On Peter Coccoma’s A Place to Begin

A cloud of puffy smoke swirls around Peter Coccoma, who plays synths alongside a group of string players, as their effervescent music emanates through Greenpoint’s IRL Gallery. A dim, purplish-pink light projects onto the stage, coloring the smoke’s tufts. Everything feels hazy here: The room’s fog matches the quality of the music, in which synth sounds glide across a sea of blossoming strings to create a quiet radiance.

Tonight, May 26, Coccoma is celebrating the release of A Place to Begin, an album he created while on a winter trip to Lake Superior’s Madeline Island in 2020. This remote location offered Coccoma plenty of time to think and to wander, and that reflection comes through in his music. As he wrote, he was processing the near-death of a loved one while taking daily strolls, where he watched as the grayness of winter slowly turned into the light green buds of spring. It was a time of transformation, and this suite seeks to make sense of how those metamorphoses feel, using drifting sound to create a sense of pensivity.

Because of Coccoma’s surroundings while he wrote this music, nature is a thematic constant, providing fodder for unfurling layers of sound. Tracks like “an invitation,” for example, gurgle like the depths of a lake, made of bubbly, muted synths that conjure the sound of the water as it ripples beneath slabs of ice. The live performance as a whole feels watery. Gently flowing, buoyant sounds create a sense of meditation, floating through moments of melancholy and brightness, never letting one or the other stay too long. There’s also a feeling of expanse present in this music: By centering long-held, dreamy tones, Coccoma’s pieces stretch out, creating a panoramic view that feels like soaking in the view from the side of the road.

Before Coccoma and the ensemble take the stage tonight, Elori Saxl and Clarice Jensen present two similarly wafting, pleasant sets. Saxl goes first: Her music unfolds through layers of sparkling synth and piano melodies, weaving mellow phrases with stark pulsation to form an off-kilter groove. Jensen follows with a cello-centered set that deals in lush sound. Her instrument goes through a series of timbral and textural changes, each of which is colored by swaths of reverb. At first, her rolled chords feel akin to solo Bach; they gradually grow into cinematic, spun-out phrases. Both of these sweeping performances propel the evening’s sense of expanse that is at the heart of Coccoma’s music.

As Coccoma plays, what I notice most is his music’s malleability. There are moments of stasis, where all we hear is a nearly motionless synth buzzing underneath forlorn strings; they delicately change into full-bodied resonances that seem to push ever-forward rather than hang in the clouds. Once again, the metaphor of water, and how music can emulate it, comes to my mind. This isn’t anything new, per se—look at John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean or Claude Debussy’s La Mer—but Coccoma does it well. As I sit and listen to the music’s gentle flow, I find myself skating along the surface, letting it sweep me into its currents.