Arts March 15, 2018

Born to Compose

Jim Cockey is an Idaho original

Jim Cockey, a Boise-based composer known for his innovative symphonic works, followed a long and winding musical road before he realized that composition was what he was born to do. “It took me many years to come around to the concept that my life focus could be writing music,” he said.

Growing up, Cockey’s main instrument was the violin. One of the “big moments” that influenced his life’s direction was when his violin teacher at Boise High School introduced him to the music of classical composer Bela Bartok. As he describes it, Bartok’s music rocked his world. “I’d never known music like that existed!” he enthused. “That’s when doors opened, and I had a new concept of what was possible.”

A spontaneous digression to San Francisco during the summer of 1969 landed Cockey, with violin in hand, and his brother Charlie, a guitarist and songwriter, in the environs of Haight-Ashbury where they quickly became part of the “scene.”

“We were totally into the hippie thing,” he grinned. “My brother Charlie roomed with Jorma Kaukonen, the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, and almost became their bass player. Jack Casady got the gig instead.” Cockey said it was the first time he started thinking of music as a lifestyle.

Cockey returned to Idaho and helped found a rock band called Providence. The band explored a mixture of rock and classical influences and featured an eclectic assortment of instruments such as violin and glockenspiel, piano, harpsichord, organ, autoharp, guitar recorder, and viola. Providence’s only album was produced by the same man who worked on the Moody Blues albums, which is how Cockey ended up playing for Moody Blues members Justin Hayward and John Lodge, best known for their song “Knights in White Satin.” Cockey toured with them for several years, and their “Blue
Jays” album went gold in England.

Once again, Cockey returned to Idaho and found himself in Gooding,
working with a theater troupe in residency at a building that had been the old tuberculosis hospital in Buhl. “I knew I was done with rock ‘n’ roll but didn’t know what to do next, so I spent a month plunking keys on an old upright piano to find the right pitch and found I’d composed ‘Sonata for Piano and Violin,’” he recounted. It was during this time that Cockey had the dawning realization that he wanted to be a composer.

To that end, he spent a couple of years at the University of Oregon studying composition, then moved to the mountains of McCall to write music. “I could have gone to New York but felt that the geographic place I loved would nurture my creative kindling,” he said. “I started McCall Chamber Orchestra and wrote pieces for them and helped found the McCall Music Society.”

In McCall, Cockey met and married Berni Cockey, the woman who would become his creative partner and muse. Berni, now an award-winning playwright with an ear for dialogue so natural it sounds as if she’s been eavesdropping at your dinner table, also creates props for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. How do they nurture their creativity and their marriage?

“So much of our relationship is support of each other, which we can do long-distance,” smiled Berni. “The other thing we’ve had is the ability to push each other. We share artistic hurdles and share our artistic insecurities and allow each other to be vulnerable.”

In 2010, they worked together to write an opera. “At the beginning, we sat down and defined how we were going to collaborate,” Cockey said. “We agreed to be very honest. When something is still being formed, it’s a very tender time to have someone comment on it. So, we worked out the process.”

Both agreed that providing support is invaluable, as is recognizing your own needs. “Just because you are both creative doesn’t mean you have the same creative process,” he clarified. “I think it boils down to mutual respect so that when problems do arise, you have the fortitude to do something about it.”

Cockey has a long list of compositions and commissioned works that have been performed across the country. In 2008, he composed “An Idaho Symphony” for the Boise Philharmonic, a commissioned tribute to then outgoing music director James Ogle. It was a retrospective in four movements corresponding to the seasons, featuring photographs by Glen Oakley. They also collaborated on Cockey’s work “The Gift of the Elk” in 2016, commissioned by the Cape Cod Orchestra.

“It’s the story of how the Crow tribe came to acquire the flute,” explained Oakley. “In both cases, Jim would provide me with the evolving composition, and my images followed his lead. When I listen to Jim’s music I hear the arc of the story. I gained an appreciation for complex layers of sound that make a symphony, and hearing it live—that wowed me!”

In 2013, Robert Franz, then music director of the Boise Philharmonic, commissioned Cockey to write “Sacred Land,” a history of the Shoshone Bannock tribes in the area. In 2014, Jared Hallock, a Boise-based percussionist and composer, collaborated with Cockey on “Shadowbreak,” performed by the Langroise Trio with choreography by Idaho Dance Theatre’s then artistic director Carl Rowe.

“Jim’s willingness to share composition duties with a percussionist is a bit daring and should highlight his open-mindedness,” commented Hallock. “Jim has a strong ability to hear parts in his head. His music is purposeful and pared down to the essential meaning. Rhythmically speaking, his music has forward momentum with driving 16th notes and well-disguised time changes. All parts are written to be important, and each player has the opportunity to ‘drive the band.’ I jumped at the chance to work with him.”

The new year started with “forward momentum” for the composer. His “Concerto for Cello,” composed for Langroise Trio cellist Sam Smith, was performed in January. In February, Grammy-nominated cellist Dave Eggars, at the time artist-in-residence at Surel’s Place, featured a new work by Jim in his show “Cellosong” at Boise’s Sapphire Room. The work included cello, violin, classical guitar, and the tap-dancing footwork of Gregory Hines’ protégé, Andrew Nemr, as a percussion element.


This article appears in the Spring 2018 Issue of Territory Magazine.