Jessie Cox
Jessie Cox

Discussing Diversity with Jessie Cox

  • Jessie Cox

    One of the world's most brazenly experimental composers, Swiss artist Jessie Cox makes music about the universe - and our future in it. Through avant-garde classical, experimental jazz, and sound art, he has devised his own strand of musical science fiction, one that asks where we go next.

    Jessie Cox is a critical theorist, composer, drummer and educator currently in pursuit of his Doctorate Degree at Columbia University. Growing up in Switzerland, he is currently residing in New York City. He has received commissions from important ensembles from all over the world, while also regularly presenting concerts as a drummer. His scientific works have been published in numerous prestigious journals.

Your music unites influences from jazz, contemporary classical music, and sound art. How do you juxtapose these very diverse styles?

Thank you very much for this question. The historical development of two categories – jazz on one hand, classical music on the other – is itself caught up in anti-Blackness: the categories are managed by skin color. More specifically, they are used to exclude Black musicians, having less to do with musicians’ practices or influences than with economic and institutional (and their physical) spaces. In this sense, I am not particularly interested in genres, but rather in aesthetic (and political and social) practices.

In your research, you combine Black studies research with music theory and history. Where did you find the most surprising overlaps or discrepancies?

Musicology as a field is only just now beginning to confront its own entanglement with anti-Blackness. On the other hand, Black studies knows many authors who are themselves thinking with and about music – and have been doing so for longer than Black studies has existed as an academic discipline. This research must be seen as musicological activity. too, even if it is not always generally known in musicology. Black studies, for me anyway, goes beyond an academic discipline and even beyond academia, because it has always been practiced on stage as well: from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) to Sun Ra, to Count Ossie, to Sojourner Truth, and many others. In my opinion, we are living in an exciting time, because musicology is slowly coming to grips with Black studies. (What this will bring we will see, it is still an ongoing development.) What is clear, however, is that Black studies concerns the issues of our world, from climate change to the Internet to the definition of what it means to be a citizen. Black studies is part of all of these topics.

Classical music is still very white, we can’t sugar-coat that. But do you feel that a shift is slowly happening? And if not: why not?

If we think about how to combat anti-Blackness in every situation, then we are initiating a shift. This also means that actions must come from thinking and that these in turn should lead to further reflection. But what’s most important to me is that we realize that we can’t just solve the problem of anti-Blackness and then move on to other things. At the same time, having an ongoing conversation about Blackness also creates a connecting point for solving problems like sexism, poverty, and climate disruption.

In the introductory video you made for Alongside a Chorus of Voices, you pose the question: "How can we create a space that welcomes Black lives?" Through your work, have you found means to ensure that a concert experience is a welcoming space for people of all ethnicities?

This comprehensive question arose because of the specific situation of Switzerland and new music in Switzerland (and, of course, the new Lucerne Festival Forward). We must be aware that such a clearly localized question can only become a general one, if we think carefully about the case discussed. It’s important to point out how the question of anti-Blackness is often downplayed in Switzerland: by the conviction that Black is somewhere else – be it in America, in Africa, or somewhere else. This ideology, which positions Switzerland as non-Black, can be reifined by a welcoming of Blackness "from elsewhere" (as analyzed, for example, by Ch. Didier Gondola in the comparable case of France). This example shows us two things: on the one hand, how anti-Blackness can continue to be present even if there are some (or even several) Black folks in the room. On the other hand, questioning the space itself shows that welcoming some does not necessarily mean that the space no longer supports racist systems.
Furthermore, we need to discuss Lucerne Festival Forward as part of new music. In this sense, the festival is an international meeting place, centered on a form of music that receives resources without having to be convenient for the audience, and at the same time can be free of predictable outcomes – and that means it reaches beyond Switzerland, even if it starts from Switzerland. In that sense, this music has the possibility to address things that are anything but simple and to experiment with new ways of being together. But in order to do that, we have to shape the space of this music in a way that allows this to happen and doesn’t perpetuate systems that are anti-Black.
So, in that sense, my question is not one that seeks an answer, because there is no simple answer that makes the question go away. It is rather a question that I ask of Switzerland, of new music, of Lucerne Festival. It is a question that should be seen as ongoing – I hope that everyone always carries this question with them. Let’s create another world, from every place on this earth, so that we can save our planet and the lives on it.
Perhaps we can turn to a slightly different direction of thinking and ask: What can music do? Music can do everything! This is what the examples of musicians like Count Ossie, the Sun Ra Arkestra, the AACM, Matïé "Mighty" Chénière, Charles Uzor, and many others have taught me. Music as a practice to transmute the world, to make it rethink, to create new worlds for Black lives (and this through music in a social and economic sense as well): this is the foundation of my music.

You grew up in Switzerland but now live in New York. To what extent does the "diversity" discourse in the United States have a different emphasis and direction in comparison with Europe?

Diversity can be a hack: a way to get your foot in the door. The goal, however, is not necessarily diversity itself, because that does not automatically combat anti-Blackness but can itself be part of it. That does not mean we should not be more inclusive in every way. Rather it means that we can only properly come together with pro-Blackness. Let us thus, through that which I, and we, have heard as a possibility at Lucerne Festival Forward, pursue a musical space around this question, this aim: making music as a means of transforming worlds.

Jessie Cox © Priska Ketterer / Lucerne Festival

Recording of the concert

"Alongside a Chorus of Voices" by Jessie Cox had its world premiere on 20. November 2021 at Lucerne Festival Forward.