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Peter Coccoma’s ambient Apostle Islands reverie

The electronic musician’s solo album “A Place To Begin” was released on May 20.
A photograph shows musician Peter Coccoma sitting in a frozen, snow-covered landscape. In the foreground of the picture is a cross-section of jagged ice that crosses the frame. Photo by Elori Saxl.
Photo by Elori Saxl.

The electronic musician’s solo album “A Place To Begin” was released on May 20.

Electronic musician Peter Coccoma’s debut solo album, A Place To Begin, makes it easy to appreciate the parallels between listening to a fine piece of ambient music and taking a long walk on a frozen lake. The rewards come from finding the detail and variation where others might only find a vast sameness. Plenty of melodic and textural elements are in motion, like the taut, purposeful cello and violin shearing through the hazy synth phrases on the album’s third track, “Clouds Of Being.” Some of the pleasure consists simply in what you start seeing or hearing after you’ve been looking or listening at the same thing for long enough. What matters is that both of these landscapes are a great deal more alive than they initially seem to be.

Coccoma is based in New York City but the album, released on May 20, is very much a product of winter and early spring on Lake Superior. Cocomma and his partner often spend a good part of their winters in a family property on Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands off of Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula. In 2020, the pandemic turned that into a much longer stay. Coccoma is still up there.

The album doesn’t rely on field recordings or the “musician makes an album in a ‘cabin’ somewhere” trope—it’s more of an attempt to emulate natural sounds through some of the basic elements of electronic music. It’s also, in both sound and theme, an attempt to surrender, both to Coccoma’s surroundings and to the inexorable cycles of life and death. The at once massive and muffled low-end pulse of “Towards Light” evokes a winter wind buffeting into your hat, or perhaps the awesome groan of ice on a lake slowly breaking. The percussive elements that come and go throughout the album, ringing across distant sections of the mix, are Coccoma’s tribute to the pileated woodpecker, though they could just as easily remind a listener of cracking branches or falling icicles. 

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This approach gives the album space to shift through a number of conflicting and in-between moods, neither desolate nor ecstatic. Coccoma might gently tug the listener toward hope or toward sadness, but as the album’s title suggests, the experience is more about taking stock than about coming to conclusions. 

Ahead of the album’s release, Coccoma spoke with Tone Madison about the process of making it, his growing affinity for Madeline Island, and the personal experiences that informed this music. 

Tone Madison: How did this whole Madeline Island tradition start for you?

Peter Coccoma: My partner of about a decade, she grew up on the island. We met on the East Coast. I’m from upstate New York. About 10 years ago [we] came out for a week or two in winter … we were living in New York City at the time, and we started this tradition [when] we could get away in the winter, because her family was only here seasonally [and] then there was this empty house. So we would come to get away from New York for a week and then it became a couple of weeks and then we’ve come for a month or more. In January 2020, we came thinking we would spend a year here and that happened to coincide with COVID kind of locking everything down a month or two later. And so I’ve just been here ever since.

Tone Madison: I saw that you gave some kind of artist’s talk or demo at the library up there a while back—what sorts of responses and questions did you get from people there?

Peter Coccoma: The community here is a really special one. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, a similar kind of summer tourist town on a lake. So in some ways, this feels very similar to the community I grew up in, although very far geographically. There’s only about 300 people that live here year-round. I’ve been really lucky to get to know a lot of the year-round community and it’s people of all ages and people who have come to live on this island for many, many different reasons. Being an island and being such a small community, whether you like it or not, you get to know your neighbors pretty well. You end up relying on people for things. I think being here and making music and film too and kind of working on the islands, [I’m] kind of different than a lot of the year-round people here but everyone’s been super supportive. 

The LaPointe Center for the Arts is an art nonprofit here on the island. And they’ve been supportive of me in my work and helping to raise some money for a film I shot on the island last year. I wanted to kind of do something to try to bridge the gap between this world where I spend a lot of time in contemporary electronic music and some of the other stuff that I do around here, which is much more rooted in the natural world and a lot of craftspeople and kind of working outside with tangible things. I tried doing that at the library and that was great. I got to just play some of the work and show some of the scores and just talk about the process of making it and the connection to this place and some of the themes in the record. It was a thing I was really glad to do, and I’d love to do more stuff like that in the area. And again, having grown up in a very small rural area, I think it’s important to me to put that out there for people who are around because that was stuff that I was not exposed to when I was growing up.

