Last month New Zealand composer and multimedia artist Jesse Woolston released his new album µstructure to coincide with simultaneous visual art exhibitions in San Francisco for MUTEK and in Miami for the Digital Graffiti Projection Festival and referencing earlier exhibits in Mexico City and London. The exhibitions are centred on the idea of scalability and the structural re-representation of geometrical shapes in art through sculpture and film respectively. Musically and in a composition sense µstructure serves as a dual entry point into the art, both aural inspiration for and aural representation of idea and process.
If that all sounds rather mathematical and distant from human emotion, the six tracks as well as the structures and silhouettes soon remind through ear, eye and mind that nothing could be further from the truth. Woolston’s art is both a representation of the structural and logical and the free and emotional; oscillating human states which essentially overlap in any case. It’s an album that rests on a spectrum instrumentally ranging in width from spartan piano to dense atmospherics. Like his visual art it beautifully utilises size and space but then deftly adds tone and timbre to both convey and illicit contrasting feelings of tension and release and a sense of foreboding and wonder.
In the wake of the album’s release and the success of the exhibitions, I sent some open ended questions across to the Los Angeles based artist with the aim of eliciting responses which would be both an introduction to Woolston, his art and his music as well as provide an opportunity for the creative to convey the thinking behind µstructure specifically. They also allow for insight into the multifarious intersections where Woolston’s two forms of art meet and reveal why he cannot forgo one for the other. For him the connection between the aural and the visual, the ear and the eye, is so powerful they cannot be separated or disconnected from each other.
What the answers reveal in general is a deep thinking artist with much to say who recognises that life metaphorically is a scalable kaleidoscope of inseparable negative, neutral and positive emotions. And when the oppositional, contrasting qualities of music and art are working in tandem a representative of this concept they can open up communicative possibilities that one day may see that emotional kaleidoscope in all its forms not avoided or narrowed down for comfort or utility but embraced for what it is…life.
Accompanying the interview are the tracks he refers to in the interview from the album and a selection of microscopic photographs from an exquisitely assembled photography book that accompanies the CD. Links to buy the album digitally and/or physically are below the interview.
James Stocker with Jesse Woolston
JS: You currently reside in Los Angeles to facilitate your music and art but where is and has been home in New Zealand?
JW: Even though I feel like anywhere in New Zealand is home, I would say it would be a mix of Auckland and The Coromandel, and Queenstown (on the shores of the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu). I grew up outside of the city in Auckland and always had a deep connection with nature. If I were to reflect on my childhood, there weren’t many rules (Which I don’t think has changed) so the freedom to explore and utilize my imagination was something I now value. My entire life except for the last few years has been spent in New Zealand I still don’t feel like I have fully adjusted to L.A. I keep discovering cultural differences, and what happens when you condense 13 million people into a small space.
JS: Can you provide a potted history of sorts in terms of where you studied and your experiences as an artist and a creative? How would you describe your evolution and growth in this space?
JW: Yes. My main studies have been in Sound Design at the Berklee College of Music (Boston) as well as production & audio engineering at a private institution here in L.A. I am now pursuing a music composition degree while maintaining the art, film, and concept albums. While I have been working for some time, I have only felt like I have come into my own as a creative in the last few years. I’ve always had a number of things to say and I still have a list of concepts I want to explore, but I wanted to wait until I can effectively communicate my idea’s visually and sonically.I have a range of works that are represented in design & animation for clients, artists, and business’, but that has not been something I have felt is worthy to showcase as it fits a different purpose.
Looking back at the art & music I have built, I now can see and connect the dots from when I began to evolving into the individual I am today. I have felt a drastic shift in the last few years starting in my early 20’s that has led me to understand more of my interests and the language I choose to communicate with. This idea alone is a reason I am excited to grow old with my work. I am eagerly anticipating how my taste will change and evolve and what I will take with me into a new style or field of work.
JS: How were the art installations you exhibited in San Francisco and Miami recently received and in what context did they come about?
JW: I’ve been overwhelmed with the responses so far! I have felt incredibly lucky to have been given these opportunities. Of course I have worked hard on these pieces, but to have the timing workout with festivals etc is another factor entirely. The progression was all organic. I was found by a curator named Adrian Alva who was facilitating a visual arts festival in Mexico City. He asked me to showcase a number of my motion design pieces at the festival as part of collaborative installation for the outdoor open air cinema, Cineteca Nacional de Mexico. From there, all of these opportunities have arisen which has given me an incredible opportunity to blend visual media and music together as a complete experience.
