An interview with
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Unfortunately, it was at about that time that Musiche and this writer parted ways, so the interview remained unpublished till Chris Blackford decided to print it on his Rubberneck magazine (UK).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 Plague CD?

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, backgrounds, aims?

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 us.

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 Bellowing Room?

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". Your opinion?

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 interpretations.

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 studio.

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 apparent?

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 pretty interesting.

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 earlier work.

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 environments.

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 | March 8, 2005