specific formal agenda but instead be the carrier of many mutant strains. Continuing from earlier records was the use of extended timbres – to orchestrate a melodic or harmonic idea or to create the full sound-design for the piece. To today’s ears, a short and pungent sound can function just as a catchy melody or lyric refrain once did. The personnel of the Tocsin band continued to work together in spite of everyone’s involvement in many other projects and over the next five years we toured extensively in Europe, Japan, even the United States (in a van in 1995: 29 concerts in 35 days, coast-to-coast, north to south) and recorded five discs. My strategy for the songs varied: sometimes very detailed structures, sometimes simple riffs or even just conceptual sketches. Sample programming and sound-design for each song would follow. The band would rehearse a bit and knock out very live-sounding versions in one or two takes after which I would use SoundTools and ProTools to edit and process the mixes and in some cases create new songs from fragments using a few bars each of drum grooves and odd sounds from everyone else sampled, sequenced, and twisted; finally, everything re-mixed and edited.

Void Coordinates has multiple meanings: the exact location of the void (a contradiction in terms); the process of eliminating all reference points; a cutting loose of all previous reference. Again, structural approaches varied: in “Eskatones”, a 25/8 riff is cut into component sub-grooves of 6/8, 7/8, and 8/8 for exploration. “Eukaryonic” uses additive rhythms of 7/4, 5/4, and 3/4 to build its cumulative effect. “Hypercubus” relies on a 16th note pulse and layered overtones. “Fermion” and “Holoscenic” both start with a simple melody as source material for their expansion. “Index of Minerals” begins with a lacy hazy interlock between harp and guitar before thickening with hocketed rhythms and sonic improvisations. “The Younger Dryas” carries strains of early Carbonics as well as paying tribute to Miles Davis’ On The Corner period. The titles (as most of my titles do) serve as pointers, references, keywords. This music was recorded “live” with a minimum of edits and overdubs – essentially, this is what Carbon sounds like in performance, operating in the service of groove and psycho-acoustic chemical change.


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