JS: What was the overall aim behind µstructure and what relationship does it have to the exhibitions?
JW: The main concept that connects the two pieces together is the idea of scalability & structure in art.
I wanted to begin within one state or scale then translate the works upward to a new one entirely. The album’s artwork I built was all under a microscope which was scaled to a canvas, poster, and print level (The book). The tools I had to use in order to get the pieces right and also translate them correctly with editing was part of how I wanted to re-represent what you may see if you were to glance at a microscope slide with the naked eye. Without a microscope, A blob or small piece of fiber wouldn’t even be considered as “art”.
The exhibits in SF and Florida were based on the same idea but within a different scale. I wanted to re-represent how sculpture and geometry is represented, starting on a scale of sculpture you would see at a museum that was then blown up to the level of a Planeterium or the side of a building.
Miniature book photography by Jesse Woolston
JS: When you combine art forms which is often tackled first and what decides this. Can you give an example?
JW: This is a good question because both the visual art and music is so closely tied that I can’t really say either or. When I build visuals, I often hear music in my mind and what the piece would “look” like if I were to translate it to the frequency spectrum with music. In contrast, when I write music I picture visual materials and animation that represent the idea I am trying to communicate. I have never been able to release any of my works without somehow adding in a visual or sonic element. To me, It feels empty unless I can include both senses.
It’s also a reason why I have a deep interest in film. The blending of music and picture is something that is compelling. What has always captured my attention within this realm has been the process of executing a story and a feeling without the use of language. An example of this process is the ‘Movement’ piece from the album. The entire time while I was writing it, I couldn’t shake the memories of being home in New Zealand amongst nature and the beauty that comes with the harshness and tenderness of desolate land. I wanted the entire piece to represent the power, softness, and size all wrapped up in a contrasting scary but beautiful package.
Jesse Woolston (NZL)
From the album. ‘µstructure’, Self Released
JS: µstructure in totality seems to be mostly freeform and doesn’t seem to have a clear structure or lasting time signature. What was the thinking behind its composition and how do you go about the process of composing? Having said that, your music could be taken almost to be emotive Mathematics – a sadness in the numbers, the angles, the ratio, the distance?
JW: I am quite pleased you touched on emotive Mathematics. The process behind my work often falls under two categories. The first being a structured, logical, and thorough construction while the second being free, emotional, and spontaneous. When it came to the composition of the record, I worked with both of these approaches. There are a number of tracks that tonaly mix the idea of a structured or logical setup that is then applied to organic instrumentation.
The concept behind the micro-structure aside from the approach and use of scale, size etc was built on the basis of how the pieces were built. When I composed the works, I set up an application that would produce a rhythmic and melodic variance within a repeatable timeline. With the pieces, some are concentrated with this approach while the others “expand” outward into a free method of composition.
Briefly, two examples that use the process is µstructure and piano form. The main section in µstructure is purely based on this concept. Every time I exported the piece, There was a new or altered version and after analyzing a number of exports, I picked the one that I felt got my point across. ‘Piano Form’ is an example of how I used this structure of composition applied to an organic approach. The entire piece is built purely from the piano (from the bass to FX) minus a number of string recordings.
Jesse Woolston (NZL)
From the album. ‘µstructure’, Self Released
JS: There is a sense of wonder at times that exists across each of the six tracks, a wonder that seems to be transfixed on the smallest of details while this widescreen world looms as omnipresent, sometimes menacingly so. Was this juxtaposition in size and mood to give emphasis to the space and tension existing within those parameters musically? ‘Lambent 01’ seems to best sum this up.
JW: I really appreciate the depth of interest. There is a number of idea’s that go into a piece like ‘Lambent 01′, but I would like to talk about one in particular. On a more personal note, I often write within a state or a range of feeling that I try to communicate through my music as opposed to it being the approach of a traditional album. I am naturally drawn to the writing states of tension and melancholia with counterpoints of hope. The contrast of the two and how they can work together within a range of brief resolutions and tension to me is incredibly powerful. So to answer your question, yes, Lambent 01 as an example was the idea of creating a framework with size and mood then weaving the various emotions through the motif’s and the sound design presented. I should add, one thing I have experienced working with visual art is that if you can build a strong contrast, with the elements working in juxtaposition, the method of communication is powerful.
