In “Plastiglomerates,” Jess Rowland Tries to Break AI with Unexpected Musical Fusions

In her website bio, sound artist, musician, and composer Jess Rowland describes her music as being concerned with “the relationship between technologies and popular culture, continually aiming to reconcile the world of art and the world of science.” This interest in how technology affects our perception of music-making and our experiences as human beings is an obvious guiding consideration in her work; Jess has written instructions for building paper speakers, developed pieces for wearable musical earrings, and she performed on a baloney sandwich at the 2004 Big Sur Experimental Music Festival.

Her new album, Plastiglomerates, is wrapped up in this fascination with technological developments and the fear of them, all at once. The title refers to the 21st century geological phenomenon of plastics, primarily from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, melting and fusing with organic rocks near shorelines. Out Mar. 29 on innova Recordings, the 15 tracks that make up the record are imbued with the sadness of observing a world on the brink of climate disaster, along with the strange beauty of how technologies shape our lives.

The music on Plastiglomerates is generated from the live, improvised processing of existing sources, and like plastiglomerates themselves, each track features unexpected fusions. The physical object of a plastiglomerate is fairly recognizable as having both plastic and sediment; no individual element is necessarily hiding. In Jess’ music, different elements – smooth jazz, pop, and samples from the radio and prepackaged Apple software – are smashed together in a way that feels different than, say, a composer wanting to use the rhythmic language of jazz in a classical context. “The main goal is process and reprocess and reprocess again until it all coalesces,” Jess told me in our recent interview. But cohesion is not necessarily the fundamental goal – this isn’t music attempting to forge an entirely new soundworld; it’s an experiment to see what happens when divergent worlds collide.

Cover art for Jess Rowland's "Plastiglomerates"

Cover art for Jess Rowland’s “Plastiglomerates”

Every track is simply titled “Plastiglomerate” with a number assigned to it, but the second and third tracks in particular exemplify this fusion of different influences. In “Plastiglomerate 2,” a swirl of drum machines and guitars glitch and stutter, calling to mind both hyperpop and the sound of a radio rapidly switching between stations. And “Plastiglomerate 3” features circling, AI-generated voices, produced from Jess feeding musical material into voice cloning software. Instead of voice cloning being used to replicate an existing voice (Jess points to political deepfakes as an example of this), an entirely new voice is being created, which she describes as trying to “break AI.”

This idea of pushing an element to its breaking point in order to create something new is seen in every element of the album’s concept. Even the artwork, a close up photo of a plastiglomerate, is partially AI generated. “The plastiglomerate is already a processed, weird thing,” she explains, “and when I teach a machine what a plastiglomerate is, it tries to replicate the fake thing and makes this even faker thing… It’s like a digital plastiglomerate of a physical plastiglomerate.”

Music is something that just can’t be faked. When you hear the truth, you hear it, and you know it.

Jess’ music speaks to the tension between analog and digital technology, reliance, and self sufficiency. As two trans women, we discussed the idea that we are forced to rely on technology to assert our existence. “I’m already just some kind of plastic cyborg creature, and as someone that takes hormones…my existence is kind of predicated on technology, consumerism, and capital in a weird, complicated way,” Jess told me. “I’m really glad that I can be myself, but it’s very strange that I require this sort of infrastructure.”

Building on this tension between humans and technological developments, Jess segued to the tension between academic and non-institutional spaces. “There’s a weird disconnect between that academic discourse and the music that’s happening in clubs and bars,” she says. “I honestly feel like the academic, institutionalized stuff misses something because it’s not connected. I’m partly from the institution world and partly not.”

Jess Rowland -- Photo by Max Lee photography

Jess Rowland — Photo by Max Lee photography

If a plastiglomerate bridges the gap between natural and manmade worlds, Jess’ method of music creation similarly aims to bring disparate realms together. “I try to straddle those worlds a little bit,” she explains. “If I can bring in some discourse from the institutional world but keep myself real, that would be amazing. Music is something that just can’t be faked. When you hear the truth, you hear it, and you know it.”

The fact that Plastiglomerates feels cohesive at all is something of a happy accident, but also a testament to Jess’s ability to find commonalities between ideas while exploiting differences. Anything that feels recognizable and almost catchy is quickly overtaken by layers of musical abstraction. There are sections that groove, and there are plenty of ambient soundscapes to get lost in, but almost every track features a moment where all these elements coalesce. “I want to take my audience to places they haven’t been, and one way I feel is really good to do that is to give them something they can ride into that weird world,” she says.

Jess points to albums by Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra as examples of musical works that have freedom as their primary musical focus. She’s trying to apply that kind of musical thinking to contemporary discourse, to create something that falls in the cracks between recognizable musical patterns and abstract, experimental music. “I want to be careful to not just fall in love with the idea of fusing,” she says. “As a creator of music, I need something else. I don’t want to make music that I wouldn’t want to listen to.”

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