Jim Cockey is not your typical textbook composer. His North End bungalow, much like his appearance, is haphazardly pieced together, with wooden floors, drooping unlit candles and well-worn couches. He settles into an old armchair and his black cat rubs affectionately at his hiking boots. Through his graying moustache, he lets out an infectious laugh.
Jim Cockey is a man who values ideas over aesthetic. He prizes genuine emotion over the imposed rigidity of the classical music world.
Yet Cockey's no novice to his craft. He's been composing since his days at Boise High—"the year Boise beat Borah," he says, jokingly, trying not to date himself. And it was during that time that he first experienced the music of Bela Bartok, the music that would lay the groundwork for his future profession.
"I had just never heard music like that and never had that kind of feeling," Cockey says.
"It was one of those moments where you feel like a whole different dimension hits you. I remember going and asking my mom, 'Have you ever heard of this guy named Bartok?' And she just looked at me and said, 'Go to the record cabinet.'"
From there, Cockey started to explore his infatuation with classical music through his lifelong instrument of choice, the violin. He played in his high school orchestra and went on to perform in the Boise Philharmonic. Later, he formed an orchestral rock group called Providence that recorded an album with members of the Moody Blues. But after a while, Cockey felt the lure of composing draw him in.
"Seven years ago, I actually put the violin up on the shelf for a while," Cockey remembers. "It got to where, if I put the violin under my chin, it would suddenly be three hours later. That's three hours that I could've been composing."
And the Idaho arts world is now relishing his choice. This month, Cockey will premiere three of his original compositions: a farewell piece for James Ogle, the outgoing Boise Philharmonic conductor; a piece for the Idaho Dance Theatre based on The Odyssey; and a string and bassoon concerto for the McCall Chamber Orchestra.
Cockey has been working on Ogle's final piece, An Idaho Symphony, for over a year now. It's an emotional retrospective in four movements corresponding to fall, winter, spring and summer. Cockey chose to start the piece in autumn because that was the start of the year for him as a child. He recalls fall's inherent duality, longing for those uninhibited summertime treks up the mountains in McCall, juxtaposed with a welling excitement for the coming year. In Cockey's first movement, fall is a time of loss and hope and, most of all, a time of adjustment.
Winter, he explains, is overtly introspective, a time when everything slows down and becomes simplified. In this movement, Cockey pulls back the orchestration and uses only the string section and a few winds. It is an austere musical landscape where, he notes, the loss of color lends itself to a certain beauty and simplicity of line. Glenn Oakley, a local photographer who will be projecting images of Idaho during the symphony, felt a connection with Cockey's bleak winter aesthetic.
"For completely different reasons, I decided I wanted winter to be black and white," Oakley explains. "You don't want the photography to be the same as the music, but it needs to have the same consistency and integrity."
As Cockey's symphony progresses into spring, the oddly metered "vintage Cockey" sprouts up through the snow. It's a Fantasia-esque burst of life, complete with chirping flute solos and flowering strings. And though Cockey recalls springtime in McCall as a period when piles of dirty snow melted tortuously, his piece hums with the anticipation of a looming summer.
"For summer, I went for the grand feeling," he says. "Sort of the feeling you might get after a good long hike, sitting up on top of a mountain, watching a sunset. A real sense of completion."
To Cockey, there is no greater time in Idaho and no grander way to celebrate the culmination of Ogle's years with the Boise Philharmonic. Paul Collins, a local arts patron, commissioned Cockey to compose An Idaho Symphony because of his long history living and working in Idaho.
"My motto throughout my whole life has been 'music and mountains,'" Cockey explains. "I spent my summers up in McCall, and more accurately, spent my summers up in the mountains around McCall. I think there is some validity to this idea that where you are, physically, influences what you produce artistically."
This physicality is also evident in Cockey's other two upcoming premieres. For the Idaho Dance Theatre, Cockey has composed a piece that will be played by the Langroise Trio titled, To the Wandering Hero of Distant Lands. It's the story of Odysseus' long journey home to Ithaca. For the piece, Cockey has been working closely with Idaho Dance Theatre's co-artistic director and choreographer Carl Rowe. Though it's been 20 years since the last time Rowe and Cockey collaborated on a piece, they continue to inspire each other.
"One of the exciting things about this performance," Rowe says passionately, "is that it's original music by an Idaho composer, performed by Idaho musicians, choreographed by an Idaho choreographer and danced by Idaho dancers. It's truly indigenous."
Cockey's third premiere is a piece called Concerto for Bassoon and Strings that was inspired by longtime mentor and bassoonist John Reid. The piece is based on a Bach double-violin concerto and will be performed by the McCall Chamber Orchestra, an institution Cockey has been involved in since its inception. Cockey credits his time with the McCall Chamber Orchestra with giving him the broad perspective to be able to work on multi-tiered projects, like his upcoming show at the Boise Philharmonic.
Though Cockey is about as authentically Idaho as they come, his music has a resonant appeal that seems to defy place and time. When he speaks of meandering hikes through the mountains of McCall or his rosy-cheeked North End Christmas parties, you see the threads that weave the tapestry of a man. But when Cockey sits down at his piano, all those experiences fall by the wayside and the music begins to take on a life of its own.
"My goal is to really capture you, to make it an emotional, musical experience. Not an intellectual experience. You have to get the concept out of the way or the music can't find itself."
For this week's Noise news, visit BoiseWeekly.com.