Spotlight on Jacob Cooper

We used clips from “Expiation” from Jacob Cooper’s album Terrain as music for the Lab podcast.

From Jacob Cooper: 

As a developing composer, I experienced a major breakthrough when I started manipulating time: slowing down preexisting recordings to a fraction of their original speed, and using that as a springboard to create my own music. I loved the way vibrato became extended pitch bends, the way a flippant gesture would turn into a dramatic wail. But in retrospect, something about the plodding progression of this music irked me——the sense that, despite its speed, it was still trying to arrive somewhere.

I eventually realized that I didn’t want my music to evoke slow time, but no time. Reading The Time of Music by composer and theorist Jonathan Kramer helped lead me to this revelation. In it, Kramer describes “vertical music,” which “denies the past and the future in favor of an extended present.” He argues that “by avoiding gestures that invoke memory or activate expectation,” music that is “in fundamental ways unchanging, nonlinear, and ongoing” can “evoke the suspension of time.” The notion of the extended present had been around for millennia, but, to my knowledge, Kramer was the first to propose that music could actually induce “in a dedicated and sympathetic listener . . . a real dissociation from the past and future, a now that is eternal even though it is destined to stop.”

I found that harmonic and melodic change were the primary forces in driving music through tension and release——i.e., the sense of progression I wanted to avoid. I also realized that, provided its sound morphed in other ways, I could happily listen to a single pitch or harmony for a really long time. So I began to focus on gradually changing the sound——or timbre, we musicians call it——while keeping harmonies static and melodies repetitive. Nearly all the music I’ve written in the last decade, including the pieces on my three albums Silver Threads, Terrain, and Sunrise, is driven by this conceit.

When my first child (now six years old) was a baby, I was struck by how he lived in an eternal present. With no memory and no ability to predict what might happen in the future, he had no reason to think a blissful or terrifying moment would ever end. Of course, as we grow older, joy inextricably becomes linked to anticipation, pain inextricably to anxiety. I relish how music is one of the few things that can still enable us to dissociate the present from the past and the future——to access a sense of the infinite, if only for a moment.
"Expiation" by Jacob Cooper
performed by Jodie Landau (voice)
text by Dora Malech

Composer Jacob Cooper enjoys collaborating with performers, poets, and directors, as well as with machines, environments, and questionable histories. He has been lauded as “richly talented” (The New York Times) and a “maverick electronic song composer” (The New Yorker), while Pitchfork praised his album Terrain (New Amsterdam Records) as “vital and compulsive.” Threnos (for the Throat), his vocal-theater production with Karmina Šilec, was recently selected for a Music Theater Now international award. Jacob is a 2020 Pew Center for Arts & Heritage Fellow, and he has also earned awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP, Chamber Music America, and New Music USA.