Transmissions from the Pleroma and Stephen Housewright’s Partners
Two books attempt to give the artists’ work the things it seems to resist: categorization, description, intelligibility.
(Blank Forms, 2022)
Transmissions from the Pleroma
(Black Forms, 2022)
Even among 1970s composers, Jerry Hunt cut a strange figure: a gay Southwestern autodidact, charming yet reclusive, whose work applied mysticism to sound. From childhood, Hunt built a reputation with daring, mesmeric performances, whether interpreting contemporary compositions for piano—once, he performed a Stockhausen work at a strip club—or designing audiovisual synthesis equipment for TV with experimental video artist David Dowe. Over time, Hunt used this equipment to create responsive compositional systems that came alive in concert, using John Dee’s transcriptions of Enochian language as a framework. Hunt became notorious for performances systematized to appear unpredictable, during which he’d prowl around the stage—perhaps twisting up his face, waving wands and rattles, whacking a suitcase—and translate his gestures through a Rube Goldberg machine into seemingly random sound. Any movement he made would prompt a sensor—embedded within microphones, video cameras, or burglar alarms—to trigger a corresponding time code on a tape, playing sound he recorded on his own: “almost 850 minutes of actual recording,” he explained, “for every 20 minutes of possible performance.” While his contemporaries were exploring computer music, Hunt was doing computers’ work for them.
Born in Waco, Hunt lived in Dallas, then the small rural town of Canton, building out a life—and a barn—with his partner Stephen Housewright. North Central Texas held such an influence on Hunt that—as the Village Voice wrote in 1988—he structured some of his pieces with a geometric system he contrived from its geography. He often created new pieces from combinations of the old, incorporated found electronics into programming he built himself, and scored works with an internal, nearly inscrutable vocabulary, troubling attempts to create definitive records of his work. Without recordings of his concerts, we rely on albums—which mystify even more without his visuals—and reviews, several of which struggle to comprehend his performances.
Transmissions from the Pleroma, a new book from Blank Forms, tries to connect these dots with a biographical essay, archival materials, interviews with the artist, and new commissioned essays. Of note is an essay by composer David Rosenboom, which uses Hunt's early scores and an interview—part of a larger project conducted by sound artist Ellen Band—to frame Hunt’s thought process. It’s all part of Blank Forms’s larger Hunt program running throughout the year: an exhibition on view through June 11, eight albums—including a 7xLP box set with a reader—and two standalone books. As much as it can, the anthology gives Hunt’s work the things it seems to resist: categorization, description, intelligibility. It’s easy to lose oneself in Hunt’s work, whether through academic interest (how did Hunt describe his relationship with John Cage?), confusion (how do Hunt’s pieces use Enochian tables?), or fascination (how does a thirteen-year-old inadvertently start a cult?).
Despite the density of materials collected in Transmissions, Partners, Stephen Housewright’s memoir of his relationship with Hunt, stands out. This edition reformats an earlier PDF shared via Michael Schell’s long-running online treasure trove, jerryhunt.org, tacking on a discursive introduction by Hunt’s late-period collaborator Karen Finley. Housewright introduces the book with their first encounter, when Hunt transferred to Housewright’s middle school and played piano for his choir class: “To see and hear someone my age bring music to life right in front of me, with such self-confidence and skill, lifted me a little above the safe and predictable realm I inhabited. This was the beginning.”
Their relationship blossomed. One summer, Housewright would visit Hunt at a small house he had turned into a recording studio. “When we were alone,” he writes, “Jerry and I would make love under the piano, the only available space.” Where Hunt is wry, rigorous, and elusive, Housewright is sentimental, plainspoken, stiff, delicately threading the extent of Hunt’s work within their day-to-day lives. (Housewright recalls posing for a photograph with Hunt, “me with my goofy grin and Jerry with his penetrating yet distant stare.”) Chapter titles denote the pair’s relationship at a given place and time: “Friends,” “Commuters: Houston–Dallas,” “Companions: Canton.” Housewright’s recall is striking, as if decades of memories fell onto each page at once. But each recollection receives exhaustive detail, replete with decontextualized names and tangential asides—such as when Partners gives more space to Housewright’s Greek minor than his last moments with Hunt. Sometimes one wonders what reader Housewright had in mind—if any at all.
As an act of care, Partners is striking. Excerpted at the end of Transmissions, separate from its narrative heft and contextualized within the larger archive of Hunt's work, it’s quite moving. The books complement one another: Transmissions is the most comprehensive collection of Hunt’s working life to date, and Partners offers a valuable window into Hunt’s personal life. Readers of this rigorous treatment may still find themselves at a distance from its subject—a fitting parallel.