Beyond the Standard Wall: An Interview With Laura Cocks

Photo by Julia Den Boer

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TAK Ensemble and TAK Editions have become fixtures in my listening habits over the past year and their Executive Director and flutist-in-chief, Laura Cocks, is a driving force for so much of their good work (and in New York more widely). Between their own solo works (read further to watch an incredible performance of their solo piece, LARUS LARUS), the ensemble work, and the music of others TAK Editions put out this year (these two releases are in must hear territory), I’m in awe.

Beyond their immense skill and talent, Cocks’s enthusiasm for others’ success and helping them realize their own visions. This is especially evident in the incredible Ensemble Interactivo de La Habana album TAK released earlier in 2021 but is a constant in Cocks’s practice. Further, Cocks deep interest in the bodily histories of art-making resulted in their dissertation, Corporeal Analysis: The Performing Body as Analytic Site.

As a flute player and composer, Cocks creates intricate, spellbinding works that often have a visceral physicality to them. Listening to the way they play has changed my perspective on all that is possible with the flute and even with how much Cocks has already done, it feels as though they’re just getting started.

Laura can be reached via their website or TAK Ensemble’s website. TAK Ensemble’s Bandcamp is HERE and TAK Editions’ site is HERE.


First things first, how have you been making it through the past 18 months? And what has it felt like to start doing shows and performances again?

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been extremely lucky that within my small chamber ensemble, TAK, we’ve been able to find ways to be safe and mutually accountable in our in-person rehearsal and recording strategies. In the earliest months of the pandemic, we rehearsed on zoom through layering recordings and listening/discussing together. But, within my personal creative work, I didn’t feel capable of really much more than sight-reading older repertoire and etudes. I mostly spent time looking at birds in Central Park and Jamaica Bay with other birders in the city and doing practice LSAT exams, which was kind of a way to keep my mind engaged, and kind of a way of being afraid about what was going to happen to our field.

TAK moved to in-person rehearsals in October 2020. That month and the next, we recorded two new albums—Star Maker Fragments with Taylor Brook and Empty and/or Church of Plenty with Brandon Lopez—and two new videos—Nightmare for KIKU with Natacha Diels and a video of the album with Brandon. From that time on, the opportunity to focus in on work with TAK again kind of kicked my mind back into gear. TAK recorded another album that will come out as a book in April, and I just finished recording a solo album that comes out on Carrier Records in February. 

As things have shifted for many in New York, it’s been a really intense and electrifying several months of witnessing what colleagues are excited about creating right now, or how their interests have grown, sharpened, and taken new shapes. What a totally ecstatic honor to hear music that’s looking these shifts in the face, and to have these conversations within my own practice! The fervor that felt so tangible when shows were first kind of starting up again still feels so present. I still come home after playing with people and just feel totally exhilarated.

Let’s go back further. Can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound and how they made a lasting impression on you?

My immediate family is really huge and kind of messy, but has always found joy in singing, which is, I think, foundational to my sonic memories, and also to my understandings of being freely connective in spending time with people. The morning my grandfather passed away, we sat around his body and sang the same songs that my family had drunkenly taken over the stage at a local bar to sing together the year prior. These songs tie us together and offer us joy, but also hold connection in grief. The night before my other grandfather passed, we sat around him and sang songs that had been passed down from generations I had never met, but hold knowledge of through these songs. Growing up, we would sing these songs every night—sometimes just a few of us & sometimes all seven of us kids—and it felt so amazing to imagine the geographies and environments described within them. These songs were one of my earliest lessons in imagining what else could exist in the world, outside of the sprawl of the Midwest. 

I also really remember the sound of being alone, and how hard this was to find. Living with lots and lots of people meant that aloneness generally arrived via a change in plane, or an immediate change in environment—being underwater, lying down very flat in the forest, climbing to the top of the roof or a tree, or going somewhere generally undesirable, like those pipes that pass under roads. I still look to these plane changes to feel alone and to make enough space to really listen to that aloneness. Lying down very flat still helps, and so does quiet physical contact with humans, plants, and landscapes. Part of this is about stillness, and part of this is about registering a bodily invocation to listening. 

