Jess Rowland

By Amelia Kahl & Spencer Topel
Aug 01, 2018

The Other Side of Air: Notations for Interactive Sound
Four sound objects, mixed media


Life This In Find We
Player piano roll and circuitry


Hood Downtown

The Other Side of Air: Notations for Interactive Sound, 2017
Four sound objects, mixed media

At the boundary between the physical and immaterial, sound and vision, this project explores the relationship between musical instrument, visual art, musical gesture, and the creative mark. The Other Side of Air is one in a collection of interactive sound works for paper and other flat surfaces with printed circuitry and electric signals. While these works are inherently “prints” of copper and aluminum foils on paper, they are also sound objects: participants can create sound through gesture on, near, and above the surface of the artwork. The sound signal is carried in the conductive foil and activated by participants. While part of the compositional sound process comes from the signal in the material, the actual sound heard is completely dependent on the choices and coincidence of participant interaction.

In this way, The Other Side of Air confounds our expectations of the sound object and the materiality of printmaking, paper, and design. Composed of visual systems for expressive performance—notational language—these works explore the concept of the physical mark of notation as a symbolic container of the idea of sound, our relationship to that system, and to sound itself.

—Jess Rowland


Life this in find we

Life This In Find We

2017, player piano roll and circuitry

Photo by Amelia Kahl.

A few years ago, Jess Rowland discovered a trove of player piano rolls, including this particular one from 1919. She outfitted them with circuitry allowing the visitor to manually “play” the work by touching two metal strips, completing the circuit, and activating a recorded sound. While the player piano mechanized performance by removing the performer, Rowland has made the participant again central to the work. Only when the visitor engages physically with the work, as with an instrument, can its song be heard. Along with a matrix of holes corresponding to musical notes, the roll is printed with the title and lyrics to the original song. (The lyrics read from bottom to top, as they would have unrolled in a player piano.) Yet the sound the viewer activates is not the song captured in the roll, but another found object, an existing piece of music that Rowland has manipulated and divided into three channels. Here one found object is given a new life through another, retaining its identity as a musical score, and gaining a new one as instrument itself.

For children’s responses to viewing Rowland’s works during school tours of Resonant Spaces, see “Teaching with the Exhibition.”


Jess Rowland (born 1971) is a sound artist, musician, and composer. Much of her work explores the relationship between technologies, popular culture, and other absurdities, investigating “the weirdness of reality and how we all deal with it.” She currently teaches sound art at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and presents her work internationally. She received her MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, and worked at the Center for New Music and Audio Technology, developing techniques for embedded sound and flexible speaker arrays. Her work continually aims to reconcile the world of art and the world of science. She is affiliated with David Poeppel’s lab at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, researching music perception, and she has published in the fields of auditory neurosciences and music technologies. Recent installation and performance venues include the New York Electronic Arts Festival, Berkeley Art Museum, Luggage Store Gallery, Harvestworks, Spectrum NYC, and the Banff Center.

The Contributors

  • Amelia Kahl Headshot

    Amelia Kahl is the associate curator of academic programming at the Hood Museum of Art. She runs the museum’s Bernstein Center for Object Study and teaches with the museum’s 65,000-object collection across the Dartmouth curriculum. Her exhibition projects for the Hood have included "Water Ways: Tension and Flow" (2015), "The Stahl Collection" (2015, co-curated with Barbara MacAdam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art), and "Emmet Gowin Dreams of Stars" (2014).

  • Topel Headshot

    Spencer Topel creates installations and performance pieces that are immersive experiences, fusing sound, visual components, and interactive expression. Trained in music conservatories as a composer and violinist, he produced work for orchestral and chamber ensembles for over twenty years. In 2011 he collaborated with sculptor Soo Sunny Park on a yearlong installation titled Capturing Resonance, presented at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Since then, Topel’s practice has expanded to include visual art in a distinctive body of work that engages artwork as observer and listener, where installations gain agency in the interactions between visitors and environments.