Name: Peter Coccoma
Nationality: American
Occupation: Composer, multi-instrumentalist, filmmaker
Current Release: Peter Coccoma's A Place To Begin, featuring contributions by Clarice Jensen and Oliver Hill, is out via Whatever's Clever. The work constitutes "an inquiry into Buddhist practice following an unsettling and revelatory life event: a loved one was given three months to live, before discovering weeks later that they had been misdiagnosed."

[Read our Clarice Jensen interview]

If you these thoughts by Peter Coccoma piqued your interest, visit his official homepage for more information. He is also on Soundcloud, and bandcamp.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. Even before the events described in the press release, in which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions? In which way have topics of life and death always played a role in your own music, would you say?

I can’t say life and death have consciously played a role in my own music up until this record. But, I can say that there have been moments in my life where an encounter with music - or other mediums of art, or nature for that matter - have seemed to punch a whole in the fabric of how I normally view life and helped me to see different perspectives.

When I was a child, these moments often took place in the natural world. But as a teen music played more of a role, and I can remember listening to Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue or Radiohead’s Ok, Computer and feeling something shift in me.

Since then there have been particular songs at particular moments, or a particular show at a specific venue, that have swept me out of the everyday anxieties and made me aware of some larger time scale of life.

The press release describes how a loved one was misdiagnosed and presented with the outlook of only having a few months left to live. Both to you and that person, what changes when you’re suddenly faced with mortality this way?

I can’t speak for the other person and their experience, and I really can’t speak for the experience of being someone who receives a terminal diagnosis. But for me, during those few months when I thought they were going to die, along with all the sadness and pain, I also had these experiences when all the little things that I was stressed out about just melted away. In their absence new things filled in, like my relationships with loved ones, being a compassionate person to others, or being present to experience as it’s happening.

I remember one experience in the peak of processing this when I was walking down a country road on an early fall day and I looked up at the trees and the light and everything seemed to shimmer and ripple in a hallucinatory way. It was this real intense sense of being aware of what was happening right in front of me. It wasn’t until sometime after we found out they had been misdiagnosed that I started to understand how just the knowledge alone that they would die had impacted my life so profoundly.

And so I became curious about what more you can learn from simply thinking about death on a regular basis.

You eventually responded to the events by creating works around the theme of life and death. Before that, though, have music or other forms of art offered you concrete solace in the face of death or very difficult phases in your life? If so, what made them helpful in that situation?

This is sort of a funny example, but when I was seven years old I watched my dog get hit by a car and die outside my house.

I really loved that dog and it was obviously traumatic at that age. It just so happened that Princess Diana died in a car accident that same day, and I remember later watching her funeral on TV after we had buried our dog in the backyard. I can vividly remember listening to Elton John sing “Candle in the Wind” while I watched all these people crying on TV.

Later, I understood that the song was a hugely cathartic cultural moment for many people, but as a seven year old so unfamiliar with these emotions it became this special song for my dog that I could turn on when I was feeling sad. Somehow I ended up with a CD of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and I would walk around with my walkman and just listen to that song on repeat!

It’s all funny now thinking about this little kid crying to Elton John and thinking it’s an elegy for his dead dog, but unconsciously I think I was learning how music can help you through difficult and confusing times. There’s something that makes you feel less alone when whatever's going on with you internally is reflected back at you in a piece of music.

In the wake of the diagnosis, you took up maranasati. Can you talk a bit about what this practise looks like and what its effects are?

About a year after my experience I read a book by Frank Ostaseski called The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. He is one of the founders of the Zen Hospice Project, and the book talks about what he learned through his experiences of working with people at the end of life, all through a buddhist lens.

Among other things, that book opened me up to the idea of not hiding away from the knowledge of death, but instead welcoming it into your daily life. So I tried doing that on a regular basis. I would bring to mind my own mortality or that of someone I loved, or even a stranger, and just sit with all the anxieties and fears that would come up. I didn’t encounter the phrase “maranasati” (or mindfulness of death) till some time after I made this record when I did some more reading about different forms of this practice.

I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but my own experience of thinking about death everyday led me to be a little more intentional about how I spend my time and more present in what I’m doing.

If I understood correctly, the music on A Place To Begin was directly inspired by maranasati. How did feed back into the music?

At the time I was living on a sparsely populated island in Lake Superior and my environment was made up of trees, snow, and this huge expanse of frozen lake, all of which were in the process of thawing from a deep winter. I’d work in my studio each morning, then go walk around the island, noticing all these small subtle changes happening in the landscape.

