Forgotten New York

New York City is not what it used to be. That in itself is the enduring feature of the place, which is constantly being made then remade then remade. The city doesn’t have the ancient past of a place like Rome, so, although there is a preservation movement, there is far less challenge in trying to juxtapose the present with the long forgotten past, because the past was not that long ago, and never completely forgotten.

New York is also the most American of all places. Along with the Enlightenment desire for personal liberty and freedom of conscience, the country stands on a foundation of commercial enterprise, and we live in the center of that universe, here in the big city. This is all to explain why the transformation of Times Square from its late 1970s – early 1980s squalor (gritty is too kind a word) to its current state as the true crossroads of the world, in terms of the origins of the people who flock there, doesn’t give me a twinge of sentimental loss. The Times Square of head shops, porno theaters, hookers and live sex shows was a commercial enterprise just as much as the current one is. Calling it a playground for adults only damns the adults who found constructive playfulness there. Personally, I can put it best by admitting that I saw “The Terminator” and “C.H.U.D.” in theaters there, and also “Caligula,” with Spanish subtitles and some things with Vanessa Del Rio in them. No, I don’t miss the place.

Other parts of New York have been transformed since then, with more mixed results. It’s a good thing that the Bowery is safer than it used to be, but when a fancy hotel prices the Downtown Music Gallery out of the neighborhood, something very strange is going on. And then there’s the East Village. And Tompkins Square Park. The Pyramid Club is still there, but does anything happen there anymore that matters? The park itself is lovely and livable, as a park should be – they are public resources meant for all citizens, and no group, no matter how worthy or sympathetic, should have a monopoly on the place. Parks are for kids, and lovers, and napping and strolling. The trouble is that the park may now have a gentle monopoly that has shoved some of those citizens out of its gates.

It was the Riot that did it, the Tompkins Part Riot in the summer of 1988. The context for the riot was a stew of social antagonisms; the East Village was already beginning to gentrify, putting young professionals on the same streets with young punks and squatters, junkies and street criminals. There were protests against gentrification, and complaints over loud music played in the park. At a protest on August 6, the police charged and attacked citizens and ended up beating on everyone in sight, just because they could. The immediate result united all sides in outrage for the moment, but for the people who lived in the East Village on little or no money, the people who came to the East Village for a sense of freedom, even anarchy, not available at home or even in Greenwich Village, those people had already lost the war before this battle was joined. The freaks, weirdos, outcasts, good and bad, the irreverent heart of this city and America, had to scatter to . . . Brooklyn, New Jersey, Astoria . . . where ever.

A certain focus in art was lost, especially in music. This was the high point of post-punk “downtown” music, an exciting, extroverted movement that had less of a goal than a method, which was to try shit and see how it worked. It was a general drift of sympathy that brought together the likes of John Zorn, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, Peter Blegvad, Tom Johnson, members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and many, many others in a mix of jazz, punk, funk, Stockhausen, cartoon music, free improvisation and generally good natured, boundary evaporating anarchy. There was enough sense of disorganization, real or imagined, so that the music that was in the clubs, on tapes, available at the New Music Distribution Service or the old Lunch For Your Ears, had a surprise to it, the feeling that the cats just happened to turn the corner of Avenue C and hey, what’s going on, we got this gig, you want to play too? It was casual, but serious, because the musicians were serious about what they were doing, and either seriously skilled or, like Christian Marclay, seriously brilliant conceptualists and artists.

For the most part, it’s all gone. Yes, the music being made right now, music I hear and see and write about often, does destroy the boundaries between genres. It does so in different ways, though, with different qualities. The old downtown scene was not only rough-edged but didn’t so much synthesize different music as put them side by side to see what would come out of the conflict and abrasion. Today’s downtown scene is, literally, uptown, and the music has had time to steep in universities and conservatories, where musicians and composers have found ways to put the different parts together into well-made pieces. One is in no way better than the other, but it would be preferable to have them both.

One of the remnants of this scene is Elliott Sharp. He’s not a fossil nor a throwback, he’s simply been making music, prolifically, since the late 1970s, and he is celebrating his 60th birthday (which was March 1), this weekend at Issue Project Room. Sharp is a fabulous, serious musician, practiced, knowledgeable and committed. The musicians and ensembles he’ll be playing with attest to his astonishing range and, even more, a generous and sympathetic musical nature that comes through clearly in his playing. You can hear it on four new recordings that have come out in just the last year alone – there are more, I just haven’t got them yet!