Jesse Woolston (NZL)
From the album. ‘µstructure’, Self Released
JS: The space that’s generated could be taken many ways. To me, it seems to be representative of the cavernous gap between rhetoric and reality existing in human society and its organisations and entities today – the awkward silence that surrounds truth and the immeasurable and perhaps irretrievable distance that human beings have put between themselves and the natural world? Or is it something more abstract, about form and not human entirely – or a vehicle to allow other to project themselves into your creations?
JW: While this is an interesting and thought provoking theme, I have had intentions with where I want my work to sit. Now this is more of a overall artistic approach but I feel the need to touch on this concept as it does lead back to your summary. One thing I have always intentionally strived for with my work is that I am able to transcend the human experience and remove the need for language. Throughout my life and even up to now, I have found it difficult to communicate with others like I am able to by inducing emotion or an experience through art.
I think when language is considered, It can be very easy to lose perspective, openness, and the connection with an individual based on the limitations and pre-notions that might come with meanings and context. Much like the modern era, I often see people getting in their own way just by their choice in words or another individuals interpretation.
With art and music, It’s a pure sense of emotion and something everyone has the capacity to feel and understand. That then connects to the balance between being very intentional and also allowing people to project themselves into my work. I strongly believe there always needs to be room for the viewer or listener to interpret and experience the material almost as if it were their own. So, to go full circle to your point, the material led you down the path of contemplating the gap between rhetoric and reality existing in human society. My job is done considering I was working more from a point of how would this emotion be interpreted and applied to someone’s perspective.
JS: The use of tone seems to drive everything including the proximity that the listener senses and has relative to the layered soundscapes created. A slight sense of foreboding and dissonance seems to temper the aforementioned wonder regardless of instrument or method is involved. Can you explain your intentions here?
JW: With my writing before anything is considered, there’s an overall intention of what space or atmosphere is needed to create and enhance the contents of the piece for the listener. I believe the tone and sound of a song speaks volumes more than people realize. A classic example is as follows: What are the differences of tone, style, and atmosphere between a Beatles recording and a Pop act? The “sound” of the entire piece is completely different which renders a unique feeling. So, I have a direct and deep interest in how an album is represented through it’s atmosphere. Considering this, my mixing style and choice of instruments was to represent that idea.
The feeling of distance or space throughout the album was built intentionally to bring the listener into a feeling of an ethereal, almost enveloping passive state. There is a smoothness that can be achieved with the use of global effects to set the entire piece within a state. To put it simply, the approach is a much cleaner version of a band packed into a garage with a single mircophone.
JS: The recording seems quite deliberately variable in parts – crystalline in sections and imperfect and almost lo-fi in others – what were you seeking in that? Can you explain the recording process and the equipment involved?
JW: A concept for me that has come with my work is the idea of subtle communication through timbre. I have spent most of my time studying and exploring how tone can effect the feeling of a piece in it’s entirety aside from the literal contents being used.
I guess I would relate it to my audio engineering background and being observant of how a song is built. An example, Lambent 01 with it’s size has a number of points where the piano distorts. Technically, especially with an organic instrument like the piano, this can be considered distasteful but It was another way for me to showcase the conflict of limitations within the track. With size comes limits and the idea of testing that structure was an interesting experiment.
To touch on the equipment, I will give you an example. With the string recordings, there were a number of places that felt too “clean” and well rounded. To degrade them in a minor way what I did was use an NT1-A condenser mic and re-record the pieces in the studio through the speakers within the space. Naturally, the reverb or lack of was picked up in the recordings as well as the character of my microphone. A simple trick like that completely change the timbre of the piece especially if the same technique is applied to every element.
JS: Can you explain the title track’s placement on the record with its choppy looped beats? Is there a reason its the only one of its type out of the 6?
JW: Just to reference the process behind the composition, The piece really became the center point of the record and the most dominant that used the musical structure I touched on earlier.
