Music

Vaccinated with a Phonograph Needle

Jerry Hunt. Photo courtesy of Rod Stasick

There’s this guy. He’s pretty normal looking, just your average mid-century white Texan male in a probably un-ironed white dress shirt and slacks, possibly a lab or sports coat, maybe a tie. A future collaborator would refer to this look as “central Texas meat inspector.” If you were around a few decades ago, perhaps you saw him, maybe at the library in Dallas visiting his husband Stephen Housewright at work, maybe playing piano in a strip club to help make ends meet, or in an art museum in Holland, giving a performance of his music—though ritual might be a more apt description of what you would have seen. This man’s name is Jerry Hunt and he was the closest thing to a trickster god that ever existed in American classical music. November 27th was the 25th anniversary of Hunt methodically taking his own life after being diagnosed with cancer in his lungs, esophagus, and larynx, in addition to suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. November 30th was his 75th birthday. 

Born in Waco, Texas in 1943, it was clear from the beginning that Jerry Hunt was an unusual child. When he was ten, his grandfather got a mail order course in electronics. Hunt’s grandfather never finished the course, but Jerry did. His aunt and uncle owned a TV and radio repair shop where Hunt spent time. He became interested in a wide variety of occult and magical ideas, studying the works of many people including John Dee and Aleister Crowley. At fourteen he became an initiate in the Rosicrucian order. He began offering, via mail-order, instructions “in the path of the initiate,” sending out a newsletter containing his unique blend of knowledge. As the money came in, a rather inquisitive couple tracked him down and were shocked to discover their Master was a teenage boy. His parents, concerned at his unusualness (read: homosexuality), sent him to a psychologist who said there was clearly nothing wrong with Hunt and promptly sent him home. As an adult, Hunt disavowed many of these religious ideas, becoming a confirmed atheist, but these occult philosophies continued to influence his work throughout his life.

From an early age, Hunt was an accomplished pianist. He played all kinds of music, with an early love of Chopin and other romantics, but as he grew his interests ran towards more modern composers like Scriabin, Stockhausen, Kagel, and Bussotti. He supported himself for many years playing gigs in clubs, bars, VFW halls, and anywhere else—both solo and as an accompanist—playing jazz, show tunes, popular music, or anything else. In addition, Hunt wrote commercial music for documentaries and TV, including Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee’s show on PBS in the early 1980s, and had occasional teaching gigs at various schools in Texas. Hunt also consulted with a number of electronics companies and helped design one of the first musical integrated circuits, Mostek’s top-octave organ chip.

As a composer, Hunt was largely self-taught, pouring over scores for hours while hunched over his piano. As with many others, a meeting with John Cage—in this case at Texas Tech in 1960—proved to be a turning point. This encounter pushed Hunt firmly into the avant-garde.

Hunt developed his own systems of compositions, many of which are based on the magical practice of Dee and his successor Robert Fludd. Born in 1527, Dee was well known as a scientist and mathematician, an astronomer and astrologer, an occult practitioner and a member of Queen Elizabeth’s court. Working with the scryer Edward Kelley, he claimed to have channeled a new language from the Angels, what eventually became known as Enochian magic. Through manipulation of this language, Hunt would use square layers overlaid on top of each other as a way to generate chance operations, providing the material basis for many of his compositions. It’s ok if that doesn’t make much sense to you, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to anyone other than Hunt, with a few exceptions. Similarly, you can look at a basic calculator whose display shows a “4” but there’s no way of knowing if the previous user got there from: 2+2, 20÷5, 2018-2014, or any of the other infinite possibilities of arriving at four.

Hunt’s music is largely rooted in self-made electronics, tapes, unusual hand percussion, the use of gestures, of light, of video, and eventually of computers and synthesizers. Much of Hunt’s work was in real-time electronic performance, long before computers made it easy to do. He’d reprogram chips originally used in arcade games, attached to large memory banks, to respond to his hand gestures, the shakers and rattles he loved using as a conductor’s baton to influence the systems he built while he stomped about on stage or sat on a suitcase to use as additional percussion. His sensor arrays included video cameras, infrared detectors, and ultrasound generators. His gestures and performance practice were built around the idea of ritual, of allowing the audience to come into his world and then taking them on a trip deep into their own psyches. Hunt referred to it as an “interrelated electronic, mechanic, and social sound-sight interactive transactional system.” The system often worked as intended, but almost as often failed as well, leaving Hunt only partially in control. Hunt’s music also contains a lovely sense of humor, you’re never quite sure if you’re hearing a genius or a madman, or both.

