On November 20, 92YTribeca will host Doing the Don’t: An Evening with Elliott Sharp & Friends. Sharp has been a key figure in the avant-garde and experimental music scene in New York City for over thirty years, releasing over sixty-five recordings ranging from blues, jazz, and orchestral music to noise, no wave rock, and techno music. In addition to live performances with regular collaborators, the night will feature a screening of selections from documentary film maker Bert Shapiro’s Doing the Don’t, which examines Sharp’s journey from a would-be scholar of the physics to one of the most internationally acclaimed composers of the modern avant-garde. Here’s our Q&A with Shapiro.
What’s your background?
Being born in Europe in the late 1920’s and transported here in the 1960’s has had its advantages. There has been a lot to see and my brain seems to have a vault that stores moving images. My formative years were spent in London factories and on a farm. I lived through scenes rich in detail and filled with characters that were left over from Dickens stories. The London Blitz created its own daily stories and visuals. Moving parts of slow moving machines fascinated; cogs on harvesting equipment, inking rollers on printing presses – all had a rhythm that later was to delight when I discovered Leger’s “Ballet Mecanique.” Working as an apprentice in a small printing factory was a grim experience. But I saw that there was a “story” played out every day. The pressmen and the women bookbinders had worked together for years - this was their factory family. Their lives were proscribed by long workdays and short nights. Humor was an essential part of their interaction. With a background of machine clatter, some murmured Cockney ditties, others sang funny songs and one man danced like Chaplin. As a Jew I was an outsider - I was an observer. I don’t think that I went to the cinema more than a dozen times before I was 16 - it had little interest for me. Music brought joy, and some of my friends were violin and piano students. We formed a society to help “undiscovered artists” make a debut performance. I found myself in halls and homes well outside of my background – I was a spectator in an environment that was more interesting than the movies.
What attracted you to the idea of making a movie of Elliott Sharp? Did you know him beforehand? Were you a fan of his music?
I have known of Elliott’s music for several years and knew him as one of the prominent survivors of the “Downtown Music scene.” When we started speaking I was intrigued by his background as a young political activist and his intense interest in science and mathematics and his life-changing transition to music. The tenacious determination to pursue his own sounds in the face of the commercial music marketplace was passionate, courageous, impractical and unreasonable. Elliott’s belief in his work is admirable - perhaps it would influence others? I also was interested in giving a “human face” to the often-parodied avant-garde musician. I had heard that Elliott had on one occasion described a piece that he was composing as a “room-clearer.” It was a story that needed to be told.
Though you work almost improvisationally (i.e., without a storyboard or plan of action), you must still do some sort of pre-shooting fact-finding. What research did you do for Doing the Don’t?
I film alone as much as possible because I am looking for the unrehearsed, spontaneous moment. This is made easier because there is no intimidating crew or truckloads of equipment. Having a crew and equipment has obvious rewards particularly when post-production problems loom up. But working alone is a luxury that I find irresistible. I carry a small camera wherever I go and use it as a notebook. Editing with no story-board, no plan of action is fun – just spread out the thousands of frames like a massive jigsaw and watch for those “telling” clips yelling for attention. Ride the story that starts to appear and be ready to cut it or run with it, it nags, it gnaws it exhausts, exhilarates and excites.
The research consisted first of listening to his music. Then importantly by interviewing his wife, other musicians and friends. Through these interviews I was able to get the pieces of the puzzle. The picture started to become clear when I began filming Elliott performing and conducting and seeing his musical interaction in live performance. Also I began to learn of the Elliott Sharp impressive international reputation that amazingly exceeded the USA acknowledgment of his talents.
Your Eye & Hand series attempts to capture “skills that may soon disappear in the high-tech production factories of the 21st century.” Are you making these films because you bemoan the loss of people who have these skills (e.g., wigmakers, cigar rollers) despite the relative lack of need for them anymore?
Preserving old skills may not be as important as trying to communicate the characteristics of the practitioners. There is the dignity expressed in the work and pride and good humor that needs to be preserved on film. This is what I am working to show in my Eye & Hand series.
Why did you move from the publishing industry to “very independent” filmmaking? Was there an allure to working in a visual and sound-based medium that attracted you?
After book publishing for more than 30 years it was time to get into my vault of images and memories and see if I could make sense of the accumulation. The technical challenges in making films were somewhat overcome, but my focus was on content with a continuing interest in passions.
With the explosion in amateur film making (due to cheaper digital video cameras, YouTube, Netflix DVD rentals, etc.), do you think your audience has developed a better, more educated appreciation to the art now that the “vocabulary” of film is so pervasive?
This is a transitional period analogous to the desktop publishing of several years ago and is driven by the fascination with technology, and its easy accessibility. The long-term value will be positive. Audiences will have easy access to personal and substantive films, made to professional standards. I remain a fascinated observer.
[Doing the Don’t: An Evening with Elliott Sharp & Friends: 11/20/08]