Unlikely Persona: Jerry Hunt (1943-1993)
by Michael Schell
NOTE: the following article originally appeared in Musicworks #65. The issue includes a CD featuring three Song Drapes by Jerry Hunt.
On Saturday, November 27, 1993, Jerry Hunt sat down at the workbench of his central Texas ranch. He put on a homemade gas mask connected to a cylinder filled with carbon monoxide.
It had come down to this after a lifetime of hyperactivity: working endless hours in his studio, sleeping little, constantly talking and moving around, drinking coffee like it was water. Tobacco had been Jerry's greatest vice -- when he wasn't smoking it he was chewing it, his favorite being Granger Select brand ("It's a tuff chew but somebody's got to do it" he once said). A long series of bronchial infections had turned progressively worse. His body now decaying from emphysema and lung cancer, Jerry had spent his final months planning his own death. His research led him to carbon monoxide as the perfect suicide tool. He'd studied how to obtain the gas, how to store it, and what kind of delivery system to use. He'd taken safety precautions to keep the gas from leaking and endangering other people, while ensuring that he'd receive a large enough dose to kill and not just maim himself. Every conceivable technical detail had been considered and documented. His was perhaps the most meticulously thought-out suicide in history.
Jerry opened the gas valve and took his last breath. Thus ended an astonishing chapter in the history of American music.
I'll never forget the first time I saw Jerry perform. It was in 1984 at a music festival in Ohio. The curtain opened to reveal upstage a modest clump of homemade and off-the-shelf electronic instruments. Jerry appeared from behind the setup, pushed a few buttons and began the piece. The music coming from the loudspeakers was a tapestry of sampled instruments -- mainly bowed strings -- constantly churning out a dense micropolyphonic web based on clusters of slow and fast trills. This was accompanied by a host of high-frequency percussive sounds emphasizing rattles, sleigh bells, wind chimes and the like. Loud and unrelenting, it reminded me of a Texas insect chorus on a hot summer night.
While this was going on, Jerry paced the stage holding a variety of homemade hand props: staffs, rattles, different kinds of wands and bells. The rattles were shaken, the staffs stamped loudly on the stage. Some of the wands were quite phallic, and Jerry would make strange motions with them as though they had magical powers. Other wands looked like religious talismans created from junk: an umbrella handle that turned into a cross at the far end, or a stylized metal rod bent into the shape of an astrological symbol. Jerry took out some strange nightlights that he plugged into electrical outlets all over the stage. Later he brought out an old brown suitcase, sat on it like a child's hobby horse, and slapped it like a bass drum using a thick wooden stick.
The performance was redolent of shamanism, as though demons were being exorcised from the auditorium. But it came from a most unlikely persona: the lanky, bald, bespectacled Jerry Hunt, wearing his trademark unironed white dress shirt, long narrow tie, off-white jacket with unbuttoned cuffs and loose fitting trousers. It was a look I call "central Texas meat inspector" -- certainly not what you'd expect from a shaman. It was amusing to watch the spectacle of this mysterious ritual being performed by an utterly mundane-looking man.
Every few minutes Jerry retreated upstage to his equipment rack. He'd gather new hand props, press a few more buttons, and then venture out with a new collection of gadgets and a new repertory of weird motions and gestures. The sounds would change subtly at this point too, so that each part of Jerry's performance had its own timbral, as well as visual, identity. Apart from the periodic button-presses, Jerry didn't touch his musical instruments. They seemed to be generating the musical details in real time -- an impressive accomplishment back before MIDI control had become ubiquitous. Occasionally, a stage movement seemed to trigger a musical event, but it was hard to tell for sure. The piece had an obscure-sounding title, Ground: Haramand Plane, and lasted exactly 36 minutes as Jerry had promised beforehand. I was astonished.
