Spotlight: Rick Cox

Ry Cooder has called Rick Cox “…the hidden master of the crepuscular and the diaphanous.” Hidden indeed—in this era of ubiquitous Internet presence, I was hard pressed to find Cox represented. Still, you have heard him if you have ever seen The Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer, or American Beauty, where he lends his unique soundscapes to Thomas Newman’s scores. His latest release for Cold Blue is collaboration with Newman, 35 Whirlpools Below Sound. Enter the vortex with Rick Cox.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the guitar?

I took piano lessons as an 8-10 year old. Learning to read both treble and bass clefs proved to be quite useful later on. I also played cornet in junior high. I started guitar lessons at age 11. I began playing alto saxophone in my early twenties, (and I now own a beautiful contra-alto clarinet). The only relationship between saxophone and guitar I have found was trilling a G to G# (high E string) in first position on guitar and trilling a G to G# on saxophone, they really are quite similar!

The guitar was my main instrument in my teens. I played in rock bands like everyone else. I was exposed to and really liked bossa nova; when I was about 14 and began playing that, which led to classical guitar at 15, studying with James Yogurtian, a student of Segovia. I thought, for a minute, that’s what I wanted to do, choosing classical guitar as my major when I began at the Wisconsin Conservatory at age 17. The first day in music school, September 1969, when I signed up for something called “new music ensemble” I met a composer named Barney Childs and that changed the course of everything. He threw a bunch of indeterminate/graphic scores on the floor in front of us and basically said dive in.

I’d also enrolled in an electronic music course, (again with Childs), which was mostly tape manipulation, but continued the scope of experimental music composition. I began experimenting with alternative techniques of playing guitar at this time. I also studied cello and sitar while a student. In the mid-seventies, I’d come to California to study composition with, yet again, Barney Childs. It was at this time, playing in an improvisation ensemble that I formulated many of the guitar techniques I would use for a long time, like using glass, metal, sponges etc. to either set strings in motion, or alter sonorities.

Whose music inspires you? 

I began listening to a lot of “free jazz,” free improvisation, and the more academic Avant-garde in the early ’70’s. Also the usual suspects: Miles, Coltrane, Dolphy, Monk, ad infinitum. Steve Lacy was important to me. Also Albert Ayler, Alan Silva, Cecil Taylor etc. I had stopped listening to any so-called rock music after ’69, until the Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello. However, I did like some disco and pop stuff. A big turning point came in ’75 when I began writing more tonal music again. Harold Budd was important, and Daniel Lentz also “Dans le Sable” by Loren Rush was an important piece to me. Later, I first heard Jon Hassell in 1980 or ’81—Possible Musics Vol.2—that was important.

How did you get better at your current style?

It was always a little split because I played alto in a sort of free/interval based improvised way, and guitar in both an extended but also more traditional way. The extended technique things came easily. I did spend a lot of time practicing more traditional stuff: scales etc. In the late ’70’s, I came up with a concept of combining interval combinations to create more complex harmony. I wanted to avoid using scales and triads. I figured out every interval combination available in the 12-tone system and had them printed on a 4″ x 5″ inch card (both sides). This may sound impossible, but it was in a kind of shorthand of interval contents and ordering of same. For example: there are only six possible combinations of two notes. After these six everything is either an octave displacement, inversion, or transposition. Likewise with three notes—only 19, etc. I chose three combinations of three notes (three intervals), because I liked the sound. They were either consonant or not, but avoided triads, etc. After about ten years, I could get around on the alto pretty well. The guitar, however, didn’t seem as practical using single note technique, but more so as “chords.” I largely stopped playing alto and guitar in the mid to late ’90’s. That is, I didn’t practice until 2009, when I decided to begin playing the guitar again. This time I wanted to try to play it like I had the saxophone. I threw out all the technique I’d worked so hard on, like alternate picking, scales, etc. I wanted to see how far I could go with the interval thing. It has been enlightening, and I’m still working on it.

What are you trying convey with your music?