The natural world is messy and full of things decaying and growing all at the same time. That can feel consoling, but it’s also uncanny and challenges any sense of self that you hold onto. I found this similar to thinking about death. It was challenging and unsettling at times, but at other points it was really liberating to internalize how everything changes and we can’t hold on to any of it.

So I think I searched for both of those qualities in the music. I wanted the music to be challenging at times - an unsettling atonal shift or the unease of a cluster chord - but I also wanted it to open up to more lush and expressive harmonies. After listening to a lot of close harmony, a seventh chord can really feel like a big open breath.

At its most basic, I wanted the music to be simple, patient, and to subtly lead the listener through the movements.

Already the title of A Place To Begin is intriguing. What led to this, for many, counter-intuitive name (“begin” rather than “end”)?

There’s sort of a double meaning in the title for me.

The first is related to the idea of “beginner's mind,” or how when we approach something for the first time we come at it with eyes wide open, free from preconceptions. But as you have repeated experiences with something, you start to become jaded, less imaginative, and some of the luster of that act or thing fades away. To practice “beginner’s mind” is to cultivate that sense of approaching something for the first time, even if you’ve spent many years studying or doing whatever it is.

The second meaning comes more explicitly from thinking about death. We often get caught up in thinking that we will start to do some new thing in our life - write that novel, take up running, watch more sunsets - when that perfect moment finally arrives and we have the right tools, and enough time, and the ideal space to do it. But death really taught me that you shouldn’t wait, but use what tools, and time, and space you have now to do the things that bring you satisfaction in life.

On the island I only had a cheap midi keyboard, a cassette recorder, and a DAW with a few plugins and I just said, let me see what I can make with this. So, I feel like the title is some kind of “DIY/Buddhist ethos” that I would invoke to keep me motivated, humble, and explorative throughout the process.

Can you talk about the composing process for A Place To Begin? How did you develop the piece and in which way was the act of working on the music cathartic/helpful for you?

It really began with just being imaginative with sound design.

I didn’t have many instruments to work with, so everything was a game of, “how can I take this one uninspiring virtual synth sound I have and turn it into a totally different set of sounds,” and that would lead me down some processing rabbit hole. Some days I was trying to recreate a sound I heard outside - the bass tone of ice breaking, or the tapping of a distant woodpecker - and other days it was just playing with chords to find harmonic structures.

And after this period of improvisation I had a collection of synths, percussive samples, and other sounds that became the palette I used to start writing the record. And that was really important to how the record sounds. I talked about this mysterious and unknowable quality I was looking for in the music, and it was important that the sounds themselves reflected that, and not just the arrangement of them. So in many ways the limitation of my lack of gear was a huge part of the composition process in that it led me to start from the most fundamental level of sound and work my way up.

I’m not sure if I’d say it was a cathartic process, but getting up each day and working on something you're deeply engaged with does add up over time.

Your other big project, the movie Giro prepares for death, also seems to revolve around the topic of death. How does working with images and sounds differ when it comes to approaching this theme?

In making the record the themes were much more of an unconscious thing. I was so immersed in the music while writing it that it wasn’t until listening back in the mixing stage that I started to understand where the music had come from. I was able to have this space on my own to really explore and not be beholden to many other constraints.

With the film, there was an initial period like that where I could really dream and explore the idea of the film, but then you start bringing in all these collaborators and gear and schedules and logistical variables, and if you’re not careful you lose touch with your initial intentions. I actually had a musical sketch that I wrote during the same period as the pieces on the record that I listened to on repeat throughout the production of the film. It had the tone I wanted the film to have, and I felt that if I listened to it regularly somehow that would help me to not lose touch with where the film came from.

But I think dealing creatively with any theme, especially one as big as life and death, it’s important for me not to be thinking about the concept too much once I get into making it, and instead to immerse myself in the finer points of what I’m making. The interesting part for me is getting to the other side and looking back on what you made and seeing how all the things in your life and environment during that period ended up in whatever you were working on.

Did the loved person hear the music? If so, what was the response like?

They haven’t yet. It’s interesting to me that even though they are so much a part of the experience that led me to make this record, in many ways the music has nothing to do with them and their experience.

We shared this experience of having death thrust into our lives - and we will always share that - but every person processes these events differently, and I don’t really know what they will think of the approach I took.

Do you think the experience that led up to A Place To Begin and the ongoing practise of maranasati will affect your creative process long-term? If so, in which way?

I’m not sure. At this moment in time I can say the whole experience has been a real catalyst for me in opening up a new chapter in how I approach any subject. I’d like to think that what I’ve learned will stick with me, but like with everything, time moves on, we change, and the resonance of an idea or experience fades.

But a part of me thinks that in making this record, even if it comes to feel unfamiliar to me later in life, I’ll always have the music to serve as a reminder of this whole experience.