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An Interview with American Sound Artist Jeph Jerman –

In the end, whether we consider Postmodern music a calculated response to Modernist forms, or a convex re-analysis of music in general, the act of listening remains deeply mysterious. Whether we ascribe universal meaning to Mass in B Minor or The Pirates of Penzance within their authorial and historical contexts, or devise a hyperlogical system to register tones as phonemes, 4’33” and The Well-Tuned Piano still stare back like Rorschach blotter. Perhaps the acme of Postmodern music will be an authorless text without any possible universal interpretation, only individual descriptions and resonances, such that the only possible recourse will be to listen. The act of listening is not getting any less mysterious, or vital, as technology changes. Nor are the distinctions between content and process becoming any more important. As long as resistance to poetic registers in critical description remain, so will commitments to the worst possible misapprehensions: the substance is overlooked while the procedures are hunted down and taxidermized.

Jeph Jerman doesn’t need me to tell him he’s post-anything. In fact, he prefers I would shut my mouth and listen. Yet because his sound resembles little else, his influences are diffuse and distant, and in many ways he has reinvented John Cage’s notion of automaticism for himself, from the ground up, I felt compelled to investigate. As early as 1981, Jerman was recording environmental sounds to listen to in raw form, and feed into tape loops. His interest at this time was not in making music, per se, but in sound experiments. Though he released nothing, as he says, “worth listening to” until 1987, some of his earlier material has recently been made available on CD. Jerman’s early work as Hands To, and with the noise-unit City of Worms, is rich in grays and blacks, tones of earth and metals flickering against the walls of your ears; vast ambient spaces and tight, deep underground tunnels. Sometimes the sonorous roar of hundreds warehouse district machines all blendtogether at night; the occasional voice rises like water from soft sand; futuristic metropolises collapsing into the mighty rivers that gave them life — or perhaps none of these things, for it is impossible to know, at present, what is actually in the text. Many of Jerman’s works in this phase are apparently idea-based and framed by the limits of his equipment; their programs are kept so hidden that you must give in and just listen. The overall structures of these early tape works is careful and contemplated, even if the vibe are dank and unfathomable, and occasionally gives the impression that it is a transmission from somewhere else, using Jerman as its shamanic medium.

Caldia, from Ashent, City of Worms, 1988

Drome, from Crumnants, City of Worms, 1987

Jerman has also participated in a downtuned rock-oriented quartet called Big Joey (a quartet who lasted one LP, released in 1988, plus a second which remains unreleased), as well as the full-blast free jazz unit Blowhole, whose numerous cassette releases have been transforming genomes since 1990. The releases to which he has contributed number over one hundred, and he was based in Colorado Springs and Seattle, before settling down in Arizona.

Around the turn of the millennium, Jerman transformed his lightly processed samples and tape loop-based sound into a practice of using only found objects as sound sources. Nevertheless demanding, the results have gone from overwhelming to minimal, so minimal at times the composer’s presence slips between our fingers. These days Jerman feels less inclined even to see his work as self-expression, and begins no longer with ideas but with pure sound. Like Ezra Pound staring into the depths of Chinese logograms and diving meaning, Jerman listens to the sounds around him and gives us certain of them, his authorship present more in the erasure of context than in the creation of the sounds. Creaking. Thunder. Crickets. Wind. Water. Listen.

The Listening Chair, 2008

I think to study Frederick Sommer’s approach to photography is to learn something further about Jerman’s sound art, inasmuch as they are both methodical explorations of place, down to the grain, and both trapsed the northern Arizona desert in search of exquisite detritus. In Sommer’s treatise on aesthetics he wrote, “The smallest modification of tonality affects structure. Some things have to be rather large, but elegance is the presentation of things in their minimum dimensions.” Similarly, Jerman considers very carefully both the sounds he records and how he reproduces them. Recording the sounds of water, for example, is not a simple matter. How do you position the mics to capture that tonal quality of water that distinguishes the tones and rhythms we recognize as water? Of all the sounds water flow can make, how is it the human ear has come to relate certain sounds with it? And so begins the philosophical-aesthetic circuit known as interpretation, made all the more drastic by Jerman’s dissolved presence as composer-author. Forget content and process, abstract and concrete, composed and aleatory, and just listen.

The following interview took place in August 2011 by email and in Cottonwood, Arizona, where Jerman makes his home and studio.


Aram Yardumian: How did you become involved in the world of sound art? Were you part of a movement, or did you somehow come to it on your own?

