Bill Sharp/Biota (1994)
By Beppe Colli
March 8, 2005
It was about twenty years ago that I listened to an LP by the music/visual
collective named Mnemonists for the first time. Horde was quite unlike
anything I had ever heard before, and it made for a mysterious and sometimes
puzzling listening experience. Almost at the same time, I bought Rackabones
(1985), a double album released under the name Biota, an offshoot of
Mnemonists. The interesting essay which appeared in Volume 1, Issue
# 3, of the ReR Quarterly was very helpful in making me develop a better
understanding of the complex work needed to accomplish such dense results.
Bellowing Room (1987) was a brilliant follow-up. But it was by then
that I started noticing that all the reviews I read (there were not
a lot of them, by the way) were extremely vague - "like having
six turntables on at the same time" or "imagine putting a
shell to your ear", and the like. I seemed to detect a kind of
evolution in the following albums - Tinct (1988), the 10" Awry
(1988), Tumble (1989, their first CD), Almost Never (1992). I started
thinking about doing an interview with the group. So, after my review
(plus brief profile) of Almost Never appeared in the Italian magazine
Musiche (issue 13 dated Summer/Winter 1992), to which I contributed,
I proceeded with my plan.
I asked for an interview with a letter dated February 25, 1993. Having
received the green light, I sent my questions with a letter dated May
25, 1993. The questions were written on tiny pieces of paper, to be
read sequentially. Since it was my intention for the interview to resemble
a live conversation, the questions were quite verbose. Bill Sharp answered
them, sending the text with a letter dated March 11, 1994. I asked for
a clarification to question # 4, which I received in a letter dated
July 14, 1994, the two parts appearing below in different characters.
Unfortunately, it was at about that time that Musiche and this writer
parted ways, so the interview remained unpublished till Chris Blackford
decided to print it on his Rubberneck magazine (UK). The interview ran
in the issue #20, December 1995, under the title "Openness, Density,
Mystery and Wonder... The Strange Case of Biota", at about the
same time the group's new CD, Object Holder, was being released. In
fact, it should be noticed that I read the long answer about the new
album - still untitled at the time I had sent my questions - for the
first time in Rubberneck.
I have to admit that I was not too happy with Object Holder, and for
many reasons. First, I thought that the vocal parts - as it's only natural
in this case - were distracting, and that they tipped the balance away
from the instrumental mystery. Of course, the fact that the chosen singer
(Susanne Lewis) was the one I like the least (for reasons of intonation,
phrasing, vocal attitude, etc.) didn't help. Though beautiful, Chuck
Vrtacek's piano made me feel sometimes like I was suddenly listening
to a different record, the same thing happening when Chris Cutler's
drums appeared along the singer's voice - what was that, a Thinking
I corresponded again with Bill Sharp, and his comments about the soon-to-be-released
new CD (later to be titled Invisible Map, released in 2001) appear as
a kind of P.S. to the main text.
I hope this interview - and the availability of many of the titles discussed
on CD - will make readers curious to listen to this (sometimes difficult,
always intelligent) music. I can only say that I find the fact of Mnemonists/Biota
being so unknown quite puzzling. Could it be that they have moved against
the main current of (glitch-, laptop-based) modern electronic music?
Could it be that their record company (after being on their own label,
they have released about everything on UK's ReR Records) never had any
serious advertising muscle to start a trend? Whatever.
Could you talk about Mnemonists? How they got together, their influences,
Mnemonist Orchestra came together in March 1979 as a group of friends
from different backgrounds & training: musicians, visual artists
and scientists. We were initially interested in the possibilities of
spontaneous interaction amongst this diverse group in a live studio
setting - a single event of sonic overload, loosely directed. Conceptually,
we were questioning the effects (largely negative) of technological
bombardment on young children. But more importantly, in retrospect,
we were interested in environmental stimuli as both content and form.
Though our present-day compositions are structured very differently
(i.e., slowly and methodically) this attitude toward environmental sources
remains with us. It grew partially from our respect for the musique
concrete tradition and partially from film. We were influenced by directors
who had drawn sound sources from location environments and transformed
them into musical information for soundtrack use. Lynch and Splet's
work in Elephant Man is a good example of this. In the film, they amplify
normal background to such a degree that it effectively becomes bigger
than life, more organized than random. And thus, more music than noise.
