About John Sharpley
For many musicians, music is a vehicle for self-expression. To composer John Sharpley, music transcends this considerably – it is nothing short of a transformative, spiritual process; a gateway to higher consciousness.
His path to this enlightenment began early: at a young age, Sharpley found music all around him – from the decidedly mundane tones of a piano being tuned to the “wiggly” sounds produced between stations on a shortwave radio. This partiality to the musical qualities of the weird and wonderful naturally put him on the path of being a composer. This path, however, was not without roadblocks – the rigidity and academicism of 1900s musical modernism that was expected of him in institutions resulted in a crisis of individuality which demanded introspection and soul-searching.
The opportunity for self-examination availed itself in an unexpected way. A move to Singapore, the country that he now calls home, resulted in initial feelings of isolation. The local scene then was young and underdeveloped, completely different from the artist-saturated cities of New York and Boston that he was used to. Being positioned here with convenient access to the region, however, inevitably brought him in contact with its music. It wasn’t long before he was taken by the cultural and spiritual significance of Asian musics, which transformed his worldview and consequently, his output. There was a new-found respect for the transformative power of music and its universality.
This reverence for music has led to an eclectic yet individual compositional output that demonstrates a deep appreciation and respect for the multifaceted yet interconnected world we live in. This conceit of interconnectedness reveals itself in works like Common Thread. A cycle of six songs, it brings together texts from religions and cultures from both the East and West, revealing the underlying connections that unite them. Further demonstrating his intimate knowledge of spiritual and religious practices in the region are works like Kong (Emptiness), an evening length work inspired by Taoist teachings, as well as the more contemporary A Moment of Rest Upon The Wind, a 50-minute grand oratorio after the spiritual teachings embedded in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.
That is not to say that Sharpley does not find resonance with his own cultural roots: The Lone Star, a piano suite with round dances, blues and quotations of Native American spirituals, capture the spirit of the old West and reflect his Texan heritage. However, Singapore is still the place where he calls home – after all, he has lived here for more than half of his life. This is evidenced in his Singapore Dreams, a collection of ensemble pieces that effortlessly reflects aspects of local life, from the bustle of a Sunday at East Coast Park to the wild monsoon rains that pass through the region every year.
Inevitably, his adopted home of Singapore has provided him with creative stimulus in spades, notably in Fences, an acclaimed opera set in the turbulent political landscape representative of 1960’s Singapore. His penchant for dramatic storytelling is also on full show in the opera Kannagi, a story of love and transformation derived from a South Indian epic poem – this is a work with the special distinction of having been premiered in a local Indian temple.
The diversity of sources that he draws from in his work reveals a composer who refuses to be shoehorned by notions like “style” or “identity”. Sharpley’s music aims to go beyond these social constructs, acting as a force for common ground and mutual understanding.