INTERVIEW: Chris Sharkey – (new album The Orchid & The Wasp)

Chris Sharkey
Photo credit: Alex Bonney

The new CD from experimental guitarist and electronic artist CHRIS SHARKEY & creative drummer MARK SANDERS is a 50-minute live recording that challenges expectations about improvised music and instrumentation. AJ Dehany asked Sharkey about the project’s rich development and realization:

London Jazz News: How would you explain what The Orchid and the Wasp is?

Chris Sharkey: There are a few different ways of experiencing/explaining The Orchid and The Wasp:

1 – It’s an unedited live recording of Mark Sanders and I improvising
2 – It’s a culmination of a 6 month artistic residency where I attempted to construct a new language to make music with
3 – It’s my humble attempt to bring something new to the table to the field of music
4 – It’s a political statement about the importance of new ideas and systems; and the dangers of permanent nostalgia
5 – It’s me fulfilling a dream of making music with Mark who has been one of my heroes since first seeing him play at the Red Rose Club in Finsbury park 16 years ago and I hope this project marks the beginning of a long musical relationship
6 – It’s a conceptual, self-produced, world-building exercise that constitutes one of the most satisfying musical experiences of my career.

The Orchid and the Wasp album cover
Photo: Ruby Gaunt 

LJN: Where does the title come from?

CS: The title comes from Deleuze & Guattari’s book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. In it, they use the example of the orchid and the wasp to describe their concept of ‘rhizome’: A non-hierarchical, lateral structure with no fixed centre.

The wasp relies on the orchid for nourishment and in turn the wasp becomes part of the orchid’s reproductive system by spreading its pollen. In order to survive the wasp must, in a sense, become the orchid and vice-versa and this is shown in the evolutionary physical mimicry of certain flowers to certain insects. This blurring or, as Deleuze and Guattari would put it, ‘becoming’ of these two organisms calls into question the whole idea of the self and how the world and everything in it, is structured.

Two improvisors also form a rhizome and in this piece we explore the idea of ‘becoming’ as our sounds intertwine and become indistinguishable from one another. As we give ourselves over to this, the music is able to grow in new and unpredictable ways leading us to fresh and unexplored ground.

LJN:  And some of the concepts also stem from the work of the critic and  theorist Mark Fisher (1968-2017)…. 

CS: The video (see below) goes some way toward explaining the concepts behind the piece but the starting point was wondering why I’m so attracted to ‘new’ things. For me there’s nothing more exciting than hearing music that just perplexes me. It’s like someone opening a door to a world you didn’t even know about. And when that music is being made right now in the world it just makes me feel like the world is turning a little bit faster! It’s like the ultimate form of optimism. I think it’s the same thing that has always drawn me toward improvisation.

Fisher writes about new forms being harder to come by due to the feeling of stasis in politics and culture. This brings a political element to the process of making new music that is empowering to me as a musician who has felt a growing sense of impotency toward social and political development and change over the last decade.

While I feel that these sense of development and innovation has always been present in my work, I wanted to explicitly put that drive front and centre with the project. I wanted to push past the familiar and really dig deep to find some new methods and approaches.

LJN: How did your conceptual and political thinking intersect with developing the performance?

CS: So this is where Deleuze and Guattari (D+G) come in. Reading more about Fisher I found out that D+G were big influences so I got stuck into A Thousand Plateaus. To me, the cosmology of that book with it’s rich imagery and unusual and abstract structure and concepts (including the rhizome, de-territorialisation, re-territorialisation, lines of flight, the planes of consistency and immanence and nomad science and thought) perfectly described the creative act as I have experienced it as an artist. The crucial thing here though was, rather than it all just being ‘magic’ and chance, D+G seemed to be offering a manual on how to retrain your brain or reconsider how the world works in order to allow the kind of lateral, open thinking that allows new ideas to form.

So it was with a head full of these ideas and images that I began the residency at Chapel FM in Leeds. I allowed myself to follow ideas ‘libidinally’ and charged past the normal comfortable creative spaces. I put the guitar down and focused on the laptop using sampling as a form of de-territorialisation to break me away from the fretboard and muscle-memory.

I went down weird rabbit holes and dead ends and didn’t care (along the way I made 4 hours of ‘studies’ based on various techniques I discovered). I learned about synthesis, programming, triggering audio with midi and vice versa. My only rule: ‘If it feels weird or uncomfortable it must be right.’

Pretty soon I began feeling like improvising with these invented digital instruments was as expressive or even more expressive than playing the guitar which was when I started inviting Mark to come up and play with me. Toward the end of the residency we worked together to fine-tune the system to allow for the greatest amount of freedom and number of possibilities for the performance.

LJN: It’s intricately textured; how do you achieve this effect?

CS: The orchestration and blend of the acoustic and electronic sounds is probably key here so it’s a combination of pre-planning and quick-fire improvisation. I developed a method of playing the computer where I could have access to many sounds simultaneously without relying on anything pre-recorded or looped. This creates a deep, layered effect, which was vital as the aspiration of the piece was to present a complete world. It’s not just an improvisation. Improvisation is simply the method we used to create something together.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

The Orchid and the Wasp is available on Bandcamp

Categories: Features/Interviews

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