Jeph Jerman: I think like much else in my life, I sort of stumbled into it. I’ve always been interested in things beyond ‘songs’: wind in the trees, radio between stations, etc., but the first time I became aware that people were deliberately doing other things with sound was when I heard a Ken Nordine record called Word Jazz that my Mom played for me and my brother and sister. There was a piece called “The Sound Museum” in which Nordine describes various ‘sound paintings’ and then lets us hear them. I was completely enthralled with these sounds, and wished that they would go on longer. I made a tape of the sound paintings only, without the narration, so that I could listen to them over and over. I wanted to hear more stuff like them, and spent lots of time looking. At around the same time I was given a tape recorder as a birthday present, and almost immediately began trying to make my own ‘sound paintings’, along with the other silly things that kids do with tape recorders. My dad had a small reel-to-reel recorder as well that I used to borrow and play around with. Wish I had that machine today. It wasn’t until much later that I found other people who knew about different musics, and then around 1980 I began working for a college radio station in Colorado Springs which had an amazing record library. That really got the ball rolling.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but that act of removing the narration from the Nordine piece is indicative of my subsequent path through sound work. Very telling. Removing the context so that the sounds stand alone.

When I, with a few friends, began making work available publicly the only movement I was aware of was the ‘cassette culture’ explosion of the early 1980’s, which was helped along by magazines like Sound Choice and Op.

Ken Nordine, The Sound Museum

AY: Speaking of removing sound from its context, you once described your transition from ‘idea based’ material to more ‘sound based’ material, and commented that this was due to your own increased interest in listening and concomitant loss of interest in contextualizing sound. Could you expand on this by explaining what is meant by ‘idea based’ and ‘sound based’ and how this transition has come about?

JJ: Put simply, I’d say that idea-based material has some context outside of the sounds themselves, a perfectly mundane example would be “Peter and the Wolf”, or pick any song, past or present. The main thrust is to convey some mood or tell some story. By ‘sound-based’ I’m talking about material that is only a sound or collection of sounds to be paid strict attention to, sounds that have no narrative or emotional prod. A good example might be the long string drones of Tony Conrad.

I think my waning interest in the former and gathering involvement with the latter followed along with my slowly increasing understanding of what it is to really listen—to shut off the internal dialogue and pay attention to the vibrations entering one’s ears. At the same time I felt a need to distill the work down to its barest essence. At some point I started feeling like all the added ideas were just cluttering things up, and it all seemed rather silly. There had been allusions to sort of quasi-scientific research, and I thought if I was going to go in that direction, I should apply for a research grant and go whole hog.

AY: With field recordings there is an interesting blending of concrete and abstract going on all the time. Most of your early work seems highly abstract and most of your recent work is more concrete, and even comes with a description of the recording process. To elaborate on your last answer, what are the different things you find you can achieve with specifically abstract and concrete material?

JJ: I believe these are different means to the same end. By abstract I’m assuming that we’re talking about soundwork that has no referent to real-world things or events. In the case of at least some of the hands to material, there’s no indication of what the sounds are supposed to represent. I did have some ‘mental pictures’ that went along with various pieces while I was making them, but I didn’t make these pictures available to anyone, and the titles don’t help either. (As an aside I’d like to say that in the years since making the hands to tapes, I’ve forgotten many of those mental pictures, and listening to the works at this point in time I can almost listen to them as if I didn’t make them. Almost).

By concrete then, we’re talking about sound as itself, with no mental picture or framing device such as a narrative or ‘made up’ context, i.e. here is the sound of a 22-inch wind gong being played by a small battery-powered fan. There is nothing else given to think about while one is hearing the gong. The two approaches are means to the same end because they both end up directing one’s attention to the sound only. The abstract stuff gives no information to contemplate while hearing, and the concrete only gives specifics of being. This is not to say that one’s mind will not wander while hearing either of course…

AY: What, to you, is ‘listening’? What is the difference between listening and hearing? How can a listener change or improve the practice of listening? How have you done so?

JJ: I think that the difference is in one’s attention. Hearing goes on all the time and is involuntary, but we decide which things we pay attention to. I think it’s called ‘paying’ attention because to really do so one has to give up, or at least bypass one’s internal dialogue or judgment mechanism. Listening is a practice that can be improved. When attention wanders, re-focus on the sound. That’s what I strive to do.

AY: You once said, “I wonder to what extent the history of western musics is an outline of people’s deteriorating ability to listen.” I wonder also. Have you any continued discourse on this fascinating statement?

JJ: For one thing, people’s attention span seems to be deteriorating, and I think popular music reflects that. There aren’t many real melodies in popular music anymore, just short repeated sequences of notes, or even just chants. The way that popular music is produced leaves less and less to actually listen to, it’s all very airless and compact, like a series of hammer blows or something. It doesn’t allow you in, it slaps you in the face repeatedly. People don’t pay attention so they need to be forcefully reminded. To what extent one is the cause and the other the effect I cannot say. I think the general feeling about the attention deficit is that it is due to the proliferation of television and video, the way that things are edited into short little bits. I think there may be more to it though, including things like diet and general lifestyles. There is also the idea that children grow up much slower emotionally than they used to, being able to retreat into the fantasy world of the internet and video games. I’ve read that the average 20-year-old American has the emotional maturity of someone much younger, say, twelve or so. And we know how short children’s attention spans are.

