Alibi V.27 No.31 • Aug 2-8, 2018 

Arts Interview

Secret Sounds

The audio art of Jeph Jerman

Jeph Jerman explores sonic possibilities of desert detritus
Jeph Jerman explores sonic possibilities of desert detritus
Courtesy of Jeph Jerman

Sound artist Christopher DeLaurenti said that all music is now “recombinant polyphony”—a mash-up of what already exists. “There's very little that's pure anymore,” as Jeph Jerman put it. What Jerman does is something like that—“but what I'm doing is mashing things together from outside the realm of radio,” he described. That means amplifying the audio possibilities of all sorts of unexpected objects—sticks, cacti, stones—scavenged from nearby his Cottonwood, Ariz., home, for example.

For several decades, Jerman has been delving into the mysterious potential of the matter that surrounds us, culling sonic qualities from his collection of discarded and unexpected instruments. He has the expansive discography to prove it. On Friday, Aug. 3 Jerman brings his aural creations to Albuquerque for a performance at the Peace and Justice Center (202 Harvard Dr. SE) alongside Steve Jansen, William Fowler Collins and TAHNZzz. Doors swing open at 7pm, and $5 brings you inside for a night of art that is as visually interesting to unpack as it is to hear.

Alibi: When did you get on this path in life—making music and later more experimental sound art?

Jerman: My mom played a Ken Nordine record for me, my brother and sister when we were really young. He was a TV commentator and did a lot of voiceovers. … One of the stories was called “Sound Museum,” so he takes us into a sound museum and describes works there and lets you hear them for a minute or so. It was the first thing I'd ever heard like that. It smacked me in the face.

Do you find that since starting this practice, you look at everything and think about what music it might make?

Yes. But it has more to do with how you listen to it than what it is. … If you pay strict attention to the object instead of listening to it. Like, a garbage truck. Listen to the sound it's making, the rumble of the engine, the weird crash and bang of the can, the screech of the hydraulics as it picks the can up. … It's a quality of listening. You can do that with just about any sound if you pay strict attention to it.

Does that mean divorcing the sound from the object making it?

I mean, the important thing is to not think about it. To pay attention to what's happening instead of having an internal dialogue about what's happening. There's a reason why it's called “paying attention.” You have to give up something in order to do that. Give up your ego, I guess. That's not a great word for it. But, you forget yourself in the listening. I think that's important for me. It's a great skill to have.

Has this practice shaped your life outside of your art?

It helps me get through the day sometimes. I can stop and pay attention to the sound going on around me, or check out what's happening outside. See what the cicadas are doing. … I think to divert your attention, like if you're having a bad day—you're really frustrated or tense or pissed off or whatever—it really helps to stop and take a minute to breathe and pay attention to something else.

Are there any sonic qualities to the desert that made you land there?

I just really love the Southwest. … Like, there's a lot of highways out East where it's just a ribbon of asphalt with trees on either side, you can't see the horizon, you don't know where you are. After a couple days of that, I start to feel claustrophobic. The sound is something I eventually took notice of. … There is a sound in the Sonoran Desert, it's hard to describe. In the summer it's the cicadas, the wind through the cacti—if it's blowing really hard, you can hear it being cut by the needles and kind of whistling. It's unique.

What are you bringing to Albuquerque?

A couple tape decks, a CD player that I run through a small guitar amplifier, a contact mic, a 100-year-old harp thing I found at a thrift store here. That all sort of augments the stuff that I've been using for years and years—stones and pine cones and cactus. I have a dead barrel cactus and a prickly pear pad. … Feathers, seed pods, walnut shells. Anything I can roll around in my hand and make sound with. Very few things that are actual instruments. What I'm trying to do is take all of the different strains of what I've done over the last 40 years and put them all together in one hopefully cohesive piece of sound art. … My only hope is that people get out of it something close to what I get out of it. But I don't know if that's definable.