By Jack McKeon
In case there was any doubt about it, the new album by Elliot Sharp and Sergio Sorrentino makes clear that the electric guitar is an instrument unto itself, and must be considered as something wholly different than its acoustic equivalent. Spilla’ (which the liner notes tell us means “‘to play’ in the secret language of the Neapolitan musicians”) overwhelms the listener with a barrage of sounds that seem unable to emanate from two guitars. Pinched harmonics, muted arpeggios, tapping on guitar pickups, soaring volume swells, and guitar picks being dragged over roundwound strings layer over one another for over an hour. The listener may be left wondering what these players are after on this recording. Are they enemies or brothers? Is the guitar simply the medium at hand to reach a greater understanding, or is Spilla’ all one great big love note to the 6-string?
The album consists of two recordings of Sharp’s “graphic scores.” These pieces, “Hudson River Nr. 6” and “Liquidity” are the first and third recordings on the record, and are broken up by two extended improvisations recorded live in Vercelli, Italy. Much like the techniques of mid-century composers Earle Brown or Christian Wolff, Sharp’s graphic scores ask the interpreter to approach the musical performance with a diversity of media in mind. As the question of these musicians' relationship to the guitar continues to swirl around the listener’s head, this mixed-media approach seems fitting given the backgrounds of the musicians. Sharp, a veteran of the New York avant-garde, has built a career around collaborative sonic experiments since the late 1970s. He is a multi-instrumentalist and technical polymath, often thought of as one of the first musicians to incorporate computers into his live performances. This pairs well with Sorrentino’s trajectory as a guitarist wholly committed to the “new” — whatever that may mean — while immersing himself in strings of yore. Sorrentino has performed works by Morton Feldman and Steve Reich, had his work played on concerts that also showcased compositions by Frank Zappa, and played the “Battente” baroque guitar with the Accademia del Ricercare Ensemble.
Their collaboration breathes new life into the oft-overused phrase “extended technique.” Sharp and Sorrentino reveal a desire to steer away from patterns, vamps, or familiar sounds. As soon as they seem to fall into a style, they take off in a new direction. That being said, listen for their favored pairings. The duo seem to like sustained harmonic notes that flourish over athletic tapped patterns. Often — most notably on “Liquidity” — they move towards cacophonous overflows of sound where the rapid picking of muted strings at the upper register of the fretboard begins to sound like castanets beating out the final palpitations of the heart. Never allowing their listeners to get too comfortable, Sharp and Sorrentino even go as far as to displace the tonal center of their pieces by detuning / re-tuning their strings and using elastic bends to baffle the listener. In the best way, there is nothing “familiar” about this album. A disorientation as reintroduction, Spilla’ is the system shock you didn’t know you needed.
Very nice review, Jack, really well-written.
Elliot Sharp is also really good in the new Weasel Walter project Phonon. They just released an album called Alloy.
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