Herbert Jercher

Herb Jercher Herbert Jercher, a composer who explores environmental sounds and works in community-based music, was born in Austria in 1947, and arrived in Australia in 1952. His family spent a year in Bonegilla migrant camp, Albury, before moving northeast to the smal l rural town of Oaklands in New South Wales, where Jercher lived until 1959.

When he was eight, a friend of his mother sent him a baroque recorder, upon which he played his own songs. Hudson's Primary School, which he attended, also had a treble recorder group. However, because its fingerings were inappropriate, Jercher wa s left largely to find his own way on the baroque instrument. Musically `unconditioned', Jercher used it to imitate bird calls long before he had heard of Olivier Messiaen, and using both voice and recorder, also explored the acoustic properties of empty water towers.

Until he was 12, Jercher was able to explore his environment and its sounds, learning about time and rhythm in an intuitive way by remaining sensitive to subtle environmental changes. Gradually, the sounds and images of each season became linked i n his mind. He heard echoes in silos towering above the flat wheatlands, the clank of trains shunting, telephone wires humming in the wind, the din of farm machinery and the echo of culverts. Summer crackled underfoot with snapping leaves, dust storms rode the sky, rain pattered on tin roofs, watertowers baked and windmills lazily clanked and whirred while galvanised iron creaked and sounds carried from a packed rural swimming pool on sweltering days.

Autumn was a time of rabbit traps springing shut, of trains riding a turnaround where the Victorian and New South Wales gauges joined, of hens and roosters becoming voluble. Winter meant ice cracking in puddles and sudden floods and the angrier sounds of water; while spring brought the bleat of newborn lambs, and more birdsong as the new chicks hatched and the parent birds semaphored warning cries and flew searching for food.

Jercher developed an interest in ornithology, studying the nesting habits of birds, and details of species and groupings.

As a boy, he played with shanghais, boomerangs and spears, discovering they also had acoustic properties. His association with them, and later with guns, is apparent in a series of works dating from 1981 and collectively titled Environmental Ballistic Intrusions. The first of these, devised in Tasmania, treated guns as musical instruments and explored the contrast of a leisure activity (shooting) with what is conventionally thought of as a violent sound (explosions).

In the Ballistic series, Jercher has tried to strip away the latter connotation, exploring the sounds of guns and artillery - at rifle ranges, during manoeuvres of the Australian Army's Leopard Tank Division, by shooting his own guns into culverts - purely as machines able to produce unique sounds.

In 1960 Jercher moved to Melbourne to study accountancy at Footscray Technical College, but found he preferred art-related and craft subjects, including woodwork and fitting and turning. One of his earliest projects was a wooden sculpture with sonic properties that could be explored by strumming its builtin strings. Jercher strongly identified at this time with his grandfather who was a Schmied Meister (or master blacksmith) in Austria, and also a self-taught musician who played the harmonica as a traditional `courting musician'. (This meant aspiring bridegrooms would pay him a small fee to render romantic tunes under the windows of their brides-to-be.) At this time Jercher also struggled with English, which for him was very much an acquired second language.

Around the age of 19 he began playing a semi-acoustic guitar, and was introduced via crystal sets to late-night jazz programs. He listened avidly to everything from traditional and contemporary jazz styles, to rock'n'roll. Within the youth culture of the day, he identified with the `jazzers' rather than the `rockers', dressing appropriately and going to concerts and dances in Melbourne.

After deciding accountancy was not for him, he left college and worked briefly as a clerk with the State Electricity Commission before studying for two years at the Melbourne Teachers College - where he qualified as a primary school teacher. Then he taught general subjects, including music, at a number of schools from 1969 to 1973.

This brought together two essential aspects of his work and life - a vivid recollection of his own childhood, and a wider understanding of children and their world. Later, he was to add to these his interest in music.

As well as teaching, he also played guitar with various bands. Music ceased being just an interest, and demanded more of his time. Eventually, it won out: he stopped playing by night and teaching by day, and decided to devote more of his time to music.

