Scientist and Activist
Frank J. Oteri: So if it’s not important for listeners to understand all the theory, why is all this science so important to you?
Elliott Sharp: Well, in the summer of 1968, I was actually going to be a junior scientist. I had a National Science Foundation grant to go to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh for work I’d done, but I was also a DJ from midnight to four a.m. on WRCT. They had a great library, and I just dug into music. I was teaching myself guitar that summer as well using my time in the lab to build fuzz boxes and experiment with a seven-head tape delay they had. So a lot of things all came together: I was listening to everything I could find in the library, which included the Xenakis electroacoustic music, Harry Partch, Indian music, Korean music, Delta blues, Howlin’ Wolf, and Captain Beefheart, which ties a lot of those things together. This whole spectrum of music was outside of my experience growing up, which was mostly hearing my parents play Broadway music or Beethoven at home. You know, Chopin.
FJO: But they gave you an electric guitar pretty early.
E#: Well, I got an electric guitar. I wouldn’t say they gave me one. My first instrument was piano. Actually, I was pretty adept at it, but it drove me crazy. I’m still convinced that the asthma that nearly killed me when I was eight years old was due to the piano. So I switched to clarinet and was practicing that pretty diligently until 1967, ’68. The electric took over later.
FJO: I’m not a doctor, but if you were suffering from asthma, wouldn’t the clarinet be more of a problem than the piano?
E#: Well, it would also be good therapy for my lungs.
FJO: So what was so toxic about the piano?
E#: Just the tension of being a piano student. I really didn’t like a lot of the literature for education. I didn’t really like my teacher so much. I liked some music. I played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. I liked things that were dark and fast, and that still holds true today, so that I could really dig into. In fact, I performed it at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1958, I think. All the students of this teacher played in the recital. But everything else I hated. I just didn’t like to practice. And I didn’t like to have to practice what I had to practice the way I had to practice it. It just wasn’t fun. Between that and studying to be a scientist, I was much more interested in the visual arts, actually, in painting and drawing; that was my first love. It was all there in the mix, I suppose. Looking back, in hindsight I can say it’s luck that I did this or didn’t do that then, or hated that and loved this.
FJO: So what made you stop thinking seriously about becoming a scientist and start thinking about putting music front and center?
E#: The Vietnam War. I was 17 years old and was very involved in political things in my high school: free speech, an underground newspaper. Listening to bands, going to antiwar marches, and starting to play all began to add up. And I said if I become a scientist, I’m going to work for the Defense Department because most scientific research is funded by the so-called Defense Department.
My draft number was fourteen. I was a student at Cornell in the anthropology department, and I had dropped out because I just couldn’t stand school anymore. I was playing in a lot of psychedelic jam bands that were influenced by Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart, and Miles Davis. It was sort of fun stuff. I was not interested in being in school, and then I got my draft notice. Then I was starting to take various actions to figure out what I was going to do if I was actually called in for my pre-induction physical. I was able to get a matriculation notice that said I was actually still in school, and I sent that in. I staved off the induction for six months, and then I did go to school at Bard. School was a haven for anyone who didn’t want to go to Canada. I was able to get scholarships, but a lot of people couldn’t afford to stay in school and ended up hiding or emigrating or going into the army.
FJO: I think a lot of us forget how contentious that time was and the extent to which mechanisms were in place to shape the way people think. You were even wrongly accused of manslaughter.
E#: Yeah, well not manslaughter—but that was close though—of stabbing the head of campus security. Eventually they dropped all of the charges in exchange for me not suing for false arrest and police brutality. It was a political demonstration on campus about Attica. This was in Buffalo. They assumed because I was a graduate student that I was one of the ringleaders. And I wasn’t actually; it was quite a democratic process. That happened in 1975. People were pretty cynical and disengaged in general, especially in Buffalo, which is a very conservative place. But in the ’60s people felt that something was possible, that you really could change things.
The difference now is, I think, a larger segment of the population understands that they’re being lied to and manipulated, and they don’t care. They don’t believe they can change it. They believe only that they have to try to maintain their existence. They don’t want to get killed, and I can’t blame them. Especially now that I’m a father, I don’t want to go out on the street and get my head blown off by some idiot American serial killer who happens to have a uniform on.
FJO: So do you believe that art has the power to transform the world in ways that politics can’t? Is that the lure for you?
E#: Art does. The question is: what’s the time span for how much of an effect it can have? It’s a very difficult question because a lot of times aesthetic issues come to the forefront when you’re dealing with art, and that’s all that seems important. Yet when you unpack something and begin to look at it, the initial motivations for creating a piece of work and the language it uses, the vocabulary, the syntax, there are a lot of things that go into the work. And they do have an effect, but a lot of times it’s just this hazy cloud of signifiers that may or may not connect with an audience and cause that chemical change that makes them say, “I now want to fight against this, or I want to be for this, or I’m not going to buy this anymore.” It’s pretty hazy, the cause-and-effect chain. I don’t think you can really directly say that art right now has the power to topple, say, the government here. It would be wonderful if it did. What art can do is get people thinking about things. Maybe some of those people have to take risks. This is the problem. Who is going to take those risks?