What strikes me every time I listen to a record like Horde is the
acoustic - as opposed to electronic - nature of the work - a characteristic
which has remained a feature of Biota. A conscious decision, of course.
Could you talk about this? (In my opinion it doesn't resemble pioneers
like Vladimir Ussachevsky or Otto Luening - maybe a bit Tod Dockstader
or people like Schaeffer, the French musique concrete school.)
Our work involves electronic processes, but the compositions are built
with acoustic source material. Achieving a mysterious ambiguity between
the two elements is a challenge that has attracted us from Horde onward
to our present work. We hope to retain the human-played characteristics
of the acoustic parts while at the same time transforming them in important
ways. Tone color and temporal variables can certainly be severely altered
in the studio environment, and such experimentation does go back in
history to the earliest recording media manipulations. Today, the techniques
are in widespread use, both in and out of the music mainstream.
In keeping with Mnemonist tradition, Biota today works very methodically,
gradually building arrangements from multiple acoustic sources, some
of which are electronically treated at an early stage. These arrangements
are then intertwined in lengthy linear development. Along the way, the
played source parts are themselves played in a second generation of
performance tied to the active mixdown process. The procedure is a fluid
one, incorporating elements of careful forethought and of spontaneity.
And it is full of surprises and unforeseen opportunities for the composers.
In the old ReR Quarterly essay, you defined your work as "programmatic,
pictorial, emotional". Even if your ideas have changed, talking
about the Horde period: at about 3/4 of Side One there is something
which sounds like a tracked vehicle and a machine gun that starts shooting.
Now, by your abovementioned definition, was your intention for the listener
to say "Here starts the battle", as opposed to "That
envelope is pretty peculiar"?
Yes, "here starts the battle"... or any one of an endless
number of possible interpretations, each unique to the individual listener.
But, yes, excepting the special case of music practitioners who might
see such manipulation in technical terms, our sound is intended to work
at an emotional level. All music, for that matter, operates primarily
on emotion, even if some composers are unwilling to admit it. Throughout
the production of Horde, I as co-composer felt that the retention of
this mystery of source and process would ultimately encourage in the
listeners a personal interpretation of the activity in the space.
More recently with Almost Never, we have revealed in writing the identity
of the sound sources that contribute to specific passages, an action
that would seem to contradict the goals I've just explained. Yet, given
the obscurity of these sources' roles in many situations, this added
knowledge may in fact provoke the listener to peer more deeply into
the environments in order to sort out the action occurring there. The
listener's involvement in this way as a co-composer is important to
Here's the reason why of the preceding question: Usually, the less
determined, the more open-ended is the "meaning" of a piece
of music (by "meaning" I mean its internal organization) the
more the listener is given the freedom - and the responsibility - to
find his/her own meaning. The danger I find in this situation (I've
seen a couple of reviews that were guilty of this) is that since a piece
can have many "emotional meanings", but no overt, conventional,
musical meaning, there is the danger for it to become a new form of
easy listening, of wallpaper music, albeit for a minority audience.
This issue has always been of great concern to us. The music must balance
precariously; it must be sufficiently open to personally involve the
listener via his/her memory & present experience, yet it must also
be carefully structured and developed in order to give purpose to the
listener's efforts. If the structure is adequately compelling,
the music can avoid being purely "background" or "wallpaper".
It can convey a certainty of purpose - that it is not arbitrary or accidental,
and that it is worth the listener's energy.
Regarding question #4, I think I understand your point to be: Regardless
of whether or not there actually is an internal logic (or formal structure)
present in a piece of music, the listener may indeed come to the conclusion
that there is a conscious organization. Thus, as composers increasingly
leave the structure open to listener resolution, they (the composers)
correspondingly relinquish their responsibility as composers.
I agree. This dilemma presents an important challenge: composers must,
over time, develop and refine a language of substance, yet in order
to effectively reach the listener, composers must seek that listener's
participation beyond the level of purely surface enjoyment. The language,
therefore, must be both innovative and approachable. It must,
like Sun Ra and Beefheart, embody tradition yet threaten to leave that
tradition behind, pulling the perplexed listener along.