He played guitar in the J.C. Williamson Theatre Company orchestra at the time Brian Buggy was its leader, and practised there with his fellow guitarist the late Phillip Raphael.

In 1974 Jercher obtained qualifications in Special Education; then in 1975 enrolled in the music department of La Trobe University where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts in 1977. Urged by one of his lecturers, the Australian composer Keith Humble, he obtained undergraduate work as a copyist for the Australia Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) (which had been initiated by Humble in 1975 and played the works of Australian contemporary composers of the time).

From the notable Australian composer, the late Don Banks, who was also a copyist, Jercher learnt how to compose - by observing the musical logic of the manuscripts he transcribed.

La Trobe broadened his concept and understanding of music, which shifted from the mainstream jazz he had begun to play at clubs, pubs, restaurants and cabarets - and at jazz venues such as Jeff Brooke's Steak Cave. He realised there were many musical paths he could follow, and all seemed equally interesting. Serialism initially intrigued because of its time-consuming complexity. Here, as opposed to his naturally intuitive approach, was one which posited an almost mathematical basis to music. In serialism, form was as important as content - perhaps more so - and sound could be directly controlled and organised according to formulae.

However, a greater influence proved to be the American jazz guitar virtuoso Joe Pass, with whom Jercher studied privately during a three-month stay in Los Angeles in 1976. Pass became an important mentor, but the brilliance of the master convinced the student he could never achieve the former's instrumental virtuosity. Pass reiterated that a composer must concentrate on the one aspect of music closest to his or her heart and Jercher decided, for his own part, this involved teaching.

Immediately upon graduating from La Trobe Jercher began post-graduate studies in experimental musical composition and semiotics at the Victorian College of the Arts , from 1978 to 1979. He found there great emphasis on inter-arts, dance, drama and sculpture; also on performance art and various forms of collaboration.

He began performing in groups and ensembles - notably with the Melbourne- based composer Les Gilbert, dancer Christine Babinskas and sculptor Paul Jurasek.

In a piece called Circe, named after a sculpture by Bertram McEna, Jercher played a `veroboard' designed by Julian Driscoll; it consisted of a sheet of electronic printed circuits and was played with a pen inscribed across its surface. The sound produced was combined with projected visuals of Christine Babinskas dancing against a backsheet - silhouettes in changing focus, mirroring shapes present in the sculpture. Circe was first performed at the La Trobe University Arts Festival in 1978.

Since that year Jercher has made sound sculptures, held short-term residencies at schools, played guitar, composed and held live performances. Sometimes, straitened for funds, his survival as an artist has been uncertain. Yet he has managed to evolve a personal style - one which involves aspects of the performance environment being mirrored, paraphrased, quoted and explored in the work.

While performing, Jercher makes improvisatory changes in response to his surroundings. These help him elucidate the artistic problems with which he is most directly engaged at the moment. Usually, in his work, sounds are strongly associated with visual images and meant to elicit a sympathetic response from his audience, sometimes by anticipating almost subliminal associations. His imagery, he believes, best communicates when it mirrors complex emotional and social meanings that are already present, however subtly, within the performance environment.

To do this, Jercher tries to compress maximum information into the most economical forms available - whether these are iconic, symbolic or incorporate complex signs.

His residencies at high and primary schools and at tertiary colleges have been mainly in Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

As a collaborative artist, he believes his educational activities are central, rather than secondary, to his real business as a composer. Only a scale of values enshrining snobbery and elitism, he believes, places more value on music meant for the concert hall rather than the schoolroom, street or factory floor.

For example, an Artists in Schools Project sponsored by the Music Board of the Australia Council in 1983 resulted in a sound sculpture titled Bikabangablikaphone Mark II. The project was co-ordinated by Jercher, using the ideas of students from the Ravenswood High School, Tasmania. The main aim, here, was to create a compositional sound sculpture and use it to generate performances.

Materials for the sculpture were obtained from a local agricultural pipe makers, windmill manufacturers, the local tip, a gas company, an auto wreckers...

