Jesse Seay
Interview by Rachel Morris for
The Student Loop

Photos by Alexandra Pilichowski

Basically we're featuring you because we think your work is really unique and interesting. What's even more interesting to us is how few women major and / or work in audio. How did you get into it, what was it like being one of those few women in audio acoustic art, and what's it like being on the other end - teaching?

I got into audio through a very traditionally “feminine” route— I played the flute when I was young. I actually started college as a music performance major, but I realized pretty quickly I was far happier on-air at the campus radio station, doing radio news and djing. That led to audio documentary work, and eventually, sound art.

A lot of sound art is grounded in math and science, and I think the math/sciences are traditionally seen as a male domain. But what’s interesting to me is how “feminine” the medium of sound art can be. While the physical sciences tend to be male-dominated, language and interpersonal relations are traditionally seen as “feminine” fields and the medium of sound lends itself well to explorations of language and relationships. I address language and relationships as subject matter in my work, 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.

I enjoy teaching immensely. I used to be an on-air radio host and producer, and I find teaching to be very similar— engaging an audience, planning content for several hours— it’s a lot like putting on a show. As for gender dynamics, I’m used to being the only woman in my discipline, and I have been in environments that are openly sexist—Columbia isn’t one of them. My students are mostly guys, and that’s fine. I am excited, though, when women take my classes— it’s nice to not be the only one in the room! I also hope that my presence will encourage women to pursue their interest in sound, and I think more and more of them are.

Your Favorite Chicago Sounds archive is so cool. How has your experience been in seeing it grow and as its Creative Director?

It’s been wonderful. I’d only been in Chicago a few years when I started the project, and building the archive, reading people’s favorite sound stories of the city, has taught me so much about it. There are place I’ve gone to, to make recordings, that I’d never have known about otherwise.

I see that you received your MA in Media and Cultural Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and your MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What was your MFA in, and how does North Carolina sounds compare to Chicago?

All MFAs at the Art Institute are in “Studio Art.” I really like this approach because it discourages you from categorizing your work, which ultimately limits it. An artistic line of inquiry might begin as a sound piece, but end up as a sculpture— and having the freedom to explore mediums allows you to be true to your own process.

I think that so much of what you learn, especially in studio classes, has more to do with who the teacher is than with what the subject matter is. So while I took most of my classes with Sound department faculty, the courses I took outside of the department were equally rewarding. I took a class in fibers where most of the students were doing fiber-based pieces. I’d bring my audio and video work to class, and they happily critiqued it without batting an eye.

It’s funny, I was talking with my mother the other night— she’s in Tokyo where she spends a lot of time, and where I lived a few years. She told me I needed to go spend a few months recording there because Japan has “more sounds” than America. Of course, she’s a little biased, but she has a point, the sound environments of Tokyo and Chicago are very different, and I’d say Tokyo is much noisier. It certainly doesn’t mean the sounds are “better” though, just different. And, funny enough, one of the most iconic parts of Japanese culture, the bullet train, makes no sound at all. Seriously. I wanted to record it once until I realized there was nothing to record.

Do you have a favorite Chicago sound? If so, what is it?

I love metal sounds. Creaky old elevators and long metal stairs. I was a big fan of the sounds of the old North Ave bridge near Elston. The cars passing over it made these lovely resonant hums, while the supports strained and groaned. Every time I walked over it I would stop and enjoy the chorus. They knocked it down a few years back and built a new one, though, and the new one is too solid to make much noise. There are still many other old metal bridges around the city — they’re really worth a listen.

What has been your most favorite project to work on?

I can’t say I’ve had a favorite single project. Each one is a learning experience and an opportunity to interact with new people.

What is it like in a "day in the life with Jesse Seay"? What kind of equipment do you use to record your sounds?

I use a variety of audio equipment. For my environmental recordings, I use a Sony PCM-D50 recorder with Sonic Studios DSM binaural microphones.

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. I’ve been focusing on sculpture this fall, and for that I work with fabricators. So I’ve been meeting with programmers and builders, visiting other people’s studios and researching odd materials.

When I’m making recordings, whether it’s environmental or interviews, I tend to leave the house with my kit and a vague sense of where I’m going but not what I’ll do once I arrive. I can’t decide that until I get there. But sometimes I end up somewhere else. I think it’s important to follow your instincts, rather than a pre-set plan.

Where do you find inspiration? Who or what are some influences?

I daydream 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.