Since I imagine readers are not familiar with the Quarterly essay,
would you mind talking about the way you used to work the studio circa
As I hinted at before, the arrangements were built from purely acoustic
performances. By this I mean the playing of both literally acoustic
and acoustic-electric instruments, such as guitars and organs, in a
natural space. In the case of Bellowing Room, these performances occurred
variously in solo and small ensemble contexts.
The instrumental parts, as well as field environmental recordings, were
subjected to subsequent levels of electronic processing and combining
(sub-mixdowns). I suspect that the peculiar density of Bellowing Room
and other Biota works may be due, at least in part, to the formation
of these periodic submixes which are themselves combined in a final
mix to create a yet more massive ensemble. At numerous points along
the way, there is opportunity for electronic mutation and tape editing.
In my profile I made a conjectural hypothesis about what I retrospectively
perceive as a move from a pictorial dimension to a state where sounds
start to be assembled in a way that begins to resemble a "language".
The pictorial emphasis was never abandoned in our work, even to present
day, where it receives primary consideration. But the language you identify
is perhaps the very organization, or structural fabric, that I referred
to earlier as giving purpose to the pictorial or narrative development.
Over the years, we have accumulated techniques that are no doubt woven
into this fabric, not always consciously, but ultimately in a way that
gives our music a stylistic identity. As we refine it, the language
of our composition is hopefully becoming more compelling, without overwhelming
the underlying mystery and thus the invitation to the listener for personal
At the time of Early Rest Home you worked all together in the studio,
but since Awry the drums have been recorded in another studio. I can
speculate about the reasons, but I'd like to know more - and the order
in which the tracks are recorded now.
We have customarily built compositions from a variety of performance
settings, both solo and ensemble. And the source parts have been recorded
using a wide range of techniques. The drum work done in outside studios
has been both a technically interesting and logistically convenient
recording variation for us. Many of our source drum kit recordings since
Bellowing Room have employed a useful acoustical separation between
the many kit components. We've been able to achieve more interesting
variations on this by experimenting both inside and outside of our own
We often record the drum kit and other essential rhythmic variables
early in a composition's development... but not always. For example,
our most recent pieces incorporate dense passages that were built up
from both extremes as starting points - from delicate solo piano or
accordion performances to roaming drum kit work. So there is no rule
of assembly order.
In my opinion Tumble was in a sense a turning point, though with
hindsight, the second side of Bellowing Room, some stuff on Tinct, and
the reduced length of the tracks in Awry seem to point in a certain
direction. What was the aesthetical reason for the introduction of overt
jazz elements on Tinct and of American popular music on Tumble?
There was never a clearly calculated decision to introduce any specific
jazz, folk or rock element - as a genre element - into the music. We
are a collection of diverse listeners, and, at heart, we're tied in
important ways to what we've learned and enjoyed from others over the
years. I don't believe any musician can detach her/himself from such
history. What has variously revealed or obscured our influences has
been the evolution of our own peculiar language of assembly, as you
identified earlier. But I'm confident that each of our finished compositions
houses most, if not all, of these ghosts from our past. In retrospect,
we have often taken pleasure in the intracompositional shifts, whether
devious or abrupt, between these various stylistic or period forms.
If there is one general, underlying narrative thread that ties all of
our works together, it is the concept of travel - of observational flight
over historical time and over geographical distance.
At first, personnel and instruments were listed collectively. Starting
with Tinct we know who played what. With Almost Never we know the instruments
track by track. Why did you decide to make each member's contribution
This more conventional method of crediting performance should give listeners
more direct information about interaction within the group (for example,
specialization versus overlap among the players). And I think, given
the present sampling technology, that it is important to clarify that
group personnel actually play all the instrumental parts that
go into the mix.
With Almost Never, we reveal something more about the development of
the compositions by listing the acoustic sources from which each subsection
is built. If desired, the listener can attempt to sort out any differences
between what is expected and what is perceived. It can be argued that
some of the mystery of the process is lost, but, if so, I think new
mysteries are created when such clues are revealed.