Tone Madison: The way that this album is presented, it’s very explicitly tied to place. Is that what you always had planned for this music? What led to that choice, of location really being this foreground element, rather than an incidental factor or background factor in how you’re talking about this and how you’re presenting it?

Peter Coccoma: I kind of started making this record without really the intention of making a record, and it more coincided with me being on the island and having this couple of months where I was thinking a lot about this experience I’d had with a loved one in my life who was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and then later we found out that they had been misdiagnosed. But those couple months, when we thought that they only had a few months to live, had really impacted my life. I’d been kind of fascinated with just this idea of how just the knowledge of your death alone can really have an impact on how you live your life. So when I got to the island, I was reading a bunch of this Zen Buddhist’s writings about kind of invoking a sense of death in your daily life and kind of getting comfortable with this thing that we all have to face … I was doing that and I was making music regularly, and I was just kind of becoming a little bit more present to things around me, and that happened to be on this island. 

Like I said, it’s very similar to a place that I grew up in and [I] haven’t lived in a place like this in a while. I think those things together led me to really spend a lot of time walking the island and learning a lot about the kind of natural world here and the slow pace and rhythm of things and just kind of immersing myself in that timescale, which is very different than the faster paced timescale of a lot of our modern life. I had this real daily practice going on and anytime I was making music in my studio and going outside, there was this real synergy between the two where it just kind of felt like the sounds I was drawing from and the pace of things … was all kind of being influenced by everything I was seeing on the island here. In the end it came together and I realized how much it was this sonic geography of the island itself and kind of the late winter and early spring. Even now I can kind of put it on and it just takes me to that place.

Tone Madison: Your loved one having this near-miss, for lack of a better term, gives the music a complicated relationship with loss. Obviously it’s very reflective because it’s ambient music, but there are also these moments of tension. Yet overall, it’s still uplifting, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like the dead of winter.

Peter Coccoma: This record was not about someone dying and the loss of someone and grief and those things—which people go through and there’s great music that’s been made from those places—but this is more something I was touching on [about how] death is this very fearful and anxiety-inducing thing. Even when we just think about it. For a loved one or ourselves or even a stranger. But I think that there is something really special in getting comfortable with that feeling and seeing how it can actually have a real positive impact on your life and how you look at things and moments and, you know, have relationships. And so I think in making the music, I both didn’t want to shy [away] from that kind of unease you mentioned, that kind of unsettling feeling that thinking about this can be, and that the island can be in the depths of winter, but I also wanted there to be these moments of real openness and consolation that come from coming to accept something and seeing how it can have unexpected, positive benefits. 

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It coincided with the end of winter here and watching the lake melt and spring start to slowly come. And I think that period, which, you know, we’re kind of going through right now, in some ways, is kind of seeing the other side of that. I wanted the music to kind of inhabit both of those, and that’s really important for me. A lot of things I’m drawn to have a little bit of both that darkness and light in [them]. And those are the things that I get drawn to whether it’s harmonically or texturally in music. And so that kind of all went into this.

Tone Madison: I don’t know what it’s like up there right now weather-wise, but in Madison, we’re just getting completely robbed of spring. It’s already in the 80s. The music and the liner notes kind of drive home for me what I’m missing right now. [Editor’s note: We talked on May 12, and spring has gotten a bit more spring-like since then!]

Peter Coccoma: We’ve had thunderstorms here the last two days, but it has felt that way. It was a really cold winter this year that just kind of went on and on through the spring. We’ve got a little bit of spring here, but I’ve heard that down south, it’s just all of a sudden summer. But you know, it’s funny—that period is often one that a lot of people write off—back where I grew up, it was just called mud season—and [when] fall and spring come, you can really see all the daffodils are out and wildflowers are coming and you can see the beauty in it. Even in the depths of winter, I think people can see the beauty in that. But sometimes those transitional moments just get really murky and people don’t often say ‘Oh, that’s my favorite season,’ these kind of in-between zones. I think that there’s something about that, that I think conceptually just goes back to the things I was thinking about in making the record and the time period it coincided with. That felt like this tone I really wanted to strike in the music of not being this super dead-of-winter thing but also not being just this rebirth, spring feeling, and could I come and go between those two moments?

