All that We Are Is the Past

Jessie Cox on Multidimensional Spaces, Creolity, Opacity and Pop

15 August, 2023 | Elisa Erkelenz

Jessie Cox by Tilly Clifford
©Tilly Clifford

Whether you reach Jessie Cox in New York or Australia, the same stars and planets circle around in the Zoom background. The cosmos is a creative reference space for Cox, similar to the Afrofuturism vanguardist Sun Ra, who inspired him and with whose Arkestra he worked in New York. Talking to Cox about music is like an intellectual trip through space, and his music is itself an invitation to venture into the unknown. On August 30th, he will present his new work "Cosmic Migrations" at Berlin's radialsystem as part of a new edition of Outernational. Elisa Erkelenz spoke with him about opening up new worlds, the old problems of the one we’re living in and the right to not to be categorized.

What are you working on at the moment? 

It's quite an exciting time; you could also call it a turning point. I have been working intensively with the sound of cymbals and especially on the idea of the sound of a space. For example, in 2020 I did a programme on YouTube, Space Travel From Home, where I recorded something every week. I had a little green screen in the background and went to different planets and stars. Each galactic body had a different spatial sound. I then explored these spaces as part of the or as music. I recently read an interview with Jack Whitten, an incredible African American artist who became known for using mosaics in paintings. They are paintings, but you could also think of them as sculptures—he thinks a lot about multidimensional spaces. I'm also about "slipping into another world", as described by Henry Threadgill, whose book I've just read. Opening up new worlds artistically, but also politically. 

Do you have an example of how you create multidimensional spaces in your compositions? 

If you have a cymbal, for example, and you imagine it as a space, there is a note that is in the foreground, and then you have something like a shadow behind it. You can change the notes and draw lines, but you can also change the space; the shadow, so to speak. In this way, you can create multiple spaces at the same time. For example, you can have two cymbals or play two different pieces of staves without playing the whole frame. That's what I'm working on now, of course also in connection with questions of space that go beyond the idea of music—space as the environment, space as our living together and space as what we are.

To what extent are these questions also connected to theories of Blackness, to which you often refer in your works and texts? 

It's very closely related. Our modern idea of a relation to space is absolutely intertwined with the question of what a human being can be and what we are and are not. Since the beginning of plantations and the slavery associated with them, there was the idea that there were people who could make land productive, cultivate it. The rise of the plantation marked the birth of monoculture, which was opposed to the "wild" or "unfit" land. On this wild land, in turn, many slaves and indigenous people practiced their freedom. "Maroonage" is a word to describe these societies. Blackness, then, discusses this refusal to limit what life can be. Blackness goes beyond any limitation, it is an invitation to always keep asking and thinking, to stay with the unknown, the unthought. It is like a "hack", to quote Tony Cokes, who contradicts in a world that constantly tries to get everything under control, to make everything productive. Blackness cannot be reduced to discourses of monoculture or biodiversity as its derivative. Both are based on an anti-Black world. Black Lives Matter, as well as being Black, is also a critique of the rules of the game in this world. It is about questioning the definitions of life and existence that lead to destruction. 

How do terms like Black and Blackness relate to diversity for you, as a term that has become more common in this country? 

The problem with diversity as a term is that it can very easily be used to displace anti-Blackness. Noémi Michel's academic work, for example on the SVP's "Black Sheep Poster" from 2007, shows this quite clearly. The poster shows three white sheep pushing a black sheep out of Switzerland. As a counter-critique, a poster with 23 different-looking sheep was created to celebrate the diversity of Switzerland. The rhetoric aimed at displaying the diversity of the country, since Switzerland was created by different languages and cantons. This played into the SVP's rhetoric—that the color of the sheep was not important. This means that a first step sees the black color of the sheep as a racialization, which is why the criticism of this poster is necessary. In a second step, however, not only the racialization but also Blackness is erased and dismissed as not valid. As Claire Jean Kim explains: "The detachment from the problem that affirmative action was supposed to combat—namely anti-Blackness—was made possible by colorblind discourses such as diversity and allowed for the renewed negation of affirmative action." At the same time, however, I hear an undercurrent in diversity—the fight against anti-Blackness in a world where this cannot even be named. In German, we don't even have a word for anti-Blackness. And the discourses about anti-Blackness are only slowly coming into the larger attention; of course because anti-Blackness is structural. In the absence of discourses and terms to address something, one has to go through language, even understanding itself. This is what has always been discussed in Black Studies. The term "Afro-German" cannot be detached from the Black women who organized themselves, and, through their attention to Black people in Germany and their stories, wrote down this word, and at the same time set in motion a lot of discourses and structural shifts. Blackness thus discusses the radical refusal of an anti-Black world through the affirmation of Blackness and Black lives. 

Your teacher George E. Lewis has called for a "creolization" of the contemporary music scene. What is your position on the concept of creolité as coined by Édouard Glissant? 

