Friday, August 17, 2018

A New Recording of Jerry Hunt at KPFA

The second of the four new digital-only albums recently released by Other Minds Records in its Modern Hits series consists of a single track of almost half an hour in duration. The source was a recording of a live performance given by Jerry Hunt during a visit to the KPFA studio on November 6, 1980. Hunt presented an excerpt from a much larger project (which he would call a “system”) entitled Ground.

Born in Waco, Texas in 1943, Hunt became a pioneer in what would later be called “performance art.” He was one of the first performers to work with live electronic music, but he was as interested in physical sources of sound as in the expressiveness of artificial synthesis. Often the visual appearance of his electronic gear had as much to do with the performance as the role played by the gear in creating sound (and possibly light). By 1980 Ground began to emerge as an overall system for Hunt’s approaches to performance, based more on a framework for activity than a “score” or “program” designed to fill an interval of time that could then be called a “performance.”

During his visit to KPFA, Hunt clearly could not bring the visual element into his performance. He thus limited himself to working with a bank of tape machines and adding his own sounds through hand claps and slaps, sometimes with rattles or bells attached to his wrists. There was also extensive vocalization, all of which was based on a phonemic deconstruction of texts from George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss.

The booklet that accompanies this new recording includes a four-by-four grid of images that set the tone for the listening experience:

courtesy of Other Minds

Photographs of Hunt himself, many of which seem to capture moments of performance, alternate with diagrams that may be plans for an event, specifications for gear, or just suggestive images. If any of the elements of the grid relate to the KPFA performance, my guess is that the relation is purely coincidental. Nevertheless, in its own abstract way, the grid sets the tone for how Hunt approached all of his performances, making it a useful “visual supplement” to this audio-only presentation of Hunt’s creative efforts.

I first learned about Hunt during my graduate student days. One of his friends was a modern dancer, whose work I followed; and she told me that she thought I would be interested in his work. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet him or see him in performance. He clearly had a capacity for going boldly where no performer had gone before, a capacity that distinguished John Cage so powerfully during the first half of the twentieth century. By keeping himself in Texas for most of his life, Hunt did little to establish himself in “new music” venues on either of our country’s two coasts, preferring instead to continue with his experiments and see where they led him. He took his own life in 1993 a few days before his 50th birthday, once he learned that he was suffering from both emphysema and terminal lung cancer.

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