It may also involve the ‘I’m great’ culture that’s evolved alongside rap music. Some people are so busy asserting their individuality that they have no time or space mentally to pay attention to and appreciate others. I see this every day at my job.

AY: What existential or purely aesthetic, or mystical, problems or questions have you approached with your work in its early and later phases?

JJ: There’s always been the question of how other people perceive the works themselves, and I think my process has been one of making the context more and more simple and transparent. The big questions for me have always been ‘what is this stuff for? Where does the impulse to create it come from, why do it at all?’ Early on, I didn’t think about it much. As the work took on a slightly more public life and I began to get feedback about it, I started to have to defend it almost, and that led me to question my motivations and then amend my methods and aesthetic.

AY: You use a great variety of found objects as sound sources, many of which I notice are some form of detritus. What is it about detritus that attracts you?

JJ: Much of it is quite beautiful, I think. There’s something about the way an abandoned house deteriorates—the shape changing, the wood weathering and disintegrating etc, or the way metal rusts and loses its structural integrity, that I find fascinating. The Japanese have a term for it, wabi sabi. For whatever reason, newer things just don’t sound as interesting much of the time.

AY: Many of your Hands To album and individual track titles seem non-externally referential, at least to me (e.g., Q’ojfa,Suake). By this I mean, I can’t always connect what I hear with the titles, unless I really let my imagination loose. Is it part of the program to engage the listener’s imagination through sign-signifier juxtaposition, or are there more specific onomastic connections known to you?

JJ: Many of the titles are neologisms composed of shortened forms of words or phrases. I would generally start with some sound or group of sounds, which would conjure some mental picture for me, and in turn a phrase might suggest itself. Shortening the phrases into odd-sounding words seemed to better represent each individual piece without giving it a concrete meaning. Some of the phrases I left intact: “carnival blades” or “fingers breath”, and some got chopped up and lost their meaning, like “scrine” (scribe whine) or “suake” (san francisco earthquake). “q’ojfa” was a word I found on a page of automatic writing done on an old typewriter. The name hands to is a shortened form of the phrase “and so I turn my hands to the task”, which for me at the time was used to signify my differing attempts to use or abuse sounds to different ends. The task would differ from tape to tape.

Lung Organ, from “Hoast”

Carnivale Blades from “Neumes”

AY: Giancarlo Toniutti and I were recently discussing the art of field recordings in relation to photography and certain forms of descriptive poetry. Inasmuch as early photographic art was seen as an aid to painters, and later as a kind of automatic painting or ‘pencil of nature’, it was criticized for representing too ‘directly’, which is also a commonplace criticism of field recording. What is your take on the relationship between field recording and photography, and the criticism they have absorbed? Is there anything field recording can achieve that no other art form can?

JJ: “Represent too directly” – that makes me laugh. It reminds me of something Berhard Günter said to me once too, that he enjoyed walking in the woods as well as anyone else, but that it wasn’t art. And I thought “’why not?’ The inference, as I understood it, was that only humans could make art.

Field recordings can be utilized in many ways: for pure listening, to study aspects of a sound field either scientifically or for general information about how sounds occur in nature—the rhythms that happen, etc. One could record the same spot at different times to try and understand the sonic changes that take place. Field recordings can also be used to present sound that isn’t representative of one’s personality, to some extent. There is still the instance of choosing what to record and where to present it. Lots of artists use field recordings as raw material to be processed…

AY: Fred Sommer’s work, especially his images of the Arizona desert, reveals, I think, his training as an architect. Do you think in terms of 2D structure or 3D architecture when composing?

JJ: Perhaps in terms of three dimensional structure. I often think of the sonic artifacts that I devise as sound-fields or sound-clouds. An encompassing presence to ‘sit in’ and experience. I used to use the phrase sound-paintings to describe my work to people who were unfamiliar with this kind of stuff, so I guess it’s gone from a two dimensional analogy to a three dimensional one.

AY: Robert Frost wrote about the conundrum of committing tones to paper, meaning things like irony, acquiescence, and doubt, which are easily discernible from speech. Mastering this was one of his chief concerns, and successes, as a poet. I see a similar kind of challenge for the sound artist who wants to capture a sense of place or concrete mood but finds that sounds on the magnetic tape are as toneless as words on paper. How do you meet this challenge?

JJ: I’m not sure that I do. At some point, after I had stopped using samplers and things and was making collages of field recordings I surmised that I may be indeed trying to conjure up feelings of place. I’m not sure that sound on its own can do that. It may evoke different moods in different listeners depending on their temperament and experience. With a work such as Cicuye the sounds are presented along with a few photos of the places where the recordings were made, so there’s a little more information to explore. These days I don’t try to evoke anything, I make sound that’ll hopefully be listened to. There are still vestiges of idea-attachment now and then. I’m human after all, and old habits die hard.

AY: I would think the American Southwest to be an especially vital source of sounds. Do you agree?

JJ: Indeed. The very name ‘Sonoran Desert’ is sonic. ‘Sonoran’ is Spanish for ‘sounding’.

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