Backstage, Jerry and I discovered our mutual Texas vintage. We'd both been born in Waco, a small city right in the center of Texas whose superficial ordinariness concealed a deviant undercurrent that produced a number of offbeat artists (including Robert Wilson), and later attracted the offbeat religious mystic David Koresh. Although Jerry never left Texas, living most of his adult life in a self-built house on a rural ranch east of Dallas, his own relationship to the place was a bit ambivalent. On one hand, his personal letters are filled with complaints about the provincialism and social conservatism of Texas. This is, after all, a state possessed of endless pride and self-importance, despite being an object of ridicule from other Americans as pompous and unsophisticated. Jerry liked to grumble about Texas' natural hazards as well: the summer heat, winter cold, spring tornadoes and autumn hail. His property was home to a host of snakes, scorpions, termites and fire ants, and he frequently complained about the difficulty of keeping his home's air intakes free of every kind of flying insect.
Countering this was Jerry's sincere personal link to Texas, the kind characteristic of Texas natives, bound to its vast landscape of rolling hills, its characteristic brick houses, ubiquitous grain elevators, seedy rural gas stations, and even the tiny roadside towns that look identical on first glance but reveal their own individual character when you examine them close up. Jerry included the names of many obscure Texas towns in his composition titles, and at one point planned, but never composed, an opera based on the life of LBJ, Texas' most famous native son.
Jerry's ties to Texas, his almost animistic relationship to his environment, and his interest in the strong personal emotions associated with the memory of a particular place or thing, all reflect his lifelong preoccupation with mysticism. As a child Jerry was interested in black magic and occultism. A relative of his in Texas was a Freemason, and Jerry enjoyed reading underground magazines devoted to secret societies. Later, he became involved in the Rosicrucian order, sending his typed lessons to the national lodge in California. Jerry attained an initiate status as early as 14, affixing Rosicrucian initials to his signature.
As a teenager, Jerry posted ads in neighborhood papers offering mail-order instruction "in the path of the infinite". People could send in a couple of dollars for information. An older couple from Dallas became particularly interested in his guidance and, apparently not realizing that he was still in high school, came to his home one afternoon hoping to meet "Master Jerry". They were chased off the property by his parents, who became sufficiently alarmed by the incident -- and perhaps by Jerry's incipient homosexuality -- that they sent him to Galveston for psychiatric evaluation. Jerry was found to be normal and well adjusted however, even if a bit eccentric.
As an adult, Jerry repudiated his affiliation with the Rosicrucians, and was a resolute atheist the rest of his life. But he remained fascinated by the occult, which provided him with an artistic focus and a sort of model for his curious, quasi-hermetic lifestyle.
In his compositions, Jerry applied his extensive knowledge of mystical systems, particularly those of alchemy, Goëtic theurgy, Tarot, voodoo and Kabbala. Jerry's favorite occultist was the Englishman John Dee. An accomplished mathematician and astrologer, Dee is best known for transcribing a series of seances held between 1582 and 1589, in which his medium, Edward Kelley, purports to hold conversations with contacted spirits, chiefly the angel Uriel. The centerpiece of the transcriptions is the Enochian tablets (pictured at right), several tables of letters and numbers resembling giant bingo cards, formed from the names of Gabriel, Enoch and other angels well known to 16th Century Kabbalists. New angelic names, and their associated signatures or sigils, could be formed by reading across the tables. More complicated rules of derivation were used to divine new angelic names as well as a secret angelic language with its own 21-character alphabet.
Using the Enochian tablets, Jerry created a ground core, something he cryptically described as "a system device of translation gestures [that] provides a string of goals which becomes coherent through reiterative additive uses". This in turn was used to compose several works, including those featured on his 1992 CD Ground: Five Mechanic Convention Streams (see Jerry Hunt: recorded works). A good introduction to his recorded music, the five works on this CD feature his usual sampled instruments -- mostly bowed string and percussion -- as well as a variety of acoustic sources: pianos, whistles and rattles, a violin played by Jane Henry using different kinds of conventional and unconventional bows, and two male speaking voices (Jerry's and Rod Stasick's). All of the works share a fast pace, certain rhythmic characteristics, and an emphasis on irregular instrumental trills and tremolos. Jerry disliked repetition and sustained notes, and his musical details constantly change within a static, non-episodic overall structure of generally constant density and tempo.