At the time of the ReR Quarterly article it was said that all Biota
members operated both as players of the source instruments and as players
of the electronic processors, but now it seems that there is a sharper
distinction between the two roles. Am I right?
The personnel credits on projects released since the Quarterly might
indicate increased specialization among the players but, in fact, the
duties have remained about the same. I, for instance, tend to spend
more time with electronics and related engineering concerns, but at
various stages of tracking and mixdown other players are also engaged
in electronic manipulations, often in real-time as players.
I'd like to know if, from the point of view of the visual possibilities
it offered, you mourn the demise of the LP.
Absolutely. It is likely that some visual pieces that directly apply
to our sound activities will simply not reproduce adequately at CD size.
This dilemma has already surfaced as we try to adapt earlier LP packages
for CD reissue. But, for the future, we certainly look forward to designing
visual packages around the format's many possibilities.
Intricacy of line and color, presented densely in the tiny format, can
be highly involving for the viewer yet difficult to plumb. In this way,
I find the format very appropriate in conjunction with the sound component
of our projects.
A very banal question: who are the artists you feel more sympathetic
with? And why?
If you have the visual arts in mind, that's a particularly difficult
question to answer. I would say that influences on the group from visual
art history are even more diverse than those from music.
For me personally, two filmmakers immediately come to mind: the Quay
Brothers. Their meticulously structured environments, and the remarkable
density of details populating these spaces, are certainly something
I can sympathize with. The Quays' work is a model of that delicate balance
I spoke of earlier - between openness, mystery and wonder (for the viewer)
and structural refinement (for the composer). There is a compelling
intentionality present in their stories, yet the characters & narrative
can effectively belong to the viewer's personal world. It is important
to clarify here that I am not advocating escapism. Rather, a refined
approach that draws the viewer (or listener) into a collaboration with
the composer. Communication, not alienation, is the result.
Elsewhere, I feel Max Ernst was a master at achieving this state in
a variety of media, not just during one inspired period but throughout
his working lifetime. Perhaps most exceptional, he never sacrificed
innovation in the process.
This might sound like an I.R.S. question: since your records don't
sell a lot one wonders about your day jobs - especially since, given
the kind of music you play, in your case records are not a presentation
in order to do live gigs.
Our day jobs are the typical mix one might expect. They can be a nuisance
to group work, but they do help us to meet all sorts of expenses so
that, ultimately, the musical work can continue. In taking on the costs
of building our own studio, we've also seen the benefits of being able
to compose in that environment, at our own pace and with an eye
on the clock.
Outside, we've been graphic artists, salespeople, journalists, waiters
& cooks & bakers, students & teachers, curators, engineers,
scientists, and ushers. The I.R.S. is still trying to sort it all out!
Something about your next CD?
We began work on Object Holder in early 1991, completing it in the fall
of last year. It proved to be our most involved and labor-intensive
project; four years later we remain enthused, so the signs are good.
Susanne Lewis (of Kissyfur, Hail, Thinking Plague) joined us for the
work, so we enjoyed the challenge of a natural human voice - a change
we welcome; this in contrast to our processing non-vocal instruments
to serve a human voice function in the mix.
Rejoining us is Chuck Vrtacek of Forever Einstein and solo fame. We've
long felt his piano is the perfect element to offset our typical density
and to provide incentive to just back off a bit once in a while. Spatial
processing - setting up the environments for the listener - has always
been of great concern to us. So it's good to have the discipline of
working up from the delicate, refined solo performances such as Chuck's.
And on the topic of welcome challenges for us spatially-oriented types,
Chris Cutler is in the Object Holder line-up with his "electrics".
These pick-ups, applied to traditional and found percussion, have inherent
to their sound the most fantastic, in-your-cranium, claustrophobic quality.
When you take them out into the expanse from there the results can get
Other acoustic sources new to the mix for Object Holder include the
rubab, a Central Asian fretted instrument with resonant head, and the
nae, a Thai "double" reed shawm that actually employs six
reeds in a leafy arrangement of three cane layers on each half of the
mouthpiece. We've also greatly expanded the roles for various electric
guitars, accordion, and hurdy-gurdy on this project. In all, we're optimistic
there'll be a few surprises and, hopefully, a sense of evolution in
store for the listeners/viewers.
