By Bonnie Jones in response to Jeph Jerman (a month of) sundays, Eulachon 2012
As we celebrate John Cage’s Centennial this year, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about what it means to be a Post-Cagean “experimental” musician. This term always made me a bit squirmy. As a student studying English, I didn’t end up working through the Western musical canon and so came late to Cage’s work. In fact, I was several years into the music I’m making now before I ever laid eyes on Cage’s scores or listened to seminal recordings he did with David Tudor. Whether artists and musicians practicing today can or should be traced to defined musical traditions and lineages is an increasingly moot point in our late-Capitalist, globalized world. The threads of one’s influences and the nature of our dialogue with the past appears more like a medieval tapestry than a simple throw rug. So calling myself Post-Cagean always felt a bit, well, disingenuous. Can you be post-something if the something isn’t something you actually know/knew that much about and likely still don’t?
Yet, Cage’s influence on the work I make and listen to is surely undeniable. Cage made everyday non-intentional sound(s), noise, silence, and chance operations viable, if not acceptable, musical elements. He expanded the definition of what we call “music” and proffered an invitation for us to embark on more adventurous forms of listening. In Cage’s work, the incidental everyday sounds had as much place inside music as any other sound we might produce. By removing the precedence of mastery and authorship in favor of chance and process, Cage proposed that we imagine both musician and composer as an explorer, as one who encounters sound and as one whom sound encounters. Cage spoke for the presentness of the present, the way we interact with sound, the act of moving through a sound event, even at the expense of conscious making.
What I find most compelling about Arizona musician/artist Jeph Jerman’s (a month of) sundays is just this act of encounter, laid bare in the sounds he produces and records. The piece, recorded in four, overdubbed layers over the span of a month, is a document, a letter to the listener from the past. As Jerman humbly notes, “almost nothing happens” in (a month of) sundays, that is to say there are very few sound events in this work that an average listener might declare “composed” or “complex in musical form”. Yet this listener hears something quite complex in this “nothing.”
The piece begins with the sound of a door opening, what sounds like a blurt from a fed-back amplifier, and the hiss of a recorder being turned on in Jerman’s studio/home. The track then proceeds through 20 minutes of minute and discrete sine tones, wooden scratches, metal scrapes speaker blurts and buzzes, with occasional chair creaks and breath sounds from Jerman. Each sound carefully engages with the environmental sounds picked up by the recorder, often matching volume and intensity with what is happening in the room. At times, Jerman even seems to listen and respond to the digital hiss that will appear on the recording but that would not have been audible during the session. Around 3’40” the first small sine tone is heard. At 5’09” the second and higher pitched sine tone is heard. At 11’43” a metal rod jangles to the floor or table. At 12’43” the third lower pitched sine starts, and some piece of metal is lightly rattled a few seconds later. At 13’13” is that a dog barking outside and the sound of a low bass in a moving car rolling past? The unusually active and “noisy” two minute ending arrives with an uncommon forcefulness and intentionality within a piece that moves so glacially and precisely through the smallest sounds and musical gestures. In the context of the work, it’s like a signature on a document.
It’s Sunday and I’m here and you are there sometime in the future in some other place. I imagine you, because I know your ear may find me someday. But here in this place, in this time, I wonder if time and place have anything to do with what is (not) happening. I left a few breadcrumbs for you to follow, an object catalog that you might use in association or reference (small speakers attached to a battery, wooden balls, pumice, an e-bow and metal rods, and various spaces around the house and studio). However, the object will speak and sometimes her voice is quite different than you would imagine, so don’t worry if you can’t find the pumice or the wooden ball, they still have plenty to say.
I once thought encountered and recorded sounds might be about capturing a place and gifting that place to you, listener. But recently, I started to wonder if whether it’s not about place at all, because place is so much more confusing now and we’re all getting used to living in places that don’t exist in space. I thought maybe it was time I was interested in, rooting a moment that can’t be recaptured. But for me, as a document / storage medium, that work is done, that time is captured. So now, you are listening, and maybe that is what is important above all – you are listening now and in the past I was recording a listening, a body and sound. There’s history in my document that passes through these vibrations to the present, to you listening. There’s a hand and a body and a set of ideas in history being transmitted to your present. I’m a medium, I can speak for what is not longer there or too distant to be found again.
As with much of Jerman’s previous works involving field recordings (and I see this work as a field recording of a performance or maybe even a performance of a field recording) the piece seems less concerned with a specific musical or formal development and more with Jerman’s attempt to make his performance, as nearly as possible, inside and inextricable from the “field” recorded.
The sonic and conceptual space opened by this gesture is fascinating. Here we have a field recording/document of a space and place in time that includes the actions and gestures of a performer. A performer who is aware of being recorded and chooses to consciously situate himself inside the total recorded space. He is improvising with the space, he is working within that small gap between intention and non-intention between what is natural (un-thought) and what is made and chosen. The work asks a question about agency, about how we act upon and are acted upon by the sound world that surrounds us. What is the nature of this connection and construction? In this space, does the individual move not towards erasure of the self but towards evidence of the self through the very act of seeming to dissolve into the space?
Cage’s musical proposition was to make music outside of history, deskilling* the role of composer and performer, and working towards a certain “death of the author.” However the logical conclusion of Cage’s argument is what we as “experimental” musicians seem to grapple with today. Is the artist/maker/self meant to be invisible in the work? In (a month of) sundays, there would be no need to include Jerman’s performance to make this a piece of music. These days a field recording can stand alone. And yet, there he is scraping wood and metal, working objects with his hands and body, moving in his chair, walking across the room. There he is placing himself inside of history, his history, our history, his ear, our ear. Jerman's work seems to respond to a desire to be both inside and outside of time. To capture and remember one’s lived experience and history while calling attention to the primacy and intimacy of the present.
Far from being a piece where nothing happens, (a month of) sundays seems to contemplate everything that can happen within a recorded sound space. The combination of field recording and performance, puts Jerman’s decisions not to include a sound or texture, in relief against the environmental and inclusive sound world of his studio, his body shifting in its seat, the cars outside, the dogs barking, the Arizona desert. The work reveals the self (evident) and the self (invisible). It sparks the restless imagination of the listener as we move through each minute sonic space that Jerman explores. Jerman responds to Cage’s invitation for us to be more adventurous in our listening and to reconsider our definition of music and the role of the performer.
*In the 2005, two-volume text book, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Benjamin Buchloch defines this un-masterful gesture, this “deskilling” as "a concept of considerable importance in describing numerous artistic endeavors throughout the twentieth century with relative precision. All of these are linked in their persistent effort to eliminate artisanal competence and other forms of manual virtuosity from the horizon of both artist competence and aesthetic valuation." Rosalind Krause, co-editor of the book, in an interview with Brooklyn Rail summarizes the term as such, “deskilling is a way of forgetting, insisting that the artist forget.”