Name: Jemma Woolmore
Nationality: New Zealand
Occupation: Sound & media artist, art director
Current Event: Jemma Woolmore will perform at the Klangbox series at Galerie Zora Auguste in Berlin. The performances, which also double up as release events for beautifully designed tapes, are curated by Kaan Bulak [Read our Kaan Bulak interview] and will highlight a wealth of approaches towards working with sound. Each Klangbox gig will bring together musicians from the most diverse corner of the stylistic spectrum and place them outside of their usual comfort zone, promising performances stimulating for the audience and the performers alike. Get tickets for the first Klangbox event here.
If you enjoyed this interview with Jemma Woolmore and would like to find out more about her and her work, visit her personal homepage. She is also on Instagram.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it and what keeps sound interesting for you?
When I look back I see that there was always sound in my childhood. Through my mother and her roles in music and movement, there was always song and percussion, music and dance in our household.
Sound for me has often been connected with the body and movement. Contemporary dance, ballet and club culture have all been influential in directing my interest in sound. I became a VJ as a way of merging my Fine Art education and my love for electronic music and this has led me on a path to creating audio-visual performance and installation.
My interest in making sound came through my collaborations with musicians as a video artist. This connection between sound, light and image is so inspiring to me and I wanted to work with both mediums simultaneously.
It is this intersection between sound, light, bodies and space, the dynamic experiences created when all these elements come together that keeps it interesting for me.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
My mother has an eclectic taste in music and I was exposed to artist such as Pitch Black (a dub group from NZ) and Laurie Anderson (who I would say has had a big influence on my art practice in general).
[Read our Pitch Black interview]
I grew up in New Zealand which has a love of all things reggae, dub and drum & bass and the dark, grimey sounds of 90’s drum & bass have definitely influenced my sound preferences. A love of Sci-fi and film in general has almost certainly had an impact on my sound aesthetic as well.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
No, not really. I am just at the beginning with sound making and haven’t yet found a tradition within which to contextualise my practice.
I do see my process as aligned with cinema sound design, as I am usually considering sound in relation to image or light.
What types of sound do you personally prefer to work with? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
I like to work with sounds that are evocative of an emotion or give a cue to an experience that is about to happen - ominous deep rumblings, risers, melodic build ups. I like to work with my voice as an instrument. I also seem to be attracted to rough, mechanical sounds, sounds from a dystopia.
I reject sounds that don’t add to the emotional development of the piece. There aren’t any specific sounds that I refuse to use, it just depends on the goal of the piece and whether they work to achieve that or not.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
I work with a mixture of my own field recordings and found sound samples. The field recordings are often made spontaneously as I find sounds in my everyday life that interest me.
Currently I am recording sounds that my son finds interesting or experiments with. It is fascinating to observe him exploring noise - this material scrapped against this surface vs that surface, these two things banged together, the sound of the dishwasher and its different phases, the distinction between an aeroplane or helicopter flying overhead. I hear the world differently through his ears.
I have no organisational system for my sounds, some are collected into projects that they were used for, others are left in chaos.
Some artists use sounds as a means for emotional self-expression, others take a more conceptual approach or want to present intriguing sound matter. How would you characterise your own goals and motivations in this regard?
I use sound to tell stories. My works are crafted to take people on a journey, they are almost always made as audio-visual works and with a specific context in mind, so very similar to a cinematic experience.
I try to build worlds with my performances and installations, with a goal of making these experiences as immersive as possible. The stories are usually abstract in nature, sound engenders emotion which plays a key role in immersing an audience into the world and the story.
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds?
I begin from a world building perspective, sketching the story I want to tell. These stories can be influenced by key sounds that I want to incorporate and I will often build a section around a certain sound. From there I work out the overall structure of the journey including peaks and lows, dark and light.
Sound is always developed parallel with visual material and often with a specific context and audience in mind. I am normally working towards a live performance or installation, rather than a finished piece of music for release and this pushes the sound works out into longer sections that flow together.
Many artists have related that certain sounds trigger compositional ideas in them or are even a compositional element in their own right. Provided this is the case for you – what, exactly, is about certain sounds that triggers such ideas in you?
This is definitely the case with my process. Sounds that capture my imagination either trigger a strong visual correlation, are related conceptually to something that I am researching or are intriguing in their own right.
Three concrete examples are:
1: The first time I heard the air go out of a pipe organ with notes still being played. This stunning deflating, tonal shifting sound was so astounding, it instantly brought to mind a feeling of descent, I knew I had to use it somewhere. I made recordings that became the sound that descends the audience down into the earth in my piece for Full-dome, Hyphosphere.
2: I was thinking about invisible forces that impact our lives heavily, although we are unable to see or directly feel them and was offered an Electro-magnetic field recorder by a friend. This process of walking around my house and neighbourhood sensing EMF’S through audio led to creating the work Fragile Things III.
3: Walking in Berlin on a cold winters day and hearing an eerie singing sound coming from the frozen-over canal. This sound the ice makes formed the basis for Fragile Things I.
Humans are often characterised as "visual beings". In your opinion, what role does our sense of hearing play in our understanding of the world? How do sounds affect you, compared to other senses like sight or smell?
Sounds reveal information about the world before we can see it. Sound is directional and gives us information about space, scale and time. When creating an installation I think about how sound has the ability to fill a space with ease, and give information about that space in the way it responds to structures.
Sound can also be very emotional and have a strong impact on how we feel about the visual input we receive of the world around us. This is interesting to play with in audio-visual works, the relationship between a sound and an image, where they converge and where they create unexpected juxtapositions.
The idea of acoustic ecology has drawn a lot of attention to the question of how much we are affected by the sound surrounding us. What's your take on this and on acoustic ecology as a movement in general?
We are hugely affected by the soundscapes surrounding us. Constant bombardment with sound is taxing and we have no inbuilt mechanism for shutting out noise. Periods of low sound or silence can be so rare these days with all the various appliances and machines that make noise. I am interested in these sounds that are often pushed to the background of our consciousness and like to use them in my work.
I think it is important for people designing spaces that we inhabit to consider the soundscapes we create, for humans and also non-humans. We need to be more careful about the effects of noise pollution on all life forms, including sound in the spectrum inaudible to us.