I almost forgot! What's a Marxophone?
Ah, yes, one of the surprises of our last project. I'm glad you're giving
us time to explain because the beast will make yet more appearances
in the new work. The Marxophone is indeed real - a "hobby"
instrument that time forgot. Manufactured by the Oscar Schmidt Company
in (we think) the 1930s, it's a curious autoharp-like thing with 15
spring loaded hammers that bounce on the strings. There are also additional
open strings for strumming or plucking.
In our new compositions, you'll also hear the Hawaiian Tremoloa, a cousin
of the Marxophone made by the same company at about the same time period
(we think). It's a truly oddball invention. Again based on the autoharp
body, it has open strings for strumming, plus one baffling feature:
a single tunable string stretched between two bridges that is played
with a combination metal slide and thumb pick attached to a jointed,
pivoting metal arm. The player simultaneously plucks, frets and bends
the note with this contraption.
The new work will also features the Clavioline. One of the first vacuum
tube electronic keyboards, it was built by the U.S. guitar-maker Gibson
in France in the early 1950s. It has 18 two-position switches, or "stops",
that combine to modify the sound. The small keyboard mounts on a sort
of telescoping camera tripod that was intended to be positioned in front
of the standard acoustic piano keyboard, allowing both to be played
simultaneously. A veritable "orchestra at your fingertips",
as the Clavioline owner's manual proclaims.
11 December 1998 + 15 June 1999 Additions, all intended for publication
Since the release of Object Holder in 1995, Biota has managed to move
the entire studio to a new location. Our work on the follow-up to Object
Holder proceeds in these new headquarters. It's in the hills surrounding
the city. A different environment than the Mulberry Street studio -
preferable in some ways.
We feel this new sound environment (the technology, the acoustics, and
the setting - the physical surroundings) has influenced the musical
outcome. Not so surprising, I guess, since our compositional and performance
process is so intimately tied to the studio. Individual instrumental
parts were often developed outside of this setting, but their roles
only became clear when the studio production - the arrangements, the
processing, the mixing - were underway. Perhaps listeners will detect
a different albeit intangible "sound" relative to Object Holder
and the earlier work.
This bring to mind your question about the light in which we view our
For me (and probably others in the group) it is the same light as I
view the present. I really don't make any distinctions between the old
and the new, other than to note overt characteristics that are the product
of our natural evolution. (For example, changes from project to project
in our treatment and emphasis of the human voice.) From a producer's
perspective, the core of our philosophy toward the sound studio has
not changed since the early years. We still compose, record, mutate,
and assemble the sounds in similar fashion. I don't believe we ever
abandoned our past - including the Mnemonist Orchestra years. But I'm
close to the process itself, so my perspective is biased.
As for comments on the new Biota CD project, nearing completion:
This will indeed be an extension and development of our Object Holder
approach - a natural evolution. Very tuneful, with the usual diversity
of historical references and odd instrumentation. The guitars and accordion
are joined by nae (Thai shawm), Hurdy-Gurdy, vintage pump organ, vintage
Clavioline (ref. Ra and ZNR), the trusty Marxophone, various bowed strings,
and Vrtacek's piano. Our singer/violinist is Genevieve Heistek, of Montreal.
The program will be lengthy, and likely max out a single CD.
The new work, begun in 1995, is Biota's second project to emphasize
the human voice. Like Object Holder, there is a blend of natural voice
and instrumental parts subtly processed to serve a vocal function. But
the focus is on the immediacy and the direct emotional connection provided
by a naturally sung part. This is the project's link with folk musics,
along with the utilization of traditional song structures and associated
instrumentation. Ideally, this familiarity works at a somewhat subversive
level to draw the listener into what is really a series of unorthodox
So our loosely programmatic, film-like presentation is retained, with
the settings favoring the embracing, unifying role of music in tradition.
We are striving for an historical, even sentimental perspective that
will invite the listener into the compositional process. As a result,
I suspect these new tunes will seem outwardly conventional to some listeners
- but deceptively so.
© Beppe Colli 1994 - 2005
CloudsandClocks.net | March 8, 2005