JEPH JERMAN, TONY WHITEHEAD
(Very Quiet 2013)
Review by Caity Kerr
I’ve been listening to two new releases which have so much in common in their treatment of natural material as musical resources that they deserve to be considered together. I’ll also preface this review by stating that I think it’s important to be able to make decisions about whether a work is successful or not and whether there is, or indeed whether there should be, more than mere taste involved in appreciating new music and sonic art. Gastronomic music seems to be very popular in the current era.
I should say that the benchmark for this kind of work is *KO/USK- by Giancarlo Toniutti with Siegmar Fricke, a book/cd publication (purchase) which goes into the compositional processes behind a work made from the sounds of stones. The book also includes a discussion of specific areas of linguistics. The level of complexity is very high, in fact Toniutti’s work is largely an investigation of complexity across several fields, reflecting the fact that life, in both the human and the other-than-human environment, is in fact very complex. I would assume that the intentions behind *KO/USK- (complexity of preparation, planning, concept, documentation and production) are completely different from those of the two works that I want to review, Dah Eum by Una Lee and Placed by Jeph Jerman and Tony Whitehead. Yet despite the difference in intentions I would argue that the detail in the preparation of *KO/USK- results in a much richer listening experience. This isn’t always the case but the context raises questions about the artists’ approaches and their depth of preparation.
Placed by Jeph Jerman and Tony Whitehead, on very quiet records (field recordings of quiet places) is described as a collaboration between Arizona artist Jeph Jerman and Very Quiet Records label owner Tony Whitehead from Devon in the UK. The album presents quiet improvisations recorded with found natural objects recorded in the Arizona desert and Dartmoor.
There is this rather misguided notion going around that you can just pick up any old stuff and make music. However this is more likely to succeed if you’ve been at it for a while, if you know how to listen as you play, if you know your instruments. It also helps to know that if you do this, then that is likely to happen as a result, phenomenologically speaking. I know that both Jerman and Whitehead are very good and experienced listeners – Jerman I know from his work with all sorts of materials and media, some of which is very interesting in musical terms. I’ve met Tony Whitehead personally in a working environment and can vouch for his excellent listening abilities. I’m mentioning this because I believe that it’s at the heart of the matter. Better listeners, in this freely improvised idiom using natural materials, generally make better music. So what I’d say about this album is that as you listen, a very satisfying balance between gesture and timbre comes to the fore as you do so. At times the ear is drawn to the sound, just the timbres, which are well chosen – the first track, Beewater One, which you can hear on the label website, is a good example of this though I should add that the album is reasonably consistent in this respect. Then your attention shifts to the gestural activity, or rather there’s an oscillation between the two listening strategies which comes over as satisfying and highly musical. Above all it should be acknowledged that this isn’t easy to achieve.
I’ll finish by saying that there’s a missed opportunity with many of the manifestations of this simple music, crafted, often beautifully in places, from basic found natural materials. There was a moment, a real living moment, around the turn of the new century (and indeed some of these artists would have been active), when a loosely knit group of artists were sharing original work which investigated what we might call the aesthetic of wabi sabi – a perished, distressed, imperfect aesthetic often relying on low fidelity equipment and a disregard for trends, renown or anything other than a desire to investigate new sonic environments. None of this harks back to a golden age and none of it was necessarily simple or had anything to do with microsound or any of those fashionable schools. The aesthetic was swiftly annihalated quite ruthlessly by a raging torrent of brash personal, institutional and media-driven agendas which are still with us and which strive for supremacy in the political economy of the sonic arts. So I instinctively warm to the efforts of Una Lee, Jeph Jerman and Tony Whitehead and others like them, though I always listen out hopefully for a contemporary equivalent of would have formerly been a trace of the device or perhaps the hiss of tape, something of the imperfect and the unstable.
[Jeph Jerman: left, a photo taken by Tony Whitehead: right]