Elliott Sharp | Plastový Hrad
Infrequent Seams (DL)
Very few musicians own the privilege of being recognized in the first seconds of a piece. Among them, for this reviewer, stands Elliott Sharp. The unique drive of Sharp’s vibrating matter generates an out-and-out physical affinity, whatever the instrumental setting. I hereby confess my fetishism for the ferrous timbre of his customized guitars, the remorseless chordal cascades, the cyber-technoid stimulations, the (a)synchronic disruptions of pulse. And, of course, the implementation of all of the above in variously sized orchestras. It takes time to appreciate Sharp’s logical continuity. Once the bug has bitten, though, everything makes sense – including the harshest affirmations.
Thus it was not hard to be reassured by the unostentatious intelligence of Plastový Hrad in between innumerable pontifical propositions by composers and ensembles unworthy of the accolades and awards they receive. Sharp’s writing over the years has retained its customary resourcefulness, now augmented by experience with multiple orchestral habitats. The diversity of compositional strategies is a primary focus for the Cleveland-born New Yorker, who for decades now has been using selected scientific principles, complex maths and graphic illustrations to make explicit the inherent potential of a score. Also essential for him is the concept of feedback as the self-amplification of a creative system, which in turn originates a number of diversions ultimately destined to fortify the core of the earliest intuition.
The bass clarinet constitutes a link of sorts throughout the different scores, its prominent role highlighted by the bravura of clarinettists Lukasz Danhel and Gareth Davis, respectively in the first and second episode, and Sharp himself in the final one. The title track – a joint reference to Franz Kafka’s “The Castle” and Prague’s avant band Plastic People Of The Universe – was commissioned by the Brno Contemporary Orchestra for the occasion of the Czech Republic’s 100th anniversary. It’s a highly dynamic container of advanced contrapuntal superimpositions ranging from the utterly frictional to the desolately evocative, offering several advantageous points of observation to listeners interested in the desiccation of orchestral magniloquence. Peculiarly, a brief segment is reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s work with Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain; however there’s no mistaking Sharp’s forward-looking distribution of acoustic roles to depict “the quickly extinguished light of logic and optimism”.
“Turing Test” is a challenging miniature opera – brilliantly rendered by Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart – which summons up echoes of Luciano Berio’s mythicized vocal opuses (admittedly, it’s a bit silly to recur to vague similarities in such an individual type of expression, but bear with me). Sharp manages to plant the seeds of an amazing poly-harmonic flora – replete with punchy clusters and tonal relocations – in the singers’ mnemonic ground, with spectacular results. The conclusive “Oumuamua” – named after an abnormal asteroid that, for someone, might be an alien spacecraft – sees Sharp bathing alone in a sea of electroacoustic abstraction. His outstanding technique is here reinforced by substantial processing, the original tone mixed with its disfigured refractions, lyricalness turning into a “speedy reflexes” contest. What is genuine? What unearthly? How does the hardware treatment affect a human response to the unorthodox material? Stuff for extracurricular learning, everybody.
At no moment does this album offer less than relevant substance; the music is at once incisive, mercurial, unambiguous. Plastový Hrad is a probable day wrecker for audiences still convinced that a Mozart ringtone symphony represents the apotheosis of cosmic wisdom. Evolution springs from the rocks of sonic discordance, artificial equality be damned.