Meanwhile, the students listened to and discussed a wide range of recorded sounds and music. This led to the initial concepts. There were calls for community support via the media. Students visited factories and farms and listened to sounds and observed how they were produced. Concepts were refined and the creative collaboration was set in motion. The chosen materials were combined and the sculpture built.

Tests were also held in an electronics studio - so sounds used in performance were matched in terms of quality of color (including timbre) and sound formation. An initial tape exploring the range of sounds available, was made. Then Jercher wrote the music and assigned parts to the players. A performance was held, and documented on video. It was also featured as a local television news item.

The piece was a total inter-arts concept, involving contributions from 21 students, the school staff and community members. The sculpture was left at the school to be used by future students and staff.

Working on this project also challenged the students' previously held beliefs about music. In most cases it resulted in a profound re-examination of their perception of sound and concept of performance.

As well as large-scale collaborations, Jercher also performs many solo works. For example, in Way Back Beyond, at the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in 1981 (as part of the International Music and Technology Conference that year) he became a `musical swagman'. In contrast to the sophisticated, state-of- the-art technology on display, Jercher had a plethora of portable and cheap electronic devices strapped to his body, upon which he performed while walking among the crowd.

This piece originated from a series of residencies in schools in Katherine, NT, where he also worked with the `school of the air'. At that time, Jercher performed a (free-lance) piece called Suspended Meat Worker, in which he hung from a t ree like a `musical carcass' while playing a ram's horn and other instruments. This was a statement of his solidarity with workers laid off during a dispute at the Katherine Meat Works.

Another solo piece for tape, Chamber 22, was first performed in the Mill Theatre, Geelong, in 1983. Recorded in Tasmania, it explored a .22 gauge rifle as a musical instrument, with variations on percussive sounds obtained by firing the we apon into culvert pipes. While the tape played, Jercher dismantled the gun in front of the audience, then put it together in a different form, transforming it into a small sound sculpture. The reference was to the well-known Biblical quotation, of melting down swords and turning them into ploughshares.

Chamber 22 also implied the idea of chamber music, shifted into the unusual - and dramatic - arena of shooting. This was the first of the Environmental Ballistic Intrusions.

An aim of the series is to explore a `Zen-like' silence - more psychological than actual - and `heard' at the precise moment of detonation. In some of the Intrusions, Jercher has fired rifles in concert into special targets which absorb the impacts and register them as an electronically generated sound. The object is not so much to shock audiences - although this has been known to happen! - but to invite them to perceive the rifle as a percussive instrument rather than weapon.

Like almost all of Jercher's music, the Ballistic series was inspired by memories of his rural childhood.

Following from his earlier collaborations with dancers, Jercher became Composer In Residence with the Tasmanian Dance company from 1981 to 1983. His role was to compose for resident and visiting choreographers, such as Graeme Watson (Australia) and Louise Burns (USA). He was also the company repetiteur, and taught workshops, performed and, on one occasion, in Tale Of A She Bear by choreographer Beth Shelton, even danced. The residency also involved many shows, including those performed during Hobart's Salamanca Festival, at the opening of the Arts Centre at the Hobart Conservatorium, and in the Hobart Town Hall.

A piece called Usaurus, which grew from a collaboration with choreographer Sue Healey of Danceworks, was first performed at the Melbourne Town Hall in 1986 as part of the company's Composers' Project. The composition elucidated memories of sounds, which were interpreted through appropriate movements. The piece relied on an empathic bond between dancers and audience. Both were cued to respond to a list of key words meant to evoke aural memories. These took the form of a list of sing le words: `station', `recall', `religion', `children', `engines', `class', `passage', `drought', and so on. The dance was organised according to these cues, and the audience were left to make sense of what they meant, and what they were seeing and hearing while - at the same time - the dancers were responding to the audience reaction, thereby completing a sort of continuous circle of interpretation, response, interpretation...

