Chris Sharp describes his day-to-day as “planting seeds.” It’s a pleasingly biological description of his role as contemporary music programmer at London’s the Barbican Centre, where he uses his intimidatingly comprehensive knowledge of modern alternative music to propagate gigs and happenings that are often unique, largely weird, and always interesting.
When asked for a favorite example of disparate threads being pulled together to create something magical, Chris cites the 2014 performance LOOP>>60Hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra. It was a collaboration between the legendary John Cale and Liam Young. John, explains Chris, “built drones that were both transmitting and receiving devices, with loudspeakers on them. He could send signals to the drone and the drone could fly around the auditorium and make sounds. That was one of those things where you think: ‘No one else could have done this,’” he grins. “We could afford to do it and I’m encouraged to take risks.”
Contemporary Classical Composer Roger Goula’s piece ‘Something about Silence’
Chris’ bookings often push classical listeners out of their comfort zone—this being just one of them.
“Some people don’t really love music; they love what they think music says about them.”
A Manchester native, he attended Oxford before spending a few months in a pub with independent music publicist Chris Carr. They’d sit together, buying drinks, dishing out CDs to music-press freelancers and forging relationships. He then rose through the ranks of the British record industry at labels like Rough Trade and XL. In 1999 he became managing director of 4AD, presiding over the reinvention of the label and overseeing some of the best releases of the noughties—Scott Walker, TV on the Radio, Bon Iver and Blonde Redhead all achieved critical and commercial success under his tenure.
The artists that play the Barbican tend to be artistically confrontational, but rarely totally anarchic. Mainly funded by the City of London, with plenty of public engagement targets, it follows that the Barbican operates within the framework of the UK’s arts establishments rather than the pub-gig promotions circuit. When, for example, bands with political, protest or punk histories play, they tend to be those that have been canonised due to their involvement in a wider cultural movement, and have ageing audiences who will pay a premium to see a show in comfort. Suicide, who played their final gig at the Barbican in July 2015, before Alan Vega’s death this year, is a prescient example.
A sampling of the diverse mix of artists selected by Chris
The interplay of these elements has sometimes resulted in Barbican-goers being labelled as sonic snobs. Bands like Jaga Jazzist, a Norwegian jazz collective, always bring the concrete house down.
“The word I would use is enthusiasts,” Sharp contends. “For people who don’t work in the business, for whom the inner workings of the business are invisible, they just see or hear something and respond to it with excitement and interest.”
Enthusiasts, then. But where did they come from? Who are these people that love ambient noise, drone rock and sitting down?
“There is an increasing audience for what I would call non-classical, serious-listening music. I feel that they are people that grew up on techno and electronica. They are really interested in music that is crafted, has structure, and is possibly largely instrumental. They like music which is kind of serious and has a bit of gravitas and is moving and intelligent but doesn’t come with the baggage of traditional classical music and its audience.”
It is here, discussing the listening journeys of music fans, that Sharp becomes his most eloquent. “People who love music are not closed-minded,” he says. “Some people don’t really love music; they love what they think music says about them. But most people who really love music, they abandon their genre-identity stuff quite early on.”
“There are people in London who deserve the opportunity to come hear the music that they value from their cultures.”
Although Sharp believes that the increasing “pan-discoverability” of all music can prompt the needless enshrinement of genre narratives, there is now an opportunity for disruptive industry forces like sometimes-Barbican-collaborators Boiler Room to harness the power of these changes in music consumption. “Anything that preserves surprise or delight in music is a good thing,” he says.
Sharp proffers this statement unguarded, and would likely be mortified to have it likened to his own work. But, ‘surprise and delight’ could be seen as the only consistent qualities across the Barbican’s diverse programme—one that will as happily host cult-mongering techno hero Actress as it will a celebration of Rough Trade’s post-punk heyday featuring Scritti Politti.
The institution also devotes considerable attention to non-western music, with the curatorial reasoning often being that of simple generosity.
“I do quite a lot of Arabic music,” says Sharp. “This is because I want to loosely express a bit of solidarity with the Middle East, but also because there are people in London who deserve the opportunity to come and listen to music that they value from their cultures.
“It’s not so much for me about getting western ‘world music’ audiences to come and listen to things, although I’m very happy if they want to. But I feel that if you’ve got a bunch of Syrians and Lebanese people whose lives will be faintly improved by coming to listen to something that they like, somewhere like this, then we should do that.”
It’s heartening to see people like Sharp working at cultural institutions, and not just at record labels, gig venues, music websites and promotions companies. And as contemporary music becomes ever-more intertwined with other disciplines, and as gig venues and nightclubs close down in droves, we may find that places like the Barbican become increasingly essential to the lives of artists and music fans of all kinds.
“Increasingly the world out there is getting more interstitial and multi-arty-hybridy,” says Sharp. “To be a 21st-century institution, we need to find ways to organise our space in ways that accurately reflect the way art forms are crossing over boundaries.”