Tone Madison: I wanted to learn a little bit more about the process behind this. How did sounds from the environment of the island end up informing the sound of the record, and when did you start incorporating string parts, from cellist Clarice Jensen and violinist Oliver Hill?

Peter Coccoma: Another big part of this record was [that] I came to the island and I really didn’t have that much gear with me, musical gear. I just had this really cheap MIDI keyboard and the DAW that I use with some built-in stuff and I had this little cassette recorder too. Part of the lesson that I was gathering [when] I was thinking about death was, just spend your days how you want to spend them with the things that you have. I really wanted to make music and those are the things that [I] came here with, and so I just started from there. [It] started a lot just by kind of creative sound design in a way. I had this one kind of built-in, very uninspiring plugin to generate sine waves and other tones that I just had to use mostly for everything. I would just process [sound] in many different ways. I do a lot of sound designing for music and film and radio, so a lot of it was building these sounds. I built a bunch of different synthesizers and percussion sounds and stuff that all became the palette for what I used to write the record, and a lot of those sounds were really inspired by things in the natural world here. 

There’s a lot of these distant knocking sounds—there’s these pileated woodpeckers that are some of the few birds that are moving around in that period and you can hear them kind of in the stillness far away, and these other real low subsonic frequency [sounds] from under the ice. When ice cracks far away, the sound will travel under the ice and it comes out that the high tones will travel faster than the low tones. You’ll get these low rumbles that sound almost like an 808 or something. I kind of built all these sounds to mimic this world. Then the next phase was more compositional … [I] ended up being drawn to a lot of cluster chords and close harmony. That kind of got some of that unsettling, uncanny, mysterious feeling. But then there would also be these big expressive moments with seventh chords and more open stuff that was more uplifting in some way. I had this rough plan and there was a lot of intuitive process of making a lot of music and then kind of going back and whittling it down to a couple different pieces and trying to draw, from the opening track to the [ending], this sort of one pathway. 

I wrote some of these parts, originally on synths that I made here for strings, and then, ended up bringing in Clarice Jensen, who is this phenomenal cellist. It was during the pandemic, so we ended up recording remotely and we worked a bit and she added stuff and I had her layer things over and [violin parts by Oliver Hill], and then I brought it all together to mix it. It was really kind of starting from the foundational part of music and creating the texture and these synthesizers and elements and then working from there to to write stuff.

Tone Madison: The video that you put out for “Towards Light” it’s literally just a walk on the ice. It really reinforces that theme of just taking what’s around you like right now and making sure that you’re absorbing it.

Peter Coccoma: [I do] a lot of work in film and I know how much gear and people and stuff it takes to make projects, but for this I just wanted to use my phone and to be able to be more observant to what’s around me and try to document it in a certain way. Those walks on the ice became this real ritual for me in this period, this winter, and [I] went out every day for about a week and spent a few hours out on the ice. It’s a really visceral experience to walk on top of such a huge lake, this expanse that is hundreds of feet of water, and every day the ice would be different—different snow, tracks from coyotes and other animals. And so I just kind of would go out and you know, track these lines on the ice and film and probably have dozens of takes of it.

Some of my favorite artists growing up were people like [land artist and sculptor] Andy Goldsworthy … It wasn’t until I was kind of doing [the album] where I really thought about him a lot and his process is, you know—just getting up every day and going out into nature and working with what he sees there. That was inspiring and it was very different [from] a lot of other work I do in the computer, or film work I do that involves a lot of planning and people and coordination. This was just very intuitive and part of having a daily practice of making something.

Tone Madison: It points back to this idea that creativity within constraints can be really fruitful.

Peter Coccoma: I think in this day and age, especially, we have just more and more tools available to us and options. So many artists I talk to … have to go through a process of setting, “What are the limitations for this project,” and that, as you said, can be really fruitful.

Tone Madison: I know in some of the materials for this album you mentioned John Luther Adams as being an influence. Were there other place-centered works of music or other works of art that informed how you went about this?