Sharps ability to play the guitar is surpassed only by his imagination, intelligence and skill as an improviser. Improvising is more than just making something up, it is making something out of what you made up, and it’s a skill that demands excellent chops and a constant supply of interesting things to say – you have to be an interesting person. I’ve never spoken with Sharp, but I have heard countless interesting things from him. Take the fluid density of Octal, Book Two , the follow up to a 2008 CD. The liner notes discuss Lisa Randall’s book “Warped Passages,” the use of alternate tunings and the way his guitar is miked, and it’s all interesting and doesn’t really matter, because the playing is just astonishing. Sharp plucks the strings with his fingers, and that allows him to produce polyphonic music that is dense with activity and, because of his skill, always clear. While he doesn’t play at all like Cecil Taylor, he is very much like Taylor in the sheer mass and velocity of his ideas, flowing forth in a rapid, controlled stream, each one as defined as a diamond. The two Octal recordings are on the jazz Clean Feed label, but they’re not really jazz and he’s never been a jazz musician. There is a whole universe of improvisation beyond jazz, music that is as much a great art and dedicated calling, and Sharp is one of the very finest ever put on record. These CDs are essential recordings for anyone interested in him or improvised music, and he’ll be playing excerpts from the music at the Saturday concert. The term face-melting will truly apply.

He’s not a jazz player, but he’s a hell of a blues guitarist, and his band Terraplane makes great, heavy, modern blues, seriously real and fun. The music is so strong and real. While other musicians with roots in the downtown scene have gone on to build conglomerations based in glibness, increasingly self-referential, gestural and jejune, on Abstraction Distraction , Sharp has done, almost casually, what many others try and do with great effort and never quite succeed at; he’s made a record of truly abstract funk, all by himself, using electronics to support his impressive tenor and soprano sax playing. The opening “Quadrantids” starts off with a pleasantly analog rumble, the kind of thing you get by twisting a nob on a filter, and then heads into amazing territory, free-form but also controlled, based on patterns but full of surprises, truly danceable. He has a nice, strong, mellow sound on both horns, bits of qualities from great jazz players who have come before, but the electronics seem to recontextualize any bits of jazz history out of the picture, and the result is a music that is both truly strange and truly new. Some of Bill Laswell’s units have tried to reach a similar place, music that has the funk and intellectual freedom, but he always loses his way into ironic pop clichés. Sharp is one of the most cliché-free musicians there is, on par with Derek Bailey and Lee Konitz, and this gives the record an almost naïve freshness, like Sharp can only do things that have not been done before. I’ve never heard anything like Abstraction Distraction, which, now that I’ve heard how possible this music is, seems a deep shame. This disc is not for everyone, it will perturb any expectations of standard song forms, but it is not only a treat but a testament to Sharp’s enduring artistic vision. Currently in heavy rotation at the 8BC Lounge in Forgotten New York . . .

One of the landmarks of this forgotten New York was the Binibon, a 24 hour joint at 2nd and 5th, a scene hangout back in the late 70s-early 80s. It’s also the title and subject of Sharp’s opera, with a libretto by Jack Womack. The Binibon is where Jack Henry Abbott, back in the City due in no small part to Norman Mailer’s slumming, encountered waiter Richard Adan, and soon after stabbed him to death. Sharp and Womack’s Binibon is based around this tragedy, follows a narrative of personal memories and regrets through a handful of characters, including Abbott, culminating in the event that the piece represents as a symbol of the end of an era. The murder, and the closing of the Binibon, happened in 1981, well before the riot, but like I said, the struggle had been lost by 1988, perhaps the opera explains the beginning of the end.

This is an excellent piece. It features long, spoken narration, but straight forward, not in the manner of Robert Ashley. There is singing too, but it’s a real opera regardless of the balance between speaking and singing. Sharp’s music supports the text beautifully and tells the story in its own way. Womack’s libretto is tough-guy-romantic in style, a bit clichéd but saved by its sincerity. The band; guitar, saxophone, clarinet, bass, drums, percussion and electronics, is great, because it’s all Elliott Sharp – he makes and plays all the music, a rich melange of punk, jazz, rock, beautifully heavy early hip-hop beats. It’s forceful, expertly colored and judged, always interesting. This is a truly impressive work on CD, involving, fascinating, emotionally powerful, one of the most accomplished new, non-standard operas I’ve heard in a long time.

Why stop with that? There’s a film score out too, for “Spectropia,” a science fiction movie involving time travel. This gives Sharp the reason/excuse, to write music for different ensembles in different styles. The range on this CD is like that on one of Zorn’s collections of his own film music, but in this case the range is focussed on one subject. There are sludgy guitar chords, bouncing digital bleeps, shuffling jazz, string quartet music, and the strongest singing I’ve heard from Debbie Harry. Along with Sharp, the musicians include the Sirius String Quartet and the ‘31 Band, featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Swell and Anthony Coleman. This is not as deep or powerful an artistic statement as the other recordings discussed here, the variety of sound without the film comes off as fragmented at times, but it’s full of invention and is an admirable bookend to the music that Sharp has given us so far.

Go see this great musician, it will be memorable. Friday, the event is at the 110 Livingston Street future home of IPR, and is a benefit for the venue, with tickets that include an after-party and special VIP events for tax-deductible, VIP prices. Saturday is in the cozy confines at 3rd and 3rd, a place where even strangers are joined in the friendship of music. That day starts with an open rehearsal at five, and goes late into the evening. It will be great.

UPDATE: fixed video links

UPDATE 2: put in the classic photo to help fill out new theme


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.