It's difficult to hear anything of the Enochian tablets in the music itself. It appears Jerry primarily used their mathematical relationships as a means of generating local level events. Perhaps Jerry used the figures to derive complex rhythmic relationships, or translated them into MIDI note numbers to create sequences. No one knows for sure, because he never fully explained his methodology to anyone. An inventive and articulate talker in real life, Jerry became obscure when asked about his own works. His scores and writings are almost indecipherable, set in his customized dialect of cyberbabble, with directions like "use no start/end mechanism of preparation gesture ensemble" or "select an extent of node content stream elements [using] the same number of sign element increments". Reading this is like trying to read a great alchemical tract made deliberately obscure with allegory and jargon to "prevent the precious wisdom from falling into the hands of the profane".(1) It was as though Jerry was protecting a great arcanum too dangerous to be entrusted to non-initiates.
Then again, Jerry might also have considered himself heir -- as Steve Peters asserts -- to the tradition of great charlatans, cloaking their work in a shroud of mystery for the sake of appearance. The Enochian tablets themselves are dismissed by most modern authorities as an imaginative farce perpetrated by Kelley (whose ears had been cut off in early adulthood for counterfeiting) on the pious but gullible Dee. My guess is that their apocryphal vintage had its own attraction for Jerry, who was always intrigued by the moral ambiguity of real religions. In some ways, his work resonates with the religious ambiguity of the 20th Century, in which our spiritual self-identity often seems to alternate between a dubious and a legitimate light.
Whatever moral stance he might have had toward his materials, the dominant theme in Jerry's work is mysticism as a precedent in cultural memory for the agents of modern technology. As a lifelong technical adept, who sometimes supported himself as an engineering consultant, Jerry understood the milieu shaped by computers and telecommunications, and its unmistakable parallels with the magical world inhabited by young children and by animistic societies. In this world, messages are transmitted by invisible means, information is incorporeal and voices are often unseen. It is a world of remote control.
Jerry began to experiment with control mechanisms in the 1970s. Frustrated with the limitations of electronic keyboards and other conventional controllers, he built sensor arrays using video cameras, infrared detectors and ultrasound generators. Jerry found that hand gestures, interpreted through the arrays, provided a more expressive way to control his musical apparatus. In developing these gestures, Jerry was drawn to explore the kinetic relationship between his actions and ceremonial ritual. He soon started using props and accessories, many of them created by his friend David McManaway. Jerry's repertory of motions eventually expanded to include full stage movement, often very stylized and theatrical.
Using the arrays and theatrics, Jerry created a series of solo performances that he called "interrelated electronic, mechanic and social sound-sight interactive transactional systems". These performances, given from 1978 until his death, are Jerry's best-known works. Their interactive electronics were often so complex that Jerry couldn't always predict their behavior. There was a kind of built-in random fallibility to his interactive systems: a particular movement or gesture might cause an audible change in the music -- but it might not. In a sense, this fallibility created another parallel with the world of ceremonial magic. Like a real shaman, Jerry wasn't completely in control. His scheme worked frequently enough to reinforce the faith of the "believers", but failed often enough to reinforce the disbelief of the "skeptics", in much the same way as real religion.
