On the second side of Versatile Ambience, Jeph Jerman utters an all too accurate observation of our overheated culture, describing us at “the smithy’s forge, replacing art with scrutiny.” Throughout their new record, Jerman and Barnes show us another, alchemical possibility—fusing art and scrutiny together. Across a dozen years, the duo of Jerman and Barnes has offered powerful, minimal music rooted in a shared dedication to the creative act of listening. Jerman is a veteran of the creative music scenes in Denver and Seattle, and in more recent years has been thoroughly investigating the sonic possibilities of the desert Southwest where he lives and works. Tim Barnes’s resume as a percussionist, engineer, and curator is studded with all-star collaborators including Tony Conrad, Sonic Youth, Ken Vandermark (who appears here as a guest), Royal Trux, and Tower Recordings. Versatile Ambience is their second record in as many years, making this one of the most productive periods in the duo’s history. The pieces on Versatile Ambience highlight the ingenuity and intense physical economy found throughout both artists’ repertoires. What sonic and performative possibilities are held in these few found objects, in this environment? What music is already here? What music is hidden in the subtly shifting motion of a hand? Explicitly or implicitly, Jerman and Barnes have spent their careers asking these questions. The latest answers are found here, in creative percussive and electronic improvisation by the duo, in the minimal but impactful contributions of a handful of guests, and in field recordings ranging from the call of a stranded cricket to the roar of a distant airport.
The spoken section (a first for the duo) sounds as though it is a poetics being conceived, written, recorded, and edited as you are hearing it. But if at first it sounds like a cut-up, passages like “and you, the anvil? / I am the hammer!” promise at the very least a Mad Libs-worth of structure and play, and quite a bit more depth. Despite its appearance so soon after their last effort, this record feels more considered, more complete than any Jerman/Barnes release to date. Like a snake’s path through the sand, if the duo’s trajectory holds, Versatile Ambience will soon be seen as a remarkable point along a fascinatingly meandering line.—Aaron Rosenblum