I’ve always wanted to be surprised by what I hear, so some degree of indeterminacy is usually present, however I’ve written some chamber music that is traditionally scored. I would say mystery is something I’d like to convey.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

Oddly, I never used any effects units later. I never got into the whole stomp box thing. Up until 1983 I used a Gibson SG Special, Fender Super Reverb and a DeArmond vol/tone pedal. When I began working in film, I got a Roland SDE 3000 delay and a digital reverb (ART 01A). Later on I used an Ibanez Tube Screamer when playing rock. I’d say looping was a big thing for me, beginning with the Roland SDE3000. Over the years I used the original Lexicon JamMan, Oberheim Digital Echoplex Pro, Boss RC20, and Electrix REpeater. I used the Lexicon PCM 80 (SwirlWholeNote) extensively on the Maria Falling Away recording. I used samplers extensively for film work, not too much for performance.

The big change occurred when I began using the MacBook Pro for everything. I hadn’t used a guitar amp since the ’80’s, and then only in rock bands. In the studio it was always direct, with me in the control room. For occasional solo concerts I had to use some kind of amp, but it was usually just whatever was handy. Now, with the laptop, I use Ableton Live and a lot of plug-ins for processing my live sound. Also I use the Electro-Harmonix Freeze or Super-Ego pedal for infinite sustain; a Keith Hilton volume pedal, an RME UCX interface, and, believe it or not, the Roland GI-10 midi box, triggering Omnisphere, Kontakt, Simpler etc. I’m also using a Keith McMillen SoftStep foot controller and Korg nanoKontrol. An iPad has the Alesis I/O dock so I can use Grain Proc, Samplr, and Turnado. I’ve experimented a lot performing with Jon Hassell.

You seem to have avoided playing live much until your recent tours with Hassell. Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

In the ’80’s, I was playing live several times a week, playing several kinds of music. Then I met Thomas Newman in ’82. As time went by, I began spending more time in the studio and less time performing. By the ’90’s it was rare to perform live, until, as you say, I started going to Europe with Jon Hassell around 2000. We’d met on a scoring job in ’97. Some time after that, he called about doing a record in Santa Barbara (Fascinoma) then a little later the live stuff began. I must say, my “playing” in both the studio and even live is kind of minimal, in that I use some kind of sustain and processing of chords/sonorities rather than a lot of guitar type playing.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

I haven’t actively done anything. It has helped a lot that a good friend started a record label back in the early ’80’s, and also that I’ve associated with more well know people.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

I have been so lucky to work with guys I respect and admire. I really hope to continue working with both Thomas Newman and Jon Hassell on new projects. I’ve also missed opportunities: a record with Sly and Robbie produced by Howie B., and a tour with Ronu Mamjudar and Abejit Benergie. I wonder what those would have been like. I’m working with Bassist/Producer Peter Freeman and Drummer/Composer Joachim Cooder on separate things. There is a drummer/poet named Read Miller that I’d like to reconnect with for sound/text pieces. I’d also like to get together with George Budd (no relations to Harold), a free form sonic artist that I like. Steve Tavaglione and I have talked about doing something. There was a time, when I was playing alto saxophone, that I’m sure I would have loved playing with guys like Steve Lacy and Cecil Taylor (who I spent an entire night with in some backroom in Greenwich Village doing illicit drugs in the early ’80’s). I generally like to get together with anyone who cares to, doing all different sorts of music.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

I am currently working on projects with Jon Hassell (w/Jon von Seggern and Hugh Marsh), Peter Freeman, and Joachim Cooder. There are also solo projects coming. The latest recording available is a collaboration with Thomas Newman titled: 35 Whirlpools Below Sound.  It can be ordered from Cold Blue Music (the label it is released on) right away and all other Internet retailers as of October 15, 2014.





5 thoughts on “Spotlight: Rick Cox

  1. Pingback: The Cox who Rowes in the West – Experimental Music Catalogue

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  4. Thank you very much JIm, that is really sweet of you to say. I’ll definitely check out the duets and I also hope that someday we might get together as well.

  5. Rick—really great interview…….honest, informative and remarkably non-self-aggrandizing! I feel like I really “get” you even though I haven’t heard you play all that much. The ear meal clip was pretty revelatory as well. Exquisite sounds & textures. I see from the interview that we have a similar approach to harmony and chord voicing. Anyway, congrats on the whole package & I look forward to hearing the new disc. All best…….jim mcauley
    ps–you might want to check out my duets with Scott Fraser that are linked to my faux-website.

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