Lyon & Sharp, 1998

critiques by DAN WARBURTON, Paris Editor

Eric Lyon presents Red Velvet: Retirement Fund

As is they say in the British Parliament, I suppose I should "declare an interest:" I was at Eastman School of Music with Eric Lyon in 1986 and remember him well. His three-man improvising group Lilacs, with fellow composers Paul Reller and Todd Levin, caused something of a stir in a Composers' Forum once, and then went on (without Levin who was "sacked" for some obscure reason-I seem to remember it had something to do with his dog) to give a famous four-hour concert of ferociously loud live electronics accompanying extracts from "Mein Kampf". Barely a dozen people turned up for the concert, but the posters with their "shock horror" style photo-montages (both Eric and Paul are big fans of the Butthole Surfers, Dead Kennedys and Swans) caused a minor scandal. Eric's own degree recital included the splendidly-entitled trombone duet "Your Worst Nightmare" and an energetic if somewhat Varèsian "Symphony" for percussion, though it was in the Computer Music Studio that he really excelled: the disturbing soundscape of "Abortion" included some subliminally blasphemous references to studio director Allan Schindler, for whom it was written as a term project, and "Hotshot" incorporated recordings of a newborn baby (was it Eric's nephew?) in such a way that you'd be inclined to believe the unfortunate infant was being bludgeoned to death with a piece of lead piping.

Ten years on, it's nice to see Eric hasn't changed much. The CD booklet for the so-called chamber opera "Retirement Fund" (texts written and, it seems, read by Erik Belgum) contains numerous photos which, though not overtly shocking as such, lend themselves to rather dubious interpretation in the light of the opera's seeming-though never explicitly stated-obsession with psychopaths and perverts. There are no characters per se, rather intercut monologues suggesting several identities: a doctor, a psychologist, someone carrying out an autopsy on a fetus, someone describing a marital breakup, a father (speaking to his son?), and a deranged Vietnam veteran. Listeners are invited to use their imagination to reconstruct some kind of plot (no matter how you put the elements together, the result is invariably horrific). The music, apart from a ritornello played by guitar, accordeon and drums, is all computer-generated, a veritable showcase of Lyon's mastery of the studio and the sounds-mostly disturbing-it can produce. Even the ritornello (setting the words "Jesus loves me, this I know/For the Bible tells me so/Little ones to him belong/They are weak but He is strong"-decidedly sick in this context) gets progressively mangled. The relative brevity of each individual scene (twenty in all, plus several entr'actes) and the fast-splicing of Belgum's libretto keep the listener's attention in a vice grip throughout.

"Red Velvet" brings together five of Eric's computer pieces, "Butter" (memories of "Last Tango in Paris" prevent me from inquiring as to the significance of the title), "Psychedelic Relapse," "1979," "De Re Architectura" and "Red Velvet." Of these, the first and last clock in at over twenty minutes, which, despite the frequent and almost Zornesque juxtaposition of idioms, is taxing on the listener. Since our glory days at Eastman, the sampler has asserted itself with a vengeance in all areas of new music-as a result Eric's recent music is less ascetic, being able to refer not only to itself (the occasional verbal quotes which seem to question the whole compositional process) but also to rock and techno (there are tantalizing glimpses of several old favorites...). Indeed, if he put his mind to it (though, of course, he probably won't), Lyon could produce a killer progressive techno album-what's missing more often than not in that genre is a real sense of pitch and a feeling for musical structure. That said, by the end of the album, where the title track seems to get stuck on numerous repetitions of the word "hardcore" (it must be said that if you've managed to listen all the way through the album, you know it's hardcore by then), I was beginning to flag: the shorter pieces seem to be tighter and more arresting.

Ultimately that's what it's all about: keeping the listener alert and open to the perplexing multitude of extraordinary sounds that computers can generate in the hands of an experienced practitioner. Herein lies a problem: in mixing the material and imagery of contemporary avant garde and hardcore, Eric runs the risk of falling between two stools: enthusiasts of electronic music (be it by Babbitt, Stockhausen or Pierre Henry) are likely to be somewhat repelled by the rock violence of "Retirement Fund," while sickos who thrill to Throbbing Gristle and the Butthole Surfers might find the music of "Red Velvet" too polished and academic (an impression not helped perhaps by titles such as "De Re Architectura"). Of course, nowadays in the global village, more and more people are enjoying both Stockhausen and Throbbing Gristle, and it is to these noble souls that ambitious ventures such as this are reaching out... So if you're ready for some pure Disney fun, get your copies of these two fine albums from Smart Noise Records, 43 Saddle Ranch Lane, Hillsdale NJ 07642 (e-mail:, before that crazy vet gets to Eric and minces him up into doggie treats.


