Turning Up The Volume: Jess Rowland (Composer, Sound Artist)

Turning Up the Volume is a collection of interviews that focuses on the individual stories of up and coming musicians in American classical music. These interviews explore topics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability as they apply to historically underrepresented artists. But most importantly, Turning Up the Volume is a platform for these musicians to share their experiences in their own words.

In this installment, we talk with composer, sound artist, musician, and 2018-20 Princeton Arts Fellow Jess Rowland. Rowland’s compositions and performances explore consumer culture, and she describes her own music through the Ives quote “beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ear lie back in an easy chair.” In this interview, Jess Rowland discusses the prejudices faced being a trans woman, a composer not adhering to the hierarchy of academia, and the financial struggles many musicians face.

What are some struggles you’ve face in music?

My greatest challenge has been feeling like an outsider. I can never shake the feeling that I don’t quite belong, that I’m not quite accepted. This comes from a few different places–first of all, questions of being self-trained, as opposed to part of the academic-industrial complex. Also, being a trans woman in a community that is very heavily represented by straight white men is certainly part of it.

I have a good friend, also a composer, who has stayed outside of the academia, and is also a gay woman–whose answer is to not waste a moment of energy on trying to be accepted. Rather, her answer is to build our own community. My feelings are somewhere in between the two extremes–fighting for inclusion in the club, or just going our own way. The truth is–I am in between. As a matter of self definition. And it is difficult to be in-between in a world that demands simple labels.

I would be remiss not to mention another struggle that often goes unacknowledged: Money. Paying rent and eating food and still having time and energy to pursue the things I really care about. A new music composer pointed out to me a while back, that no one in New Music talks about money. They prefer to live in a mythical world where no one has a day job. It’s like being a part of a dysfunctional family where no one mentions the elephant in the room: What are the economics of the art world? Is the system equitable? Are there injustices or, simply, problems about funding and support for artists that need to be addressed? It’s as if the questions arrive as a shock, because money is not supposed to be spoken of.

I often find myself wondering how others manage to get by, but then I occasionally realize–each time as if for the first time–that not everyone is playing the same game, the playing field is very unlevel.

Interactive notation score by Jess Rowland

Interactive notation score by Jess Rowland

Have people treated you differently due to your minority status in the music world?

One interesting aspect of being a trans woman is that it can sometimes be difficult to tell where the transphobia leaves off and the regular old sexism begins. I began experiencing firsthand about the sexism shortly after transitioning. I remember playing an experimental music festival, and a well-known figure in New Music gave a review of the performance. I was excited that he might notice the performance because at that time I was pretty hungry for some visibility. In the review, he described each member of the group and their performance in detail, except for me. All the other group members were men, and he acknowledged their names with a brief bio and what their role in the performance had been.

When it came to me he said something like (paraphrasing) “There was also a woman performing with them. And she played really well, keeping up with the guys. And to top it off, she was also pretty cute!” It was a punch in the gut. The worst part for me was that I didn’t have a name. My friends told me about the review, and I took a look at it. And one of my colleagues responded to the review by saying something like “Yep, that was Jess Rowland. She is a composer, and is also a serious musician like the others, deserving of equal respect.”  The reviewer was properly contrite about it and seemed to get it, though he never directly apologized to me. I always liked his music, and I still do, but the memory of that sort of taints the whole experience.

There are lots of little ways that others treat me differently because of my trans-ness. Lots of times I get put in a bracket of other queer artists, or compared to other trans and queer artists, whether the connection is really warranted or not. Lots of times, people will say, “Oh, your work reminds me of [so and so]”, and often these mentions have nothing to do with the work, and everything to do with the ways people label me as an individual. It’s disheartening because I want my work to be listened to and considered on its merits, rather than dismissed as “made by someone who is other.” I once had a studio visit from a well-known composer who did this, connecting my work to any of the very few gay artists he could think of, and it felt very dismissive. Which isn’t to say I’m not a proud member of the queer musicians community–just that I don’t want that to be the only thing I am.

I work a lot in music/audio technology, and this is one especially problematic field for women, queer folk, and other underrepresented communities. It’s worth noting that the music center I worked at as a student had a grand total of zero women on staff. And a grand total of 100% straight white men. It can be difficult to bring this up, because individually the people at the institute were all good people that I respect and had all the best intentions. But there is clearly a managerial failing. And I feel bad for bringing it up, like it reflects poorly on me that I focus on that. Just one more reason it is important to support organizations that do great work for representation like the Women’s Audio Mission.

These are just some of the explicit ways I’ve been treated differently. I have no illusions that there aren’t other ways I am not aware of.

Interactive notation score by Jess Rowland

Interactive notation score by Jess Rowland

What do you hope to accomplish in the music world?

A lot of my work revolves around the experience of consumer culture, which controls all our waking experience and our dreams, or at least as much of it as it can. Sometimes the only way out is through. Lots of my work is about entering the beast to become free of it. I’d rather approach the world than pretend it doesn’t exist. This is why I’ve always had ambivalent feelings toward minimalist and acoustic purity.

I want my works to speak to any person with an open mind and open their ears to a wider world, a more beautiful reality. Music is a matter of the heart, not the intellect, and if it doesn’t have heart, I don’t want to play it. If I can reach even a few ears and inspire them, or get them excited, or bring them some comfort or comradery in this messed up world, then I’ve done my job. I’m a big believer in the idea that Art is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.