Fortunately, Jerry was able to document some of these performances on camera. Although the stage movement is restricted by the format, Jerry's videotape Four Video Translations, released in 1994 by oodiscs, is a remarkable sampling of his work. One performance, Birome (zone): plane (fixture), shows Jerry manipulating a host of his trademark hand props. At various points he plays bells and rattles, blows into horns, cries out, and hits himself with a whip, self-flagellant style. Jerry shakes convulsively throughout, as though possessed. The accompanying music has the same sort of manic, driven energy. Is it an electronic summonsing of spirits to be worshipped, or is it the voice of the summonsed spirits themselves? Another performance, Transform (stream): core (pictured at left), carries ritual whistling to new heights. Jerry's face appears in close-up against a black background, wearing an Elizabethan ruffled collar that recalls a famous portrait of John Dee. Jerry whistles and grunts as his eyes look up, from side to side, and back at us. An unseen voice on the sound track seems to respond to Jerry. It is accompanied by wind sounds, small bells and the occasional thumping poltergeist. Jerry's facial expression is sometimes curious, sometimes surprised, sometimes didactic. It's clear he's trying to contact some spirits on our behalf. The black background and nocturnal sounds strongly suggest a nighttime activity, recalling Marcel Mauss' point that whereas organized religion is practiced in public during the day, ceremonial magic is practiced in secret at night.(2) Jerry was a magician, not a priest, and his way of conjoining ritual with modern technology -- as if to say that our hi-tech society hasn't really gotten over its superstitions -- certainly made some people very uncomfortable with his work.
A third performance on the videotape, called Bitom (fixture): topogram (pictured at right), is unusual for having a second performer, in this case Michael Galbreth. Galbreth is seated, wearing white gym shorts and holding a metal grounding plate in one hand. Jerry probes his body with a polygraph sensor designed to measure skin conductance. The measurements control the pitch of an intense, noisy whine that dominates the soundscape. Although Jerry described the work as a kind of exorcism or healing ritual, referring to himself and Galbreth as agent and patient respectively, the exact nature of their relationship is unclear. Are they experimenter and subject, interrogator and prisoner, father and son (in a peculiar rite of passage)? The Latex examination gloves worn by Jerry serve to insulate the men electrically and symbolically. Latex also suggests safe sex, and the disparity in mood between the two participants (Jerry constantly active, Galbreth calm and stationary) only heightens the unresolved sexual tension pervading the piece. Could this be a techno-sexual initiation or dominance ritual? Somehow Jerry seems too distracted, Galbreth too innocent. The naive expression of the two men seems out of sync with the sinister connotations of the proceedings. As with any ritual, the meaning behind the actions is vague to an outsider.
Jerry was originally a pianist by trade. He studied a number of cultivated and popular styles, and as a young adult took gigs accompanying Texas strip shows and nightclub acts. He continued to use pianos in the studio well after he had abandoned them in live performance. Occasionally he performed on electronic keyboards, his preference being simple, flexible instruments that could easily be adapted -- even dismantled and rebuilt -- to fit a particular need. With this attitude it must have been a challenge for him to compose, in response to a commission, a work for the Synclavier, an early digital synthesizer from the 1980s. Expensive and heavily touted by the music industry, this instrument was widely loathed by composers for its sterile sounds and clumsy interface. Even Jerry described it as "a gilded piece of junk". But he nevertheless produced the only compelling work I've heard for the instrument.
I saw Jerry perform this piece, called Fluud, in New York at a 1987 concert devoted to Synclavier compositions. The other composers on the program had all tried to use the instrument conventionally, presenting works on tape, or melodic pieces for solo Synclavier. When Jerry's turn came he sat down at the Synclavier keyboard with his back to the audience. Chewing vigorously on nicotine-impregnated gum during one of his smoke-free periods, Jerry started to trill the keyboard with both hands as fast he could. To his left, adjacent to the Synclavier, was a little table holding a variety of strange-looking dolls. They were 3-4 inches tall, resembling the stylized kind that children like to put in toy cars and dollhouses. Each one had a small strip of Velcro glued to it, and I noticed that Jerry was wearing a Velcro band on his left wrist. After playing for a while, Jerry's left hand left the keyboard. Using the Velcro wristband, Jerry attached one of the dolls to the back of his arm, and held it behind a 2-foot wide lighted frame placed between him and the audience. After making a few ambiguous gestures with the doll, Jerry replaced it on the table, returned his left hand to the keyboard, and resumed trilling. He then repeated the process with the other dolls in turn. His right hand never left the keyboard.
