Columbia assistant professor and sound artist Jesse Seay may stand out in the male-dominated field of audio arts and acoustics, but it's her exploration of everyday sounds that really sets her apart.
Written by Rachel Morris ('10)
Photography by Alexandra Pilichowski ('09)
As Jesse describes, she "got into audio through a very traditionally 'feminine' route." Playing the flute when she was young, she actually started college majoring in music performance. "But I realized pretty quickly I was far happier on-air at the campus radio station doing radio news and DJing," she says. "That led to audio documentary work, and eventually, sound art."
Jesse explains how a lot of sound art is grounded in the physical sciences that are traditionally seen as a "male domain." But what's interesting to her is "how 'feminine' the medium of sound art can be", especially in the exploration of language and interpersonal relationships.
"I address language and relationships as subject matter in my work," she says. "But they are also integral to my artistic process, which often involves collaboration and interaction. So you might say I’ve found a feminine approach to a masculine medium."
When it comes to teaching, which she "immensely" enjoys, most of her students are guys. So she welcomes more women to take her class. "I hope that my presence will encourage women to pursue their interest in sounds," she says. "And I think more and more of them are."
Among Jesse's plethora of projects and teaching is hosting and producing the new experimental radio station and webcast Vocalo.org, developed by Chicago Public Radio. And one of her most well-known and established pieces of work is the establishment and development of the Chicago field recordings archive, Favorite Chicago Sounds.
When asked what her favorite Chicago sounds are, she says she loves metal sounds like creaky old elevators and long metal stairs. For instance, she describes the sound of cars passing over the old North Avenue bridge (near Elston) as making "lovely resonant hums, while the supports strained and groaned... Every time I walked over it, I would stop and enjoy the chorus," she says. (Apparently that bridge was knocked down and replaced with a new one that's too solid to make much noise. But Jesse recommends the many other old metal bridges around the city as really worth a listen.)
If you're wondering what a typical day-in-the-life of Jesse Seay is like, she says it's not any more charming than yours or mine. (We think that's refreshing.) "People have this idea that artists live some kind of glamorous life, and everyone should be one. It only looks glamorous at the openings. For artists who are successful, work generally involves a lot of turning down social invitations, holing up in the studio and, well, working."
Case in point, this fall she's been focusing on sculpture, which involves working with fabricators, meeting with programmers and builders, visiting other people’s studios, and researching odd materials.
As for the equipment Jesse uses, she says she tends to leave her house with her "kit" (which consists of her Sony PCM-D50 recorder and Sonic Studios DSM binaural microphones) and a vague sense of where she's going and what she'll do once she arrives. "I can’t decide that until I get there," she explains. "But sometimes I end up somewhere else. I think it’s important to follow your instincts, rather than a pre-set plan."
And for inspiration? Jesse says she daydreams a lot. "For my sculpture, I draw a lot of ideas from playing with basic materials for awhile, figuring out what’s unique about an object. I’m not a fan of noisy environments, I like to go where there is space (both acoustic and mental) to listen. I get a lot of ideas in Home Depot. Or yoga class."
Nice. Here's to hearing. Or more so, listening. You can see and hear more of Jesse's work at www.jesseseay.com