Creolité is very important to me because it is a kind of resistance to the discourse of multiculturalism, diversity, and hybridity. Creolité must be understood as a concept that is inseparable from Blackness. At the same time, the concept must be problematized because it can also be drawn into colorblind discourses. Glissant's theory of creolité, however, needs the unpredictable and unknown, which for him is exemplified in the situation in which Black people found themselves during the time of slavery. Glissant also writes about maroonage and creole gardens. These small gardens were sometimes part of the plantations, but could also be found in areas that were more difficult to cultivate and that the Maroons could win for themselves. A lot of different—today one would say biodiverse—food was planted there on little space for the slaves and their own maintenance. For Glissant, this is a fundamental metaphor for his concept of creolité. There is knowledge that we need to recognize in order to live on this planet at all; specifically, a life that contains us again. Glissant's concept of opacity is also incredibly important to me. 

Can you briefly describe what opacity means? 

Glissant has said that everyone has a right to opacity. Opacity is opposed to transparency and control, so he means that we have a right not to be profiled and thereby be categorized and colonized. In the 16th and 17th centuries, transparency and control became the principle of the nation-state and thus the definition of a citizen. In short, what is not known cannot exist. That which is wild may be conquered. Like "wild Africa" or the "wild West". The insistence on opacity as a fundamental right opposes this.

Do you also find opacity fruitful as a concept for your compositions? For example, in the sense that we start categorizing less essentialistically and eschew the idea that "everything I don't see or see through is worth nothing"? 

Yes! That's a very nice approach. For me as a composer, opacity is also not only related to creating, but also to listening to music and the position I adopt as a listener. The common idea is that you can listen to music in two ways: in a stream or in a concert. Often you then know what kinds of music you can expect. Confirming your own expectations has very little to do with music for me. Maybe we should explain less, maybe it's the listener's job to create a relationship with the music. Music is a network of relationships; we listen and build categories and leave them behind again. We always have to find new words when we speak. A lot of things are allowed to sort themselves out anew when we listen. That is the beauty of it! 

You also worked with the Sun Ra Arkestra. Sun Ra is considered a pioneer of Afrofuturism, which itself now looks back on a longer history. How do you relate to it, are the ideas still relevant for you? 

The ideas of Afrofuturism indeed already have a history of their own. Everyone who knew Sun Ra says that he already had these thoughts made up for the late 21st century. And I think that's still true in many ways—how he thought about outer space and space in general; how he used a metaphor, outer space, but at the same time discussed our planet and ourselves. For me, it's also a study or a pedagogical message about how we deal with the past and through that with the future, about thinking about time, space and the present. The other day I saw a short film by Louis Henderson about climate change and colonialism. He talks about a sea of coral, about researchers working with dead coral, looking for clues to possible mutations. These in turn can give clues to how multiple species can live together as one coral in this dead sea. It's a wonderful piece of work. What struck me just now is the completely different relation to the past and its horror—a sea where death also lives. Rethinking the past can bring a new future and new ways or ideas for our behavior. 


This reminds me of Johannes Schöllhorn, who recently wrote a number of essays on how colonial history is intertwined with music history: "Karte, Uhr und Partitur" ("Map, Clock, and Score"). He writes: "Everywhere in the coral, humans can encounter the past (in the form of dead branches) and future (in the form of foreboding ongrowth). I propose the coral as a map for moving on. The coral is experimental in many ways."

All that we are is the past. We, today, are the past. There is no past except us. Now, if suddenly the whole planet just disappeared, the past would be gone. There would be no more "timeline". Every molecule would be gone. That maybe a little bit sci-fi, but actually, it’s not. That's how we think in physics and neuroscience anyway. Henderson's coral denying the linear separation of time and space makes for a great image. A bit like Schrödinger's cat, that is, in quantum physics—every moment is anchored in uncertainty. Every space is multidimensional, not self-sufficient as moment or sound. 

Again on Afrofuturism: Janelle Monaé's new album just came out. Do you listen to pop? 

I have to admit that I'm always a bit behind with pop music. I listen to about as much pop as I listen to any other composer. (laughs) It's more like a piece here and there. There's no difference for me if something is popular or not. I don't have Spotify, and when I find a name, I look at what they've done, and then I look at who collaborated with whom, and then it gets interesting. In a lot of cases, it's actually the same people that I know from contemporary music or jazz. I think it's important to realize that these categories mean completely different things in our time, especially for musicians who work across genres. There are very few people who have a permanent job. Most of them work sometimes there and sometimes there. But the pop business is completely different! It's very important that we have art music spaces and give opportunities to all kinds of people and diverse styles and aesthetics. Labels will never promote experimental music that doesn't fit with today's business model. It’s the same in academia ... If a university has money, they can try out more experimental things that are not directly profitable. We need the same in the arts, or otherwise we'll end up with monocultures. 

  • Interview
  • Jessie Cox
  • Outernational
  • Radialsystem

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