Album Review: Peter Coccoma – A Place To Begin

[Self-released; 2022]

When the ice on Lake Superior gets too thick, to get to Madeleine Island you have to opt for the fan-propelled “windsled” instead of the ferry. With a population of 300, the island used to have a regular couple of guests; every year composer and filmmaker Peter Coccoma and his partner would make a trip there for the winter, getting away from their Brooklyn home to enjoy the peacefulness of the island.

Come 2020, Coccoma and partner made their usual trip, envisioning a long stay this time of perhaps a year – but then the pandemic hit and they decided to stay there indefinitely. Restless to make music despite being scant on his usual breadth of equipment, Coccoma used the MIDI keyboard and Portastudio tape machine he had at hand, working on musical sketches every morning while the light was best in his studio. These sketches would end up being his debut album, A Place To Begin, a restful, chilly, and brief ambient record that captures the “sonic geography of the island.”

At times it feels like Coccoma’s music is plunging deep into the iced-over water of the lake; seven-minute “clouds of being” isn’t so much skybound as the title suggests as it is circling to the bottom of the water, the sinking synth descending around and around until it’s like there is nothing but the water pressure surrounding you. Elsewhere Coccoma makes deliberate moves to include the sounds of the landscape around him: “towards light” has the faintest knocking percussion, emulating distant pileated woodpeckers, while “a connection to all things” has the low frequency murmur of ice cracking far away. Little features like this tie the record to the location, but even without knowing their context, they add much needed sonic variety to the mix.

The auditory element that stands out clearly though is the additional layers of strings from cellist Clarice Jensen and violinist Oliver Hill. Their sound is all over the album, making A Place To Begin a sometimes studiously stark album recalling composers like Max Richter or Jóhann Jóhannsson. Both players bow their instruments without flair and distinct melody, and the effect can be like shifting glaciers (the judicious sweeps of “an invitation”) or like sunshine breaking through the clouds (the gentle flurries of high notes against the low end burble on “a connection to all things”). The best moments come when Coccoma bleeds the line between their playing and his, forming a liquidy, almost soothing pool to immerse oneself in.

The brevity of A Place To Begin works in its favour too. At 31 minutes, it’s a relatively easy and undemanding undertaking, bringing a half hour of ambience that sounds like it’s transitioning from the depths of the winter cold to the thawing sunshine of spring. Never quite sinking into the background thanks to its live instrumentation, but equally not hiding quite enough to leave a room feeling it somehow changed temperature after it finishes, A Place To Begin isn’t perfect or life-changing classical ambience, but is at least a likeable enough sonic postcard. You’ll stick it on your fridge, but maybe not read the back of it too often. Still, when you do, listening through will feel better than having to windsled there yourself in the dead of winter.