Peter Coccoma: It’s funny, there weren’t a lot of [influences] explicitly that went into this. When I get down to making something I often kind of pull myself out of listening to other things. I think the John Luther Adams thing is … I find [his life] very inspiring, in part because so much of people’s music, or just in culture in general, people’s work comes from more urban areas. His life and his writings about his life out in Alaska are something I keep in mind a lot. Similarly, like Andy Goldsworthy who I brought up before, I [find] inspiring in their sense of their commitment to being close to the natural world and exploring it and having that go into their work. And I think that we have less and less people who are living in that way and making work and I’m just very glad that [there are] people who do that.

I was reading a lot of poetry actually, while I was here [during] that time. I’m a big fan of Mary Oliver as well and she’s similarly lived most of her life in a small town. A lot of her writing and work was just getting up every day and going out and just walking around where she was. I think all of them kind of have this thing of both being very present to the world around them, and …  nature and that lack of society. 

For me, it’s [about] not being afraid to ask bigger questions, and to let your curiosity about something that’s on a much larger timescale—just to run with it. I think those people’s [lives], more than their particular work, was inspiring to just set up a daily practice and let myself go. There’s tons of musical influences that have gone in for all the music I’ve listened to and played beforehand, but I think in this time and space, it was just kind of like, “How can I just let go of all that and just let what is around me kind of come into the work?”

Tone Madison: The cover art for the album is a photo by Sky Hopinka, a multimedia artist and filmmaker with ties to Wisconsin. How did you get connected with his work?

Peter Coccoma: I probably discovered his work right around the time I was making this record, through one of his short films originally, and then I got a book of his called Around The Edge Of Encircling Lake. It’s a book of writing somewhere between poetry and prose, and there’s some photos in there, and so this photo is from that. He does a lot of these great large-format photos. 

There’s this point from where I am on the island where I look out and it looks north between some of the other Apostle Islands, and there’s this opening in the water. I would look out a lot at that, and there would be some days when it was foggy or cloudy, and it feels like you’re almost in this alien landscape—something very similar to something natural, but it’s hard to tell what’s land and what’s water and what’s cloud and sky. I found [Hopinka’s] photo and it has a similar feeling. It’s both being in the clouds, but it feels like it’s this landscape unto itself. And that really just resonated with me. In the music [I] was trying to create almost this landscape itself that feels similar to all the influences here but it’s its own separate place.

Tone Madison: You only have one live show scheduled right now, for May 26 in New York. Do you have any expectations or thoughts about how this music might end up evolving or translating to the live setting?

Peter Coccoma: I’ve actually been working on that a lot this last couple of weeks. I have that show coming in New York and I’m really excited. I’m going to play with Clarice Jensen, who’s the cellist on the record, and she’s the creative director of this group called ACME, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. They do really great work and you know, have done Jóhann Jóhannsson and Max Richter and a lot of other contemporary composers’ work, so I’ll be playing the show with her and two other string players from that ensemble. It has been a little bit of a puzzle. Unpacking all this music that I made just here by myself that’s very much based in sound design and using the computer as an instrument. I’ve really had to pull apart things to be able to arrange it for a live setting. It’s kind of put me back in touch with the music in a way. I think for this show, we’ll have three string players and myself playing synths and electronics. I’ve also been exploring just doing a solo version of it as well, where I just use all these synths that I built and I do the show that way. 

Tone Madison: What’s next for you?

Peter Coccoma: I have a short film that’s around a similar theme, about how the knowledge of death can impact our life. That’s a fictional film that I shot here on the island at the end of last year, and we’re wrapping up the final post-production on that. I’ll start to show [the film] and hopefully send it to festivals and other things like that. This album and the film are companion pieces in a way and came out of the same period. I think the rest of this year I’ll kind of go back into more of an exploratory mode. I like to be working on a film and music at the same time. I have some bits of some string music that I’m working on that was kind of inspired more by the deep winter here. [I’m] also just going further down the hole of electronic sound design, and [have] a couple film projects too that I’m trying to put together the next couple of years to make in a similar area. 

Part of making this record and this film is, I really love music and film and the connection between the two of them, and I also love making music for other people’s films, and I think that’s one of the great ways that we have in a contemporary culture of exposing people to instrumental and maybe more experimental music—you put people in a movie theater and they’re willing to listen to all sorts of music, and I love that about film scores. So that’s something that I’m always trying to work on.

Tone Madison: One last question: have you been to Tom’s Burned Down Café?

Peter Coccoma: That is an important island question! Yes of course I’ve been to Tom’s. One of the greatest bars on or off the island.

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