May 29th, 2012

Some excerpts from Unlikely Persona: Jerry Hunt (1943-1993)

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.


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.[Emphasis added]


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. [Emphasis added]

These notes need to be edited into my thoughts on Writing Machines.

I’m treating a number of posts as rough-drafts for entries/additions to the wiki-proper.

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