My KPFA - A Historical Footnote








The Aleatory World of Henry Jacobs




Henry Jacobs is a living embodiment of the picaresque. He seems to have spent his life playing, but in the process kept inventing things for which his successors got the credit. He was fooling around with spacial sound distribution through loudspeakers before Varese’s Poeme Electronique took the 1959 Brussels World Fair by storm—in fact, he was there at the same time doing his thing in another building. He experimented early with multilayered tape loops, quite independently of Pierre Schaeffer in Paris. His free-form radio collages in the early fifties were a whole decade ahead of John Leonard’s Nightsounds, the program which is authoritatively identified as the first of this kind.


At the same time, he has been a Zelig-like shlimazl to whom unfortunate things keep happening. After a big success with Interviews of our Times [above right], all the material for a subsequent album was destroyed by an associate in revenge for a party practical joke. His first album was re-released by Fantasy with no royalties and his name blacked out in the liner notes[right]. And to cap it all, the rambling fairy-tale house in which I interviewed him was later wiped out in a forest fire, along with a whole hillside of once-in-a-lifetime dwellings.*


Some of Henry Jacobs’s experiments with tape loops as broadcast on KPFA in 1953/4 were included in Folkways FX 6160, Sounds of New Music, along with Soviet “socialist realist” music such as Mossolov’s Steel Foundry, and Henry Cowell’s ethereal Aeolian Harp and screaming Banshee. Side two is devoted to “THE EXPERIMENTS”, closing with Jacobs’ selections, which can be heard here.


From the beginning, Jacobs was interested in ethnic music and in the course of making his KPFA programs he sometimes interviewed ethnomusicologists. The fruit of this experience was a shrewd grasp of their speech manerisms which went into the INTERVIEWS OF OUR TIMES which he improvised with a friend, Woodrow Leafer. The result was instant notoriety.


The first, INTERVIEW WITH DR. SHOLEM STEIN, set out to trace the Jewish origins of calypso; the second, SHORTY PETTERSTEIN INTERVIEW, was an attempt at conversation with a jazz musician so far out and laid back as to occupy a totally different dimension in outer space. If you want to know what happened next, listen to our CONVERSATION, recorded in 1994.

* At 84, he still hasn't given up. Eric Bauersfeld writes: "He has built a new, how shall we say it, house? Great concrete slabs, floor levels that go up and down the hillside. Everywhere bits of things, unfinished plumbing coming out of walls, shower stalls, window frames. Junk awaiting a name and a use adorns the unfinished terraces: old cars, rusted things, throw-aways, things left over from the fire . . . The good old days revisited."