Because of that centre point, If you notice, the first and last piece are drastically different in relation to it. As the centre piece moves outward in both directions, the music progresses from my first writing style as I mentioned into the second style. Decisions like that often get overlooked but I feel as if my writing is for those that take their time and attempt to make sense of everything associated with a piece of art. Because I do this and often spend weeks with an artists album on repeat, there has to be others out there like me, right? Maybe just the crazy ones, huh?
Jesse Woolston (NZL)
From the album. ‘µstructure’, Self Released
JS: How does your art drive your days? Are you an artist that needs routine and how do you split your time between the tactile and aural forms of art?
JW: This is a fascinating concept in the world of art & music. As you know, There is a stereotypical and maybe outdated notion that artists (emphasis on musicians) usually spend their days looking at a blank piece of paper, sleeping, or consuming compounds.
“Shattering the grand illusion”, the approach that has always worked for me has been to establish a routine and deploy some self awareness against that. I am someone that performs and functions the best with aggressive exercise, and a well balanced diet. That renders me waking up before the sun, completing my initial tasks, and getting started on my work before the world wakes up with it.
When splitting the various forms of my art, this has always been a struggle for me. Because the music inspires the visuals and vise versa, I start with one form and go back and forth based on the project. I intentionally never work on multiple pieces at the exact same time and If I am in the middle of a composition, I will always complete it before shifting to visual art.
This technique is becoming more and more difficult as a solo artist, so I am fortunate to have a number of friends that support my art with their visual material. An example would be two of the video’s I released by Tobias Gremmler and Peder Norrby. I am always inspired by their work as they have a very interesting visual interpretation. I never give them any background info with the pieces and they always find a way to re-frame my work in an interesting
JS: What does the future hold? Do you have any plans to concentrate on one form because if you did concentrate on the music side of things as an experimental artist I think the possibilities are endless. Do you intend to continue the cross-disciplinary approach?
I appreciate the insight. My ambitions can be summarized into the fields of installation art, film composition, and concept albums. The idea of picking a single path is something I have thought about since the beginning. One of my concerns is that I won’t achieve mastery within one of these fields which would allow me to realize all of my musical or visual ideas.
One thing I never get an opportunity to touch on within this is that one of my intentional reasons to work within both forms is that they have taught me about sound, emotional interpretation, and how these effect people within a given space. This range swings from a music venue, music theatre, to an installation space.
As an example, the idea that there is a disconnect between the visual and musical expression of an artist is something that scares me. These two senses are so powerful and essential to each other that I always can’t seem to accept the idea of not mastering or at least having a voice when working on a project. That is why I have built everything myself with the idea of the overall concept of the music in mind. Well………that or I am just way to OCD about it all.
At some point I may have to pick one and there even has been a number of established and well known composers & musicians suggest that I do, but my passion for both mediums and how they work with each other is something I can’t shake.
JS: Any intentions to release your 2015 vinyl only debut The Replicant digitally and / or on streaming services. I’d love to hear it.
JW: I believe the record is on one or two streaming platforms with vinyl exclusivity on bandcamp. I have been meaning to make the files available within a restricted manner. Because the record was a touch on a very left-field influence combined with my interests in ambient & experimental music, I like the idea that it is harder to find. I almost consider it an easter egg that I hope showcases the personal journey of my work. I have always loved crate digging and listening to the musical evolution of an artist so I hope others feel the same way.
JS: You recently added Circuits (2016) to Spotify. Great idea with the 7” btw. (The idea involved writing 5 physical songs (A1, A2, Intermission AR, B1, B2) which gave the active listener depending on play back method the chance to create at least 17 variants. The album was designed to allow the listener to be able to overlay songs to produce new sounds and compositions).
JW: Thank you! In the beginning, the concept evolved from a converstation with a friend about layering pieces and the greater use of music in a listening environment. I love the idea that each individual listener will have a unique experience suited to them due to the factors of their room, speakers, and record player.
I have always been fascinated with creating concepts within the art and music that create depth for the listener. I am also rather selfish with my work as it is related to a feeling or fascination with depth. I can never bring myself to just release a piece or an album without a deeper concept that has some ridiculousness to it. The idea of being in band releasing traditional albums and touring for 360 days a year seems like it would do my head in.
µstructure is self released and available on both digital and CD formats here. The CD includes a book of accompanying microscopic photography done by Woolston himself. Stream the album in its entirety below. Spend some time with this. Highly recommended.