Pheasants Eye DVD

Following 2007’s The Velocity of Hue: Live In Cologne by Pavel Borodin, another file on the artistic career of Elliott Sharp gets unearthed courtesy of director Bert Shapiro, who has pulled together performance footage, private conversations, and talking-heads soundbites in an absorbing, if somehow still not definitive profile of this fundamental figure of contemporary music. The core program is subdivided into three chapters. “Doing the Don’t” is a boiled-down primer on Sharp’s compositional methods and projects (mostly derived from scientific, mathematic and even genetic connections) interspersed with snippets from concerts ranging from 1987 to 2007, home-conducted rehearsals (interesting to observe the Sirius String Quartet practicing “Light in Fog”), and opinions from fellow musicians and – nice touch – family members. Apart from the heartwarming shots of E# playing acoustic guitar to toddlers Kai Otis and Lila Mary (one of whom tries to steal and eat the bottleneck!), a particularly revealing moment comes from Sharp’s partner, video artist Janene Higgins, when she discloses that only after the birth of his children did Sharp actually accept to be “a part of the human race” – until that moment, he’d thought of himself as an alien. Sharp’s work is too diverse to cram into a 20-minute chapter, of course: the many performance clips are extraordinarily exciting, leaving us with watering mouths, and the documentary never really gets to grips with the critical concepts behind this man’s art. At the end of the day this almost feels like a voice-over commentary on a slide show of Sharp’s gigs, though it’s useful to hear his detailed descriptions of particular concepts.
For the hardcore E# fan, the most enjoyable episode will be “Slabs, Pantars, Violinoids”, in which he recapitulates his influences and describes the development of his guitar style and his interest in constructing instruments (as a kid he used to experiment with the remnants of his father’s job as an industrial designer). The full gallery of his fretless, double-neck and multi-string axes is on display here, plus the “stringed inventions” named in the chapter’s title. Great stuff. Finally, “Sharp on Sharp” draws on an interview with Frank J. Oteri, in which E# talks about the music industry, his nonconformist relation to it, and the complex interrelations between a composition, its audience and the surrounding physical and socio-cultural environment. This section is also quite stimulating, particularly because of Sharp’s concisely articulated, ear-pleasing elucidations – yet it is so pithy that, again, we’re left wanting more.
The extras include a video excerpt from “Larynx” recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1987, in unfortunately dismal audio quality (hey, it’s a rarity), and 80 minutes’ worth of recent, previously unreleased audio-only tracks, including “The Velocity of Hue” for electroacoustic guitar and laptop (Padua, Italy, 2006), “Synda-Kit” (Beijing, 2007) and the splendid “Quarks Swim Free” (Brooklyn, 2006). In essence, this is a collector’s item first and foremost: don’t expect an epochal masterpiece. But for serious aficionados of this self-professed “alien”, it’s a required addition to the long chain of necessary items. Above all – despite a few flaws – Sharp’s richly certified rational brightness, in evidence throughout Doing the Don’t, makes you feel less dispirited about human evolution. That alone makes this document a breath of pure oxygen.