It was 2012 when the Australian composer and sound artist Madeleine Cocolas first moved away from the warm, sunshiny beaches of Australia and onto the cold, rainy waterfronts of Seattle. After settling into her new home in South Lake Union, Cocolas challenged herself to write a new piece of music every week for 52 weeks—and thus was born the “Fifty-Two Weeks” project.
Over the course of one year, Cocolas composed a series of 52 pieces wrapped up into a year-long blog chronicling her artwork, her travels, her successes, her struggles, and above all, her music. In the process, not only did she discover a lot about herself and her artwork, but she also discovered a lot about the beauty and mystical splendor of the Pacific Northwest.
Cocolas recently revisited her “Fifty-Two Weeks” project with a new debut album aptly titled “Cascadia,” which was released through the experimental music label Futuresequence this past December. A clear vinyl of the album comes out this Monday, January 11—and trust me, you’ll want to hear it on vinyl.
The album is a beautifully amorphous blend of ambient, experimental, electronic, and contemporary classical sound worlds with plenty of Pacific Northwest whimsy. In the span of just under 45 minutes, Cocolas explores new sonic lands, shimmering seascapes, twinkling piano melodies, textured lullabies, toy accordions, tape cassettes, and so much more.
We recently featured it as our Album of the Week on Second Inversion—but since we just can’t get enough of Cocolas’s ethereal and ambient dreamscapes, we invited her back to the station to talk about art, music, creativity, and all things “Cascadia.”
Second Inversion: What is the inspiration for the album’s title?
Madeleine Cocolas: The album’s title was directly influenced by Seattle and our beautiful surroundings, including the Cascades. Living in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for the past 3.5 years has influenced my music immeasurably, and I feel like the music on “Cascadia” and my “Fifty-Two Weeks” project is a direct response and reaction to my surroundings here. It is impossible for me to listen to “Cascadia” and for it not to evoke feelings of my time here in Seattle.
SI: How would you describe the sound of “Cascadia”? What composers, artists, or styles of music most influenced your compositions?
MC: In terms of a genre, I would describe “Cascadia” as a bit of a mixture between ambient, experimental, electronic and modern classical. Whilst there are a range of styles and instrumentation on the album, I think the overall aesthetic falls under the ‘ambient’ umbrella. Artists that I have been influenced by would include Jóhann Jóhannsson, Julianna Barwick, Nils Frahm, The Dirty Three, Tim Hecker and Ben Frost amongst others.
SI: How is “Cascadia” similar to and/or different from your “Fifty-Two Weeks” project?
MC: “Cascadia” is essentially a refinement of my “Fifty-Two Weeks” project, with the exception of “The Sea Beneath Me” and “Moments of Distraction,” which were written after “Fifty-Two Weeks” had been completed. A big part of “Fifty-Two Weeks” was to explore and better define my compositional style, and to me, “Cascadia” best represents my “Fifty-Two Weeks” project and current compositional style.
On the other hand, “Cascadia” differs from “Fifty-Two Weeks” in that I was able to obsess over the details of this album in a way that I wasn’t able to when I was writing a piece of music a week. Even though much of “Cascadia” is based on “Fifty-Two Weeks,” I spent a lot of time reworking and rearranging the tracks, and I had it mastered by Rafael Anton Irisarri, so in that respect “Cascadia” is much more polished and refined than “Fifty-Two Weeks.”
SI: After writing music for 52 weeks and looking back at this large body of work, did you learn anything unexpected or interesting about your compositional style, musical taste, or creative process?
MC: When I started “Fifty-Two Weeks” I had no real expectations from the project apart from setting myself the challenge of writing 52 pieces. Looking back, the project achieved so much more than I anticipated and I did learn some incredible lessons.
In terms of creative process, I had previously been very stifled when it came to actually ‘completing’ compositions, and I didn’t really have many completed pieces that represented what I wanted to convey. Having weekly deadlines was an incredibly liberating way of being forced to finish a piece and move on to the next without overthinking things and obsessing over small, unimportant details, and I was really able to hone in on my creative process and unblock a lot of restrictions that I had unconsciously placed on myself.
In terms of my compositional style and musical taste, prior to “Fifty-Two Weeks” I had written a lot of piano and small chamber-based music without too much experimentation. During the project, I really challenged myself to listen to a much wider range of music, and found that I absolutely loved experimenting with found sounds, noise and electronic elements, and these have since become an integral part of my compositional style.
SI: How did you keep each week’s composition fresh, new, and exciting?
MC: Because” Fifty-Two Weeks” was such a long-running project, I knew the only way I was going to get through would be to try different things each week, otherwise I would get bored. I set myself certain challenges each week (e.g. using vocals, incorporating found sounds or collaborating with other artists) so that I wouldn’t fall into a rut. There were definitely some phases in the project where I did feel that I was lacking in inspiration (and I was honest about it in my accompanying blog), but I was generally able to think of new and interesting ways in which to challenge myself.
SI: Outside of composition you are also interested in printmaking, collage, photography, fashion, and street art—do these wide-ranging creative interests come out at all in your music?
MC: I often think that my visual and musical styles and tastes are quite different. My music is quite introspective and reflective, and when I imagine it in a visual sense, I think that it would be best represented by subtle, muted colors and fine textural details. On the other hand, I’m often drawn to visual art and fashion that is very bold, bright and loud, and I do wonder how the two relate and how one affects the other. In both musical and visual contexts though, I appreciate layered textures and unexpected combinations, so perhaps that’s the common underlying theme!
SI: I particularly enjoyed your experiments into found sound, samples, and more ‘collage’ style music (i.e. kitchen sounds in Week 28 and radio clips in Week 50). Have you explored any more of these musical ideas outside of the “Fifty-Two Weeks” project?
MC: I really enjoyed using found sounds during my project, and it is something I have continued with subsequently. I recently collaborated with Australian textile artist Monique Van Nieuwland on her exhibition “Ocean Forest,” whereby Monique recorded sounds of her weaving and I reworked and processed those sounds to create an oceanscape sound design to accompany her work. I actually ended up using the oceanscape I created for Monique as the basis of the first track of “Cascadia,” “The Sea Beneath Me.”
SI: What do you hope audiences will gain from listening to “Cascadia” and the “Fifty-Two Weeks” project?
MC: The music I have written for “Cascadia” and “Fifty-Two Weeks” is very personal to me, and evokes very specific feelings and emotions about my time in Seattle. I’m always interested to hear what feelings my music evokes in other people, which I imagine are different to mine, but I would love if “Cascadia” was able to convey a feeling of connection between my music and the beautiful and ethereal Pacific Northwest as well as feelings of tranquility, isolation and melancholy.
SI: What is next on the horizon for you?
MC: I spent the last half of 2015 re-scoring Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” as part of the Northwest Film Forum’s ongoing series “Puget Soundtrack,” and I performed the score live in December, which was fantastically fun! I’m hoping to polish that up a bit and release it as either an album, or a continuous score that can be played alongside the film (interestingly, the original film didn’t have a conventional musical score, so I was able to include all the original dialogue and sound effects when I re-scored it).
Currently I’m collaborating with choreographer Angelica DeLashmette on her evening-length dance performance “Being” which will be performed at Velocity in 2016. I’m also collaborating with musician Mathias Van Eecloo (Monolyth & Cobalt) on an ongoing 12-part series based on my “Fifty-Two Weeks” which I hope will be released sometime in 2016. And lastly, I’m looking forward to working on some more solo work and starting to think about my next album!