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Previewing the US Premiere of Elliott Sharp's "Die Grösste Fuge"

Updated: Jun 6

By Alkis Karmpaliotis

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of AppreciateOpera.org

 

On Thursday, June 13, 2024, at 8 PM, at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, New York, the experimental composer and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp will present the US Premiere of his opera Die Grösste Fuge (The Greatest Fugue), a “time-travel opera” that imagines an aged Ludwig van Beethoven, completely deaf, composing one of his final works, Die Grösse Fuge (The Great Fugue). With music and libretto by Sharp, the piece features bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood as Beethoven, the DGF String Quartet, and projection design by Janene Higgins.


Sharp recalled falling in love with Die Grösse Fuge while listening to the Cleveland Quartet perform a complete cycle of Beethoven quartets while he was a graduate student in Buffalo between 1974 and 1976. In 2020, a festival promoter in Bonn, Germany, was looking for a piece to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, and immediately, Sharp decided to create a speculative fiction opera based on Die Grösse Fuge. Throughout the opera, Beethoven endures several “fugue” states, in which he travels to the future and back, catching glimpses of the horrors and beauties of the world to come. Overcome by these visions, he creates Die Grösse Fuge, a futuristic piece that breaks the rules of music and bends them to the verge of destruction.


Using MIDI files and the notation software Sibelius, Sharp isolated and remixed elements and patterns from Beethoven’s original score to create an original piece infused by Beethoven’s music. “You can detect the DNA, but it still sounds like how I write music,” said Sharp. He used a similar method while crafting the libretto, taking words from Beethoven’s correspondences, as well as texts by Goethe and Schiller, then rearranging them and combining them with his own. For example, one of the songs in the opera contains the line, “Music is like a dream. A dream that I can see but one that I cannot hear,” a quote which is attributed to Beethoven. Die Grösste Fuge premiered in Bonn in 2021 in German but has since been translated into English for the New York performance.


Sharp is renowned for his versatility, having composed and performed everything from jazz to electronic music to opera. He does not maintain one particular style; rather, his music constantly evolves and adapts to the times. “A lot of people these days confuse style with genre, so composers are expected to do one thing only,” he remarks. “I feel that the core identity of a composer is much deeper than just the ornamental layer of the form the music takes, and if you analyze them on a deep level, you will find that the things that define a composer’s style come through. In my case, whether I’m playing blues or doing electronic music or composing operas, I try to stay true to my vision.”  This versatility stems from his appreciation of a wide variety of music, including that of Bach, Beethoven, Iannis Xenakis, John Coltrane, and Jimi Hendrix, as well as North African musicians, who he cites as just a few of his many musical influences. “There’s a common element in the intensity, saturation, and passion in their music, mixed with a great cerebral quality,” noted Sharp.

Elliott Sharp (Portrait by Andreas Sterzing)

Sharp is also known for his incorporation of mathematical and scientific concepts into his music, pioneering applications of fractal geometry, chaos theory, and pattern recognition into composition. He credits this to his lifelong interest in science and science fiction. In fact, Sharp originally started as a scientist, and he was even awarded a Ford Future Scientists of America Fellowship to work as a scientist's assistant at Carnegie Mellon during high school. However, his passion for music quickly took over, and he would spend much of his time in the lab experimenting with various materials to produce different sounds on his guitar. He went on to attend Cornell University, where he studied anthropology, which he describes as “a common denominator of human knowledge that allowed [him] to focus on more specific different paths after.” In college, he learned to play the blues, country music, jazz, and a wide assortment of other musical genres. He identifies his mastery of improvisation as a turning point in his career, saying, “Through improvisation, I began to understand what it was like to ‘enter the zone’.” 

Elliott Sharp (Photo by Bob Krasner)

Sharp’s experimental approach to composition shines through in Die Grösste Fuge, both in the music and also in the libretto and staging. Psychedelic images, accompanied by haunting vibrations from the strings, constantly linger above Beethoven as he becomes further unmoored from reality; moreover, the piece contains several moments of extreme agony, underlined by intense tremolos from the ensemble and dynamic singing by Isherwood.


Sharp first met Isherwood in 2012 when he saw the bass-baritone perform in concert and later invited him to take on the role of Walter Benjamin in his opera Port Bou. “Nicholas has a very grave and stentorian quality and is a very charismatic singer,” noted Sharp. “He’s also not afraid of extended techniques: he can be singing in a weird little falsetto and still sound that he is there with incredible gravitas. While someone else might make it comical, he makes it filled with pathos.” Sharp went on to compose the role of Beethoven in Die Grösste Fuge with Isherwood’s voice in mind. “I like to call music ‘psychoacoustic chemical change’,” Sharp said with a smile, “and I think your chemicals will be excited by it.”

Nicholas Isherwood in "Die Grösste Fuge"

Janene Higgins, Sharp’s longtime artistic collaborator — and life partner — provides the set and staging of the piece. Using a combination of video, still images, and motion design, Higgins builds an alternate universe to fit the tone of Sharp’s drama, constructing “a parallel narrative arc to go with each section in the piece.” This provides the final piece of the puzzle to Sharp’s opera, connecting the music, libretto, and visuals into one cohesive work. “Janene is great at finding subtext and commentary in her images,” remarks Sharp. “It’s rarely literal, and it is truly contrapuntal.”


Having seen and listened to the German version online, I strongly encourage readers to check and attend the performance on June 13, 2024, at 8 PM at Roulette Intermedium. Experimental composers like Sharp truly drive the art form forward with fresh ideas and exciting new concepts — and opera cannot survive without them. As Sharp says, “You keep one foot in the past, one foot in the future, and that keeps you in the ever-present now.”

 

My name is Alkis Karmpaliotis, and I'm a Junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. I hope you enjoyed this article. You can support my work by becoming a member and reading some of my other articles!

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 "You keep one foot in the past, one foot in the future, and that keeps you in the ever-present now...” -

the sole secret to long lasting happiness and creativity! Looking forward to seeing Die Grösste Fuge.


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