I have to admit that flute is one of my favorite instruments and one I always wished I’d learned. The sonic range and distinct timbre of it gets me every time! So, when did you start playing the flute, and what initially drew you to the instrument?

Wow, well firstly—you should totally learn the flute if you’d like!! It is indeed the best!! I will teach you flute!! Seriously!!

I love how direct the flute is. It’s an incredibly straightforward instrument, and this makes it feel very physically honest and in equal partnership with the body. You can trace so much of the body within the sound of the flute, which I love—you can hear the sound of a tense shoulder, a bloated stomach, a stiff neck. These grains of body in flute-sound set up a mutual enshrinement between body and flute, each reinforcing the other’s immediacy. Both as a part of this and within this is the very direct relationship that playing flute has with breath. With a literally vital physical action as the basis of sound-making, and with that action so foregrounded in the flute’s resistance-free timbre, the ramifications of what can be conveyed between sounding/listening bodies are immense.

I began playing flute in my public school’s bands in fifth grade. The music educators I had in this experience and throughout high school are some of my most profound mentors.

Who are some of your favorite flute players or ones that have inspired your own practice?

There are so many truly incredible flute players out there making the most fabulous music. I remain constantly amazed and inspired by the playing of peers such as Yasel Muñoz, Alice Teyssier, Camilo Ángeles, and countless others that would take far too long to name, but I name in my own practice daily. Nicole Mitchell is also certainly one of my earliest influences—I’m so grateful for the gift of being able to hear her in Chicago when I was first really learning about music. 

That said, learning from the way that non-flutists engage with their instruments and with sound is often what I find to be the most inspiring in my practice. Also very important to me within this space of inspiration/investigation is the work I do with composers. Being challenged by external curiosity opens up so many strange and fascinating spaces of sound-making and performance-making, and these collaborations have hugely shaped the scope of my inner work and personal practices over the years.

How did TAK ensemble first start?

TAK ensemble started as what was intended to just be a concert—I had moved to New York at the same time as my dear friend and collaborator, David Bird. He was in an academic program with lots of composition colleagues, and I was in a small program with some really cherished performer colleagues—so we decided to plan a concert of premieres that would be written by his new friends and performed by my new friends. And then it just stuck—the vibes were good. That first show was in 2013, and here we are. It’s really one of the deepest honors and hugest pleasures of my life to get to make music with these people. If I think about it too hard, I’ll just get really mushy; they’re really just the deepest musicians and thinkers and humans and I love them. If anyone isn’t familiar with Marina, Madison, Charlotte, or Ellery’s work, lmk & I’ll make you a really fucked up playlist.

Beyond your studies and practice around flute and composition, I read that an area of writing and research you’ve focused on is the bodily histories of art-making, which I find fascinating. Can you talk a little about where these interests first came from and what aspects of them continue to surprise and inspire you?

To me, the most exciting and fulfilling way of engaging with my instrument is one of deep bodily intensity. This can mean a lot of things, but to me, it primarily means that sound is always embodied, and the relationship between flute and body is always alive. I think that as a young person, I had to invite myself into relationships with my body that allowed for a renegotiated understanding of its power; creating the context of my body’s power within flute playing opened a space to build my own relationship with my own body. At the time, I think it felt as though there was a malleable space for my energy, and this was immensely powerful and immensely sacred to me as a young queer person.

Bodies are so different, but bodies also have many facets that are intrinsically similar to one another. Bodies often breathe, which is very important to the flute; bodies often respond to stressors; bodies often hold our histories and our experiences; bodies often have rhythms to the systems that keep them going; bodies often change; bodies often experience fatigue and hardships, etc. To perform in alignment with our bodies is to communicate in alignment within these intrinsic systems, and, therefore, to musically interact vis a vis embodied communication—with basic tenets of existence as shared language. To communicate corporeally in music acknowledges the constant change that bodies experience; therefore to analyze corporeally in music acknowledges the constant change that performance practice and music discourse must so too inhabit. 

Corporeal analysis—which is what I like to loosely call this area of research and writing—was born out of that very physical way of relating to playing, and the feeling that there was a lack of performer-driven analysis around it in musicology and theory. Concomitant with this is the reality that so much of the way analysis is taught feels divested from actual bodies making music and often fails to relate to the music that I’m most interested in. 

