Elliott Sharp does not believe in categories or conventions. It's not that he's trying to be rebellious. He's just very curious -- the kind of tinkerer who built a short-wave radio as a kid -- and smart enough not to be deterred by artificial distinctions.
On Thursday, the 61-year-old composer/guitarist will give a solo performance at Walker Art Center drawing on two CDs he recorded in response to a book, "Warped Passages" by Lisa Randall, that he calls "a compendium of current thought in post-quantum physics and the state of string theory (no pun intended!)."
Sounds like a real crowd-pleaser. And in a way, it is. The opening song sounds like a back-porch picker seized by a melody that spirals and returns like a helix, and gradually acquires a subtle blues texture. "Inverted Fields," played with an electronic bow on the eight strings of his hybrid "guitarbass," woozes and yowls like acrid smoke dissolving into the air.
Sharp's two-disc "Octal" project is obviously quite different from the music he plays in Terraplane, a group that once featured iconic bluesman Hubert Sumlin, or the string quartets, film scores and avant garde "noise music" he creates.
In fact, he's worked with a ridiculous array of musicians, ranging from such rockers as Sonic Youth and singer Debbie Harry, to jazz greats such as Jack DeJohnette, to the legendary Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and classical music's groundbreaking Kronos Quartet.
A film biography, called "Doing the Don't," highlights how pervasive his circle of collaborators has become. Guitar Player magazine listed him in its "Dirty Thirty" of musical trailblazers.
Sharp immersed himself in the New York City scene in the late 1970s after studying music at Cornell, Bard and the University of Buffalo.
"I immediately learned you had to work to survive," he said by phone. "I wanted to distance myself from the notion of the composer sitting off to one side -- I wanted to perform, too. So I plugged away. I had a Fender bass and could read music so I could get gigs backing up people.
"I worked at a disco in the daytime and then went and practiced at a loft, worked with a dance company for two hours, then backed up a singer for two hours at a restaurant, then went and played with another band at an after-hours gig.
"So you do all this work to survive and work your own music, but you also end up with that work feeding your own vision. I think that sweat equity is an important component. I tried to play like [jazz guitarists] John McLaughlin and Joe Pass; I wanted to know how to make that sound. Of course I've never come close. But the experience was helpful."
Music + math
Then there is the scientific side of Sharp's brain. He grew up in Cleveland, where his father designed speakers and microphones. Already grounded in music from studying classical piano at age 6, he built a short-wave receiver at 11 and began experimenting with layers of noise.
Later he would link music and mathematics. Some compositions, he said, use algorithmic approaches "derived from the workings of recombinant RNA and the dynamics of bird flocking and wolf packs."
He was also among the first musicians to deploy computers. The last of his three solo sets at the Walker will include "additional electronics and more free-ranging improvisation," he said.
In the liner notes to disc 2 of "Octal," Sharp says these solo pieces are his most personal work -- "It is the most direct route, from your brain to sound."
As we are talking, the voices of two children could be heard in the background. It turns out they are Sharp's 6-year-old twins.
"When I first met my wife [in 1991], she told me we were going to have kids someday," he says.
Fathering children at 55 seems consonant with his unconventional approach toward music. So does the conversation he is having when we sign off: Instructing his crying daughter to go get her brother so they can all figure out a way to track down her lost barrette.