While all this went on, the Synclavier spat out a dense stream of notes, seemingly not quite in sync with Jerry's trilling fingers. Jerry explained later that he had loaded the Synclavier's onboard sequencer with several channels of trills and tremolos. By playing back this sequence while rapidly trilling the keyboard, Jerry flooded the Synclavier's operating system. Trying in vain to keep up with him, the instrument faltered, sputtering and dropping notes randomly. It was typical of Jerry to treat the machine's technical limitations as an asset -- a way to introduce more rhythmic life and unpredictability.
Fluud is a homage to Robert Fludd, a 17th Century mystic considered a successor to John Dee in England (for some reason Jerry jiggled the spelling in his title). Fludd said that the world was "like an instrument, and its keyboard is composed of the intervals between the angelic hosts, the fixed stars, the planets and the elements".(3) Fludd investigated the Celestial Alphabet, a technique by which patterns of stars resembling Hebrew letters could be used to divine the names and sigils of angels. Jerry used these celestial traces to create the score to Fluud, which consists of a few cryptic directions accompanying eight pages of typographical characters from which the performer(s) generate their parts. The work can be performed by a group of up to eight musicians, but owing to the difficulty in interpreting Jerry's directions, it has apparently never been performed by anyone but him.
Toward the end of his life, Jerry focused on collaborative projects, working with composers Annea Lockwood and Joel Ryan, as well as visual artist Maria Blondeel. His best-known collaborator from this period was Karen Finley, for whom he composed the Song Drapes, a remarkable set of 11 ready-made accompaniments to unspecified texts. The drapes satirize the mannerisms of different popular music genres: cabarets, the "hit tune", jingles for television commercials, etc. Jerry used the Proteus-based samples and percussion instruments featured in his contemporaneous CD Haramand Plane. But the drapes sound very different from most of his music, several of them even having a steady beat. One drape includes hints of a Latin tango, with snippets of dulcimer-like sounds thrown over a background synth wash suggestive of bar noise. It sounds like a cocktail lounge heard from next door. Another drape is like a 1960s rock ballad with weird instruments, and a third one reminds me of a Radio Shack store during the Holiday shopping season, with all the tacky electronic toys and games sounding off.
In performance, the Song Drapes accompanied Karen's rant poems, which she declaimed in her usual emotionally charged style. Karen wore a black party dress and leaned against a piano, which Jerry played along with a MIDI keyboard and some small percussion instruments. It was like watching a deranged nightclub act. Jerry's musical settings gave a completely new life to the poems. They added rhythmic variety, which ameliorated the repetitive pseudo-evangelical drawl that I often find tiring in Karen's solo readings. The musical satire provided a kind of social context that heightened Karen's expressive and provocative texts.
Jerry and Karen performed the Song Drapes as part of a larger series of solo and duo pieces called The Finley/Hunt Report, which they presented in 1992. It was through this project that Jerry was drawn into the cultural war now being waged in the US by the religious right. Jerry earned a bit of popular notoriety over this Forbidden Four scandal, named for Karen and three other politically controversial performance artists whose funding from the National Endowment for the Arts was rescinded by the Bush Administration in 1990. Although Karen was clearly the real target, it was Jerry's presence on the approval panel that gave the government its foil: as Karen's collaborator, Jerry was accused of having a conflict of interest. By overturning artist grants approved by the peer-review process, the government had taken an unprecedented step. It was the opening salvo in a campaign that could well destroy federal arts funding in the US.
The Finley/Hunt Report was an artistic turning point for Jerry, in which he began to emphasize more personal themes in his work. This is evident in Telephone Calls to the Dead (pictured at left), which Jerry began in 1993 in collaboration with electronic arts ensemble 77 Hz.(4) The work was designed to explore the idea of making contact with dead people, and thus culminates Jerry's interest in spiritualism. Ironically it is Jerry himself who is contacted in the completed version, prepared after his death by 77 Hz and premiered in 1994. In it, a series of real-time music and video montages serve as electronic rituals that cause Jerry's "spirit" to appear in the form of personal reflections videotaped during the last few years of his life.
