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Review: Variations Vol. 1 by Jesse Woolston

3 September 2018

New Zealand born, Los Angeles-based composer and visual artist Jesse Woolston returns with his second release of 2018, ‘Variations Vol I’ which explores sound design and mood with a range of techniques. A collection of tracks that repurpose and re-interpret instruments in ways that are cinematic and compelling, this release is abstract yet accessible. The relationship between sight and sound seems inextricably linked for this artist whose visual work and sound work inform each other. 


Like a modern revisitation of 1970s Spectralism, this project seems more focused on content than form, burrowing yet deeper into the sonic possibilities of the minutiae of sounds. Though these tracks begin and end with no sense of journey, we are nonetheless transported; a shift in sensation of both space and time. There is a deep analytical sensibility that comes across in the music, every detail carefully considered, and every idea rendered in high detail. The interplay between crispness and distortion lends a depth to the listening experience and a presence and immediacy to the sounds as they unfold.


Opener ‘Leaves of Grass’ is an eerie entrée with its complex timbres that deceive the mind, like an auditory illusion of sound that defies categorisation. Droning, throaty tonalities glide between strings, winds, and hints of brass. The scene is set as a motif emerges: expressive and primal, sending ripples through time. As the hoarse, expressive texture builds and harmonises with itself in echoed delay, this sound reaches deep inside, like an ancient memory of the collective unconscious. 


‘Piano Form II’ pushes the familiar sonority of piano into unfamiliar territory, with a depth of sound foregrounded with plucked and struck piano strings set against a shifting backdrop of rippling, evolving texture; spikes of sound peeking through and wavering like sea anemone tentacles swirling in the tide. There is a great visual sense of photographic depth of field in the images this track conjures up: a shifting, sharp focus juxtaposed against a blurred background of whirling wind. Timbre is broken down into far-flung frequencies, as the singularity of sounds is exploded into its constituent parts. 


Leading on from here, ‘What Once Was’ blurs boundaries between timbres, overlapping and shapeshifting in hybrid pulses of sound; a rippling mirage of organ, strings, winds and horns, all at once, or perhaps none of these things. As we relinquish the need to define and categorise, allowing the sounds just to unfold in our ears, stillness emerges, the depth of experience revealed in observing this alien experience of an undulating surface of sound. Overwhelmingly, this piece seems to feel like time itself coming full circle, a beginning and an end: simultaneously of the primordial and of the last faint glimmers of a not so distant future. 


Like a whale’s song, ‘The Meeting’ is a listening experience that is immersive and distorted, as if heard underwater. It is deep and dark, with a pervasive sense of distance, emptiness and space. Otherworldy strings icily glide through dissonances, creating a comfortable tension with no yearning for resolution. Deep bass impulses and stark, buzzing, brassy tones increase this tension as we sink deeper into this sonic world, before our perception is oriented upwards to the glimmers of light rippling above on the surface as the sounds die away.


‘Entering The Prism’ continues on with this submarine sound texture, now boiling, bubbling and effervescent. Like vast wobbling pockets of air rushing for the surface, this track is oceanic, wrapped and layered with a thin atmosphere that encapsulates its core. Inside, there is a sense of restlessness in ricocheting sounds but there is a soft, warm, crystal glow that finds its way in from the outside. 


The final track ‘Among The Living’ is a sparse, delicate conclusion; a chromatography of piano separated out into sound colours. Fragments of piano hammer impulses, split tonalities and spaciousness create a delicate web of sounds. Our internalised concept of chords is obliterated by single notes becoming chords of their own; a heightened illumination of their harmonic series, shaded by the less tonal elements of this percussive instrument. 


This collection of tracks feels alien yet intimate, distant but strangely familiar. The moods created by these closed circuits of sound seem to yearn for a visual accompaniment, be that of the imagination, or in a film. This music effortlessly casts shadows in the mind’s eye, teasing and tricking our perception in subtle yet startling ways. In every track there is just enough space between that each element takes on a multiplicitous presence, as a new dimensionality emerges; perception measured in an entirely different scale.

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