Elliott Sharp: Sferics, Figure Ground, and State of the Union

Dedicated to Sonny Sharrock, late lamented pioneer of new guitar techniques, “Sferics” presents Elliott Sharp (E#) on solo fretless guitar, spring bow, and e-bow. From the drone-like timbral explorations of “Source Taproot” and “Clarify” to the high-speed minimalism of “Teak,” this is impressive but not at all easy listening. More and more in improvised music (finally attracting some long-overdue attention these days), there is an element of frustrated curiosity on the part of the listener, trying desperately to imagine how that sound could possibly come from a guitar...somehow, once you’ve seen it done in concert, the record becomes easier to appreciate (“oh yeah, that’s where he does the thing with the paintbrushes...”). I’m not sure that this state of affairs is altogether satisfactory--do we listen to music any better by knowing how it was produced?--I suppose E# would be among the first to argue that this is music to be both seen and heard. Personally I consider the recorded medium to be itself an essential aspect of contemporary music, with many of the most powerful and original statements of modern music over the past few years conceived specially for disc. Certainly without the recorded medium--not only CDs but also vinyls, making a welcome comeback--techno (or “electronica” as it’s now known) would not have become the major force that it now is. Indeed, it is thanks to recording, and the prominence of several labels propelled forward, more often than not, by nothing other than the sheer enthusiasm of their owners (see Atavistic, Incus, FMP, Barooni, Avant, Tzadik), that improv is now back on the map, and people are queuing up to play with Derek Bailey and Evan Parker.

Getting back to Elliott Sharp, those who may have difficulty locating “Sferics” will have fewer problems getting hold of “Figure Ground”, which, by dint of being on Tzadik, should be reasonably easy to find in most major record stores. Here the tracks are shorter (the exception being “Prey” at ten minutes) and more varied in their instrumentation--drum machines and samplers are added to E#’s customary guitars--but as a result seem slighter, more inconsequential than his extended workouts on “Sferics.” Perhaps this is because they were written for collaborative ventures with choreographers, film and video makers--once again we’re invited to speculate on whether the music is sufficient in and of itself to hold our attention or needs the support of other visual media. Musically, this is less original--perhaps that should read more derivative--than “Sferics.” “Float” and “Talk” see Ry Cooder dropping in from Paris, Texas; “Playground” and “The Bridge” sound like out-takes from an early Ambitious Lovers album; the gritty guitar sounds on “Lumberjack Boots” and “Motorbike” recall Robert Quine, and “Homocop” (presumably a reference to the album’s nearly-explicit gay artwork?) would not sound out of place on a mid-80s Golden Palominos album. There are some fascinating moments which could be developed further (the opening electronic gurgling of “Backroom” before the monotonous drums kick in, the bizarre swooping sonorities of “Musclehouse”). Not surprisingly, “Prey,” as the album’s longest piece, is also the most intriguing. Overall “Figure Ground,” like many recent Tzadik releases (the latest Frith and Ribot among them) sounds like many small independent pieces just thrown together, making me wonder if Sharp considers the album to be an artistic document in its own right at all.

But then again, maybe he does: his instruction to play on random shuffle the 147 one-minute-long tracks which go up to make the double CD “State of the Union” is certainly worth trying out. These pieces, coming from 1996, 1992 and as far back as 1982 (when Sharp originally invited the cream of NY Downtown to collaborate on an album to benefit the National Coalition Against Censorship) shuffle together reasonably well, and it’s quite tricky to say which of the three years they come from (unless of course you’re good at spotting telltale signatures--Christian Marclay, David Shea, Arto Lindsay, et al.). However, the critical acclaim that Sharp’s project has received seems out of all proportion to the quality of the music it contains. Most music journalism seems to restate the view--implicitly held even by major-league commentators on the arts such as Robert Hughes--that New York City is the artistic/cultural center of the USA, and once across the Hudson or East Rivers there isn’t really much worth talking about. Hence a lot of the stuff that makes it to this CD, had it been put out, say, by the Allentown Pennsylvania Women Writers’ Collective as a benefit for local striking miners, would have been sniggered at and dismissed out of hand by “serious” magazines like The Wire. But because it comes from New York, that makes it O.K. Perhaps E# should have called it “State of the East Village”. Even on random play, the tracks which had me looking at the booklet to find out who did them were more often than not from 1982 or 92, and by so-called big names (Henry Kaiser, Butch Morris, Thi-Linh Le, Fred Frith). Coincidence? Maybe, but producing a piece of a mere sixty seconds’ duration is no easy task (ask any of the composers who participated in our one-minute piano piece competition for Paris Transatlantic recently!). There are very few real masters of the small form out there, but they make their presence felt on this CD (Dim Sum Clip Job, David Shea, John Zorn, God is my Co-Pilot). The rest of the pieces just, well, stop after one minute, rather than end. As for the spoken works--I hesitate to use the word poetry--I recall Laurie Anderson’s first ever release “New York Social Life,” with its humorous send-up of the NY Art Scene (“Keep working, it’s just not like the Sixties anymore...”), not least because Anderson’s flippant pretentiousness seems to be what many of these writers--men and women alike--aspire to, while not realizing that the arty community to which they belong is, with a few notable exceptions, as parochial and uninteresting as the music on this CD.
[Elliott Sharp: Sferics, is on the ATONAL label, number ACD 3022. Figure Ground is released by TZADIK, number TZ 7505. State of the Union, which consists of various artists (produced by Elliott Sharp): is available as ATAVISTIC ALP69CD.]

For Elliott Sharp's website, see our links page. For CD reviews of John Zorn's 1998 releases, see the zorncollection. Or check out our interviews with leading improvisors and composers: toy virtuoso Eugene Chadbourne, guitar virtuoso Fred Frith, and piano virtuoso Misha Mengelberg. (And did you know about Misha's pet parrot?)