As the work proceeds, Jerry begins holding conversations with himself, offering random observations on various topics: friendship, music, parents and sex. Some of his appearances reflect Karen's influence directly, particularly a passage in which a scruffy Jerry rants at the camera. In another sequence he leads us on an extended tour of his ranch, his face obscured by a dust mask. As he walks along, explaining that he is "allergic to the property itself", he identifies different Texas weeds and pollens that contribute to his respiratory malaise. Inside the ranch house he describes his frustration with a store-bought toilet, launching into a general tirade on bathroom fixtures ("I can think of nothing more important in everyday life than the successful design and implementation of a toilet -- to me this is more important than almost anything"). Later, Jerry shows us an esoteric pump toilet of his own design, which he proudly describes in detail ("I think it's only exploded on us two or three times in ten years of successful utilization").
Just before his death, Jerry videotaped a demonstration of his homemade suicide apparatus. Wearing a gas mask, his right hand draped casually around the carbon monoxide cylinder that would soon end his life, Jerry summarizes his philosophy of life and death: "I don't take anything too seriously anymore, except pain. I think I'd have to say: Don't go too soon, don't wait too long." With this self-epitaph, Telephone Calls to the Dead ends.
It's hard to believe Jerry's already gone, three days short of 50 years old, at a time when it seemed he still had a lot to say. Unsentimental as he was, Jerry wouldn't have considered his death untimely, but might have commiserated with Harry Partch's quip "anytime is a good time to be born, anytime is a good time to die". There is actually a lot about Jerry that reminds me of Partch -- not that their music sounds at all similar. But both men created a unique musical identity from a deeply personal world view. Each looked to earlier centuries for inspiration and subject matter (Partch to the Greeks, Jerry to the alchemists). Both men studied non-Western cultures, but traveled abroad surprisingly little, as though bound to their own origins in the Southwest or Texas. Both men built their own instruments, and invented their own compositional systems. Both were homosexual, independent and socially eccentric. As experimental mystics who worked in semi-isolation outside the musical mainstream, both epitomize an American musical tradition that includes Ives, Ruggles, Varèse and Sun Ra.
Jerry's noisy, intense music clearly influenced a younger generation of electroacoustic musicians: performers like Gordon Monahan, Samm Bennett, Shelley Hirsch, Ben Manley, David Weinstein and Laetitia Sonami come to mind. Like Partch however, Jerry lacks an obvious artistic heir. His performing style was too unique and too integrated with his own personality to be effectively imitated. Jerry was not a self-promoter, and during his life he was known mainly to a small but devoted group of admirers. With the continuing release of new CDs and videotapes, his work is starting to reach a broader audience. But it's hard to gauge its long-term impact. To me, it often loses its spark when deprived of Jerry's personal participation. Those of us who were able to see him perform are fortunate, as the recordings only convey a portion of the experience.
In mysticism, the supernatural is not separate from the material world. Its essence is implicit in every object, every being. Ceremonial magic is about applying sacred knowledge to achieve a unity with the divine -- not in the afterlife, but here on Earth. The modern world embraces a nostalgia for this unity, a nostalgia felt both in a cultural sense (for our society's primal past) and in a personal sense (for the magical world that, according to Piaget, we all live in as infants). Jerry touches this nostalgia with the aid of technology, that great apparatus of rationalism that seems to symbolize the spiritual disruption of the 20th Century. In doing so he gives us a metaphor for the reintegration of the rational and the irrational, the known and the unknown. It is here that we may find the ultimate value of his work.
Jerry, your life is over and your legacy begins. So long Jerry. Your work is not forgotten.(5)
Original Material and HTML Coding Copyright © 1996-2001 by Michael Schell. Republished by permission of Musicworks. All Rights Reserved.