A little over a year ago, I finished writing Corporeal Analysis: The Performing Body as Analytic Site, which prioritizes autoethnography and anecdata to speak to the deep power of analyses that any performer/listener offers when speaking about their own corporeal relationships with music and art. To really sit with modes of research and analysis that value wide experiences of art, I hope, inherently destabilizes hierarchical analytical structures. Foregrounding embodied analyses of works necessarily invests in exiting a space that insists on a hegemonic ‘correctness.’

First-hand accounts from other individuals about their relationships with their own body and their art continuously surprise and inspire me. To hear someone talk about their physical relationship with playing is always, always so awe-inducing. This is perhaps one of my favorite things about this area of research—there’s so much space for non-codified modes of engagement, and it’s inherently experience-centric, so it’s always shifting. 

Still from David Bird’s Atolls

So what is next for you and for TAK? Can you share a little about the solo recordings you’ve been working on recently?

Right now TAK is in a deep workshopping stage with a few musicians for upcoming commissions, which feels really exciting. I love when the creation of new things really moves at the pace of working together. 

One of these is a new piece by Eric Wubbels called Interbeing that we’ve been developing together since 2017. It exists as a folio of modular movements—some for the quintet, some for the audience, some as the act of preparing and drinking tea together—that can be assembled into different iterations of the same piece. We’ll give a premiere of one potential iteration in May 2022. 

We’re also currently workshopping a new work by composer DM R in collaboration with composer/bassoonist/improviser Joy Guidry to be premiered in person and on TikTok in the fall of 2022, as well as a new work by composer/sound-artist Michelle Lou that, in homage to artist Fred Sandback, uses resonating wires to connect the players to one another and to custom-made speaker-sculptures—transforming the ensemble and space into an interconnected ecosystem of resonance. Also in the works is a long-form piece by composer and sound artist Seth Cluett, that immerses players and listeners in various ecological communities through non-traditional recording technologies.

Beyond that, we’re working on making a collaboratively composed work to be recorded next fall, and are looking down the road at two new commissions from our dear friends Natacha Diels and Tyshawn Sorey, both of whom wrote pieces for us in 2014 that ended up on our 2019 record, Oor.

In the spring, TAK has a new album—Love, Crystal, and Stone—coming out on our in-house label, featuring this stunning and really emotionally virtuosic song-cycle by composer Ashkan Behzadi. The release will come out as a book, so as to be able to share the libretto in its original Spanish and in the Farsi translations by Ahmad Shamlou that deeply influenced Ashkan. The text is accompanied by a collection of ecstatically vibrant and kind of comfortingly disturbing paintings by visual artist Mehrdad Jafari, alongside writings from scholar Saharnaz Samaeinejad—all designed in collaboration with Chicago-based design house Sonnenzimmer.

And I’m so excited about this solo record I have coming out in February on Carrier Records; it’s called field anatomies and is comprised of pieces that have all really fundamentally shaped my relationship with flute over the past several years. I’ve lived with these works in my body for a long time, and they’re all pretty intense, pretty blistering; it felt like they needed a little more space, a different home. I’m really grateful that they can live both inside and outside of me now.  

field anatomies includes: David Bird’s 20-minute work Atolls for solo piccolo and 29 spatialized piccolos, which was totally brutal to record and impossible to describe; Bethany Younge’s Oxygen and Reality for piccolo, electronics, and balloons that function as external lungs affixed to the instrument; Jessie Cox’s Spiritus, which is at once totally architectural and totally exploratory in the way it shifts through resonances of imagined spaces; DM R’s hauntingly expansive and gutturally expressive, You’ll See Me Return to the City of Fury for glissando flute and electronics; and Joan Arnau Pamies’ Produktionsmittel I, which is probably one of the hardest and most satisfying truly decoupled scores I’ve ever dissected. 

These pieces are all fervidly, physically and potently imaginative—it’s really been an immense honor to get deep into them with the composers over the years, and to commit my understanding of them to recording; it’ll be another immense honor to share them with y’all in a few months.


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