His performances were legendary. Many critics didn’t understand them, but found themselves endlessly entranced. Tom Johnson in the Village Voice referred to a 1980 performance of Hunt’s Haramand Plane as “profound, skillful, completely original, and utterly baffling…All I can say for sure is that Hunt was doing something very strong and very different from anything I have ever heard from New York composers.” Five years later, in the same paper, Linda Saunders described Hunt as having “the magnetism of a Bible Belt preacher or a snake-oil salesman.” Four years after that, Kyle Gann referred to a performance by Hunt and Karen Finley as “unexplainable and irreducible, like most of life’s significant events.”

Hunt had a savage and fierce love of tobacco. He was a compulsive smoker, who eventually switched to chewing tobacco or nicotine gum. His health started to decline in the late ‘80s, eventually leading to his diagnoses of COPD and cancer. Hunt grew increasingly concerned about the declining quality of his life. His methodical nature led him to research ways of suicide that would leave behind the least amount of problems and the least risk to those around him. Hunt settled on a mask that he placed over his mouth and nose that would deliver carbon monoxide. He recorded a video discussing his reasoning the day before he killed himself.

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Hunt belongs to the vast tradition of experimental composers working in America during the 20th century. There’s a clear line through people like Ives, Dane Rudhyar, Partch, Varése, Sun Ra, and the many other experimentalists, to Jerry Hunt. As Steve Peters said, “I will always carry with me the image of this slightly nutty guy in a a lab coat waving around a bunch of sticks with little bells attached to them, obsessively gesturing, stomping his feet and whistling as the most exquisite maelstrom of disembodied sounds and images swirled inexplicably around him. It wasn’t difficult to feel that he was conjuring something, although you were never sure what or who that might be.”

Like many avant-garde artists of his time, much of Hunt’s output is woefully under documented for the public. There is little of his work online, aside from the excellent memorial site at jerryhunt.org. A few suggestions from what’s been released:

Ground: Five Mechanic Convention Streams (OO Discs, 1992). This was my introduction to the works of Jerry Hunt. Found in a used bookstore in Santa Fe, it was much too weird-looking to pass up. Five different iterations from the larger system that Hunt referred to as Ground, performed mostly by Hunt, with Rod Stasick on one track (Stasick is a key member of the small group currently working on making Hunt’s scores and archives available). The music is strange and engrossing, pulling you deep into a dream state where Hunt reprograms your mind. The back of the booklet contains stickers placed by Jerry, his husband, and their niece, to cover some minor typos. An object possibly held by Hunt himself, but likely not. Out of print, but inexpensive when it comes up for sale.

Lattice (CRI, 1996). A reissue of several pieces which first were released through Hunt’s private label Indira in the 1970s. All pieces were derived from Hunt’s Cantegral Segments system, “a continuing series of material for various mechanical and electronic instrument combinations and systems.” As Housewright points out, “Cantegral is the name of a short street near downtown Dallas that we happened to see” while out with their dog. Available on CD through New World Recordings or on iTunes.

Song Drapes (Tzadik, 1999/2016). The Song Drapes are “precomposed accompaniments to unspecified texts, which can be delivered vocally in any manner desired by the performer.” This album, released after Hunt’s death, features Hunt’s collaborator Karen Finley with Shelley Hirsch and Mike Patton. For many people, this was their first introduction to Hunt’s work. In print and available from Tzadik.

from “Ground” (Other Minds, 2018), a live performance as part of an interview with Charles Amirkhanian on KPFA in 1980, this is a small piece extracted from the overall Ground system. Hunt describes it as “two very small chamber cuttings, for voice speaking, some articulation of voice with clapping and the like, and the performance.” The text is derived from George Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss. (Full disclosure, I wrote the liner notes for this release.) Digital download available from the Other Minds Bandcamp page (https://othermindsrecords.bandcamp.com/album/from-ground).

Contributor

David Menestres

David Menestres is a double bassist, composer, and leader of the Polyorchard ensemble. davidmenestres.com

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