Music

Gerard Herman’s Music Has a Life of Its Own

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Do you dream of dirt? Are you looking for something small and fertile and self-sustaining? You could be dreaming of the Belgian label Entr’acte, run by a Brit named Allon Kaye who relocated from London to Antwerp in 2012. Or you could be wishing for Gerard Herman, the 28-year-old art teacher from Antwerp who made the best album on Entr’acte this year, Die Paste, die Wrong, a crackling pouch of small beauties.

Everything on Entr’acte is worth your time, from the microtonal modular synth explorations Dave Burraston makes as NYZ to Mike Majkowski’s humid string drones. Herman might be the most atypically typical act on the label, though Entr’acte is barely a label. Kaye commissions nothing and describes the music he releases as demos — drafts or ideas. Pressed about the label’s aesthetic, he cites only the quality of “intimacy.” Herman’s work is anti-chops, anti-genre, anti-fidelity, anti-narrative, and at the same time pro-everything. It is gorgeously irregular and tactile, as pointless and perfect as a weed. By email, Herman describes his music fairly well: “I like it to be a moldy thing, sounds that seem to grow life on their own.”

In the recent past, Herman played saxophone and home-built instruments in a free-jazz band called Sheldon Siegel, but now he spends most of his time teaching graphics and illustration at the School of Arts of University College Ghent. His own art is linked to his music by a lack of misplaced seriousness. His 2015 short-film series, “Gedane Zaken,” is a six-episode “soap opera without actors.” Herman shot “cliché settings” around Belgium — a church, a hotel, a sandwich bar — added some nondescript music (if Muzak still exists, it exists here), and narrated the action in Dutch. His gallery work is even less stuffy. In his last solo exhibition, from 2016, he displayed a series of paintings called “Piss Corners,” yellow stains placed over black-and-white corners, made with ink and watercolors. His sculptures have a touch of Beuys’s ability to transform everyday objects: beer bottles bundled with masking tape and string; a plastic hamster habitat filled with no hamsters but one music box.

Die Paste, die Wrong is a phrase that works, sort of, in both Dutch and English. To Anglophones, it’s four words that almost make sense. The Dutch meaning is a cousin of Three Little Bears: “That one fitted, that one was a bit tight.” Combine the nonsensical with the mundane and you have something close to the feel of Herman’s music. Over the course of six years, Herman put together the fourteen tracks that became Die Paste, die Wrong. He drew on his own field recordings and samples of found sounds: Russian singers, snake charmer music, brief snatches of free jazz. Utilizing the free audio editor Audacity, he cut all his sources together and mixed them down to one block of sound, saving none of the intermediary steps along the way. He would return to the work months later, hoping to have forgotten how it was made and find new takes on it. The resulting music is both unstoppable and casual, like someone’s day seen through a very unfancy plastic telescope. Sounds repeat, then crumble, and forms emerge that never seem particularly solid or sure.

The opener, “Heatsink Mustang,” is one of the quieter pieces on the album and could fool you into thinking it has something to do with ambient music. A slow, beatless melody on a monophonic synth is combined with a recording Herman made in the Alps, in a pasture among cows, under a rain screen. The rain could be the crunch of vinyl runoff or the pop of frying eggs; the synth tones are cars zooming past a shrub. For “Heartburn Jesting,” Herman tried to duplicate the sound of being in a parking lot outside a “dodgy club.” The rhythm pulses steadily without any particular impact as unidentified metal hits metal. If it’s a club we’re near, it’s not where the developers are, and time is moving slowly. “Hush-hush Breathless” is right at the center of the peaceful dissolution Herman does so well. Herman took field recordings made during a nature trip and bits of piano playing captured in his parents’ house and dubbed them onto cassette tapes that he then cut up, reassembled, and fed into a computer to create loops. (His grandfather left him a bag of cassettes, which he has not yet exhausted.)

Herman’s work is small only in scale. There is resonant life in every track on Die Paste, die Wrong, each one of them a potent and asymmetrical nubbin. The power of music like Herman’s — and most of the Entr’acte catalog — resides partly in a gentle refusal to do anything easily identified or organize itself along visible lines. An embrace of the misshapen opens up the world. Herman gives you seeds rather than flowers, and assumes you know what to do with them.

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