When does your experience of a new piece of music begin? When you hear the first note? When the performers first enter the space? Or does the context of the venue’s ambience beforehand also affect how you take in the piece? Does the experience begin with the first rehearsal, the first compositional sketch, the first piece of publicity for the eventual show? If I’m writing about an upcoming performance and you’re reading my words, are we both already involved in it?
Jessie Cox thinks so. A multifaceted Black Swiss composer, performer, and scholar, Cox’s works are organically ambient, but with an acerbic edge. Losing yourself in them is a bit like taking a sound bath in the cosmic background radiation: ecstatic and abrasive all at once. Many of them fade in and out of existence, blurring the boundaries of the performance, a blurring Cox explicitly embraces. “Music is not containable in a moment or event,” he said in a recent interview in advance of a collaborative work with the Sun Ra Arkestra premiering on November 5. “Right now, the two of us talking, is part of the work, and so is rehearsing, so is all the instrument building, all that stuff.” He sees this as inextricably flowing out of the fact that each person’s experience of a given piece is filtered through their entire life: “You’re part of the piece, when you listen. So you’re reducing yourself if you think it only happens at the concert—the thoughts that come later are part of the music too.”
In this view, the boundaries of a piece become porous, stretching out tendrils of connection like a vast network of fungal mycelium. Given enough time and connections, a single piece could expand outwards until it encompassed the entire world. It’s fitting, then, that Cox’s pieces tend towards the cosmic, outlining metaphorical journeys through outer space. But unlike Romantic orchestral suites and sweeping sci-fi soundtracks, Cox’s work mostly doesn’t try to summon an imagined impression of what space feels like; instead, it attempts to actually be space, to create an entire cosmos out of sound.
“I’ve done multiple pieces like this recently, thinking about music as making space,” Cox said. He described his new work with the Arkestra as being a universe unto itself, with pockets of contrasting music folded into the larger structure like planets caught in a star’s gravitational well. “It’s almost like a video game where you can travel to different planets, but it’s actually a musical score. And that’s where the Arkestra will take us: They’ll create space-ways and take us to all these different worlds during the performance.” Many of these musical planets are preexisting works from the Arkestra’s repertoire, a way of deepening the collaboration and celebrating the Arkestra’s legacy. “I know the repertoire of the Arkestra pretty well, because they’re one of the biggest influences I’ve had in becoming an artist,” Cox said. “The first time I worked with them, I got to witness and learn their unique approach to music making. And so this new work incorporates that knowledge, but I also wanted it to be a celebration and to bring out sides of the Arkestra that I wanted to hear—maybe a little selfishly!”
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Cox himself will be playing with the Arkestra on November 5, and his approach to writing music is clearly influenced by his experience as a performer. “As a performer, depending on where you play, you play differently. If you go to a space where people dance, that changes the music,” he said. “The space itself allows for certain things, and I’m always thinking about what a given space is a catalyst for. But I’m also interested in changing space. A lot of my work is about transforming space.”
In our conversation, Cox frequently supported his musical metaphors with quick asides that referenced a wealth of different sources, from obscure archival recordings of the Arkestra to incisive academic works on race and identity—in a few sentences, he conjures up a bibliography that a college seminar might take a semester to work through. When I asked if he was concerned that an audience might not make all of these connections when listening in real time, he said, “I don’t really believe in the idea of transparency in music that a lot of people tout. A lot of people have given their whole lives to this art form, and to think that you can get all of what they put in just by sitting there is a bit too much part of the anti-Black ideology that’s part of the world. I don’t know that that’s really possible. I’m more interested in opacity.”
In teasing out the connections between demands for “transparency” and anti-Black ideologies, Cox hinted at Afrofuturist ideas. “My music is about the impossible and the unknown, and that is about Blackness, that is about improvisation, that is about understanding that composition is unfolding out of the unknown,” he said. “But it’s not separate from the unknown.” Articulating this unknown artistically, even without fully knowing it, has the potential to create new ways of understanding the world and existing in it—Cox cited the way discourses around being Black and Swiss had been created and expanded by works of Black Swiss art, like Charles Uzor’s “8’46’: George Floyd in memoriam.” But also expressed wariness around language’s capacity to mislead, to make us think we know what we’re talking about.
Small wonder, then, that Cox sees music as more of a relationship to be lived in than an object to consume. “You can’t own music by buying a ticket and coming to a concert,” he said. “You can only care for it by coming and supporting it and making the space possible.” He broadened this to a discussion of owning music more generally: “It’s related to the idea of copyright, that you can confine a piece of music—which is different than preserving it, celebrating it, carrying it forward. As soon as you embrace the idea of owning it as a transparent thing that is this thing, it means it can live without life, without the Arkestra, without me, without you, without sound, without performance. And then we have a little problem! And to shift all that, we need to think a little differently about who we are and what we do.”
I asked whether Cox thinks of his music as prefigurative, as trying to create that shift by acting as if it’s already here. “That’s something I can never see, but that people keep telling me about my work,” he answered. “Which is great! But from my position, how could I see that? I’m just trying to enter the impossible. Last week someone actually asked me pretty much the same exact thing, and I just thought that I never see it completed; for me, it’s always in progress. I’ve never seen it end, so I don’t think that way about it.” All the complexities of our conversation boiled away as he came back to his new piece for the Arkestra: “With this piece, honestly, I was just thinking about creating a work to celebrate the Arkestra and create an opportunity to be together with them and with everyone who wants to be part of that. That’s the simple reason for the piece.”
The reliance on community as the goal of artistic practice undergirds much of Cox’s thought. Even as he strives towards the unknown and inexpressible, he always wants to bring others along for the ride. When the Sun Ra Arkestra makes a journey through space on Saturday, it’s a journey you’re invited to go on with them. And even Cox himself can’t be too sure what you’ll find there. “I always have connections in my head, but I don’t want to leap too far,” he said. “It’s into the unknown.” ¶
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