The link with Danceworks continued into 1985, and led to a participation in video production which began with the soundtrack for Sole Conversations. This piece was part of an Artist in the Community project completed by Jercher's partner, the dancer Christine Babinskas, under the patronage of Melbourne's Prahran Council, with Danceworks as host organisation and funding from the Theatre Board of the Australia Council. It led to further collaborations with other video artists, and projects for the independent television production company, Open Channel; for the Queen Victoria Hospital; and for the Prahran School of Art and Design.

All these pieces explored imagery appropriate to the host organisations - with the sounds paraphrasing a specific environment. Jercher believes his work, operating in this way, suggests a new auditory consciousness. Not only is there music played on radio, in concert halls, available on record and compact disc, and played on recognisable instruments... there is also a world of ambient sound. Do we, his work poses the question, simply ignore the daily Supermarket Chorus and Lawn Mower Symphony? Do we allow them to fall to a level of the unconscious, or are they simply negated because they are commonplace or outside our social definitions of music?

Exploring these questions in 1985, Jercher worked on video and composition as part of an Art and Working Life project in collaboration with the Victorian Clothing Trade Union - with funds provided by the Theatre Board of the Australia Council.

Titled Missing Threads, the piece used sounds created by workers and machinery in clothing factories in various parts of Melbourne. The performance, held at the same sites where the sounds were gathered, took the form of a duet with Chris tine Babinskas. The workers comprised the audience, and the piece was also filmed.

Because of their pre-conceptions, Jercher believes, audiences who attend concert halls, opera and ballet, may have difficulties with new music. However, the `uneducated' listener may approach the work freshly and accept it more on its own terms.

Missing Threads celebrated the experience of its listeners, who could identify its source, and thus was highly accessible to them.

All work produces sounds; and Jercher believes those sounds to be as individual as a person's voice or use of words. Increasingly, he wishes to integrate life with art, by composing music out of the sounds people generate in their daily activity.

Although his work has a social focus, Jercher believes his personality will necessarily be evident in it. However, rather than make music in service of a composer's ego, or the idealised and collective one of the listener - thus satisfying familiar cries for `works of stature and genius' - he believes a lower-key and educative role is more important and, because it brings contemporary perceptions into actuality, the work becomes both more intimate and more profound.

There may be an echo of Brecht's aesthetics in an oft-quoted saying of his mother's, `Gleiche Rechnung Gute Freunde', which translates as fair exchange for valued work.

Jercher's working class background requires an emphasis on the value of his activity as work - whether this takes place in the fields of dance, video, radio, theatre, or whether pieces are performed in factories, galleries or concert halls.

To augment this value, Jercher would like to become more responsive and sensitive to audiences, aware of his aesthetic choices and effective as a performer - while remaining true to his own inspirations.

Because his compositional methods are largely intuitive, his work requires the assumption of great artistic freedom - notwithstanding its social focus. Always, Jercher feels the legacy of his childhood, the sudden correlations made in periods of creative growth. These inspirations, with their attendant freshness and immediacy of perception, have laid dormant - seeds awakened and brought to growth in the works of his skilled and mature years.

In performance, Jercher often uses the boomerang as both an instrument and evocative sign. For him, the gesture of throwing it signifies much of the pleasure and effort of composition... But the `art' is to catch it upon its return.


"Mantis", Tape (Decisions) Rash R004 1980.

"Snapshots", hear NOW, National Programming Service - Public Broadcasting Association of Australia. 1986.


On the Move, (Video), Director M. Guinea, TVED HSV 7. 1985.

Sole Conversations,(Video), Director M. Guinea, Distribution: Open Channel. 1985.

Rights for Residents, (Video), Director M. Guinea, Human Rights Commission, Distribution: Open Channel. 1985.

Reinforce, (Video), Director M. Guinea, Melbourne Film Festival, Distribution: Open Channel. 1985.

The Island, (Video), Director M. Guinea, Melbourne College of Decoration, Distribution: Open Channel. 1986.

Breaking New Grounds, (Video), Director M. Guinea, Queen Victoria Hospital, Distribution: Open Channel. 1986.

22 Contemporary Australian Composers index

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