Los Angeles

John Wiese Documents Sound with Video


John Wiese doesn't consider himself a musician. He says this multiple times during the course of our interview. Wiese, however, is part of a band called Sissy Spacek. They play a raucous fits of music that clock in at much less than a minute. Wiese has also been associated with plenty of other underground music types. Plus, he has composed works for ensemble performances. He's still not a musician. "I feel like I'm more of a floating contributor to many different things," says Wiese.

It's an important distinction to make. Wiese has contributed to a lot of musical projects, he has even released records and toured on his own, but his focus isn't on creating songs or being part of a band or any of the other stuff that goes along with the turf. "I just make the sounds," says Wiese. "Physically, I'm not really a performer, per se. I just sort of do the actions it takes to do the sounds."

It all goes back to a record that Wiese acquired during his early childhood in Boston. One side of the vinyl blasted short blips of sound effects reminiscent of what you might here in a sci-fi movie. The flip side told a story through the sound effects. Wiese retells the tale in a string of vague memories, something about contact with aliens that doesn't go quite so well for the space explorers. "There's no dialogue," he says, "no dramatic music, no music of any kind, and it's just these sort of textural, practical, Foley kind of sound effects." A few years later, when Wiese was attending grade school in Chicago, he would use boomboxes to edit together bits of tapes and audio from the television set. "It was all very crude of course, but it was this sort of natural inclination to wanting to cut and montage sound," he says.

John Wiese, "A Specific Point in a Continuous Whole"

Wiese's work with sound coincides with his recent video pieces, a few of which will be screened at Cinefamily on July 2. In this medium, Wiese splices together footage from live performances, recording sessions and road travels to create artful documentaries that are devoid of dialogue and, in some case, completely silent. "I'm trying to use video as a means to express sound," he says. Narratives appear in a mix of straightforward and abstract visuals that reference sound. The audience gains the vantage point of staring at a stage through a crowd or watching miles pass by car or plane. You have to create noises -- the distorted sound of a band playing in a small venue, the ambient hum of the airplane -- in your head. It is not a passive experience.

For Wiese, visual pursuits are as much a part of his history as the aural ones. His first job was licensing the typefaces that he designed. Photography was a major interest for the young artist as well. Through those pursuits, he headed down the graphic design path and graduated with a degree in the subject from California Institute of the Arts. Wiese still does a lot of design work, including the striking flyers that he has made for upcoming events. Video, though, is a relatively recent passion, one that harks back to his old love for photography. He recently completed a month-long L.A. Air residency at Echo Park Film Center.

"I was never really interested in doing something that was like a music video type of thing," says Wiese. He opens up his laptop and pulls up one of his earlier pieces. Simply called "Sissy Spacek," the video dates back to 2011 and follows his band on tour up the West Coast. When Wiese first edited the footage together, he did it without audio. Quickly, he realized that the way to present the 18-minute video was in silence. "I noticed that this is visually the exact same thing as the early records," he says. "It's footage of us playing, but it's all cut up and collaged. It cuts to these abstract things. Then it cuts to footage of us traveling and then it cuts to something of us recording. It's really the same sort of thing in a different medium."

There are cues that will help you understand the sound without actually hearing it. The band plays instruments at a rapid pace. Wiese did not speed up the footage; that's how Sissy Spacek plays. He made it with "cheap digital cameras." The results look as though they came from a Super 8, although they did not. Red and blue lighting bleeds across the screen. The image brightens when camera flashes go off in the crowd.

John Wiese, "A Specific Point in a Continuous Whole"

John Wiese, "A Specific Point in a Continuous Whole"

Recently, Wiese made a companion piece for "Sissy Spacek." His new work, "A Specific Point in a Continuous Whole" documents a recent solo tour. There are clips of the performers who played alongside Wiese during the trek. There's a sequence of Martin Schmidt from Matmos playing piano in his Baltimore home. Again, there is no audio. "Even in silence," Wiese says, "I think all of these images have a strong sonic impression."

Some of the videos do use sound. "The Tenses with John Wiese" is a twelve-minute documentary about a recording session with The Tenses, an offshoot of the long-running experimental music group Smegma, that took place in Portland. It is void of dialogue. Instead, sounds, some taken from the recording sessions, accompany the rituals of recording. The Tenses prepare a room for the session. They smoke out (Wiese does not). They play. Wiese joins in the music-making. He doesn't appear on camera. Instead he is using his left hand to manipulate sounds while recording the scene with his right hand.

In one of his newest videos, "Four Channel Sound Installation at the Getty," Wiese records his recent performance in the garden of the Getty Center. "Most of my own work is more poetic than didactic," says Wiese, "but I also have this background in making things that are sort of a practical communication." With his videos, Wiese is bringing together these two worlds. They are art, but they are also documentaries. He admits that some of the practical, graphic designer mindset shows through in the way he approaches the pieces: "Make it your own thing and make it interesting but, at the same time, make sure that it communicates something to the viewer and they get an understanding of what you're doing."

John Wiese, "A Specific Point in a Continuous Whole"

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Top Image: John Wiese, "A Specific Point in a Continuous Whole"

About the Author

Liz Ohanesian writes about art, pop culture, music and, sometimes, a combination of the three.
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