How Zach Cooper Mined the Music of His Past to Inspire Stillness

Zach Cooper by Greg Herman

“I think that all people suffer, and this record has allowed me to understand that suffering and work though it and make it a positive thing.”—Zach Cooper

The concept of album as autobiography isn’t a new one, but few artists have taken such a literal approach to the idea as Zach Cooper has on his new album, The Sentence. A stark, absorbing album, each song on The Sentence is built from samples of recordings Cooper made over the course of his life as a musician, hovering around the outer edges of jazz and chamber music. There are snippets from his work in the University of Vermont’s Theory and Composition Department, fragments of songs he made in high school with his friend Dan McClung, who passed away in a tragic high-rise fire in 2014 (McClung was also the subject of Cooper’s album Daniel McClung in Memoriam). The net effect is almost disconcertingly personal, like sneaking a peek at someone’s diary while they’re out back, mowing the lawn. What’s more, the song titles, when lined end-to-end, spell out a hidden message: “This Is For Us To Incite Stillness In Our Hearts And Minds.”

“You could call that a mission statement for the record,” explains Cooper. “A lot of this stuff is all very internal for me, so even getting those words out as the titles was a process. I think that all people suffer in the material realm to some degree—some more than others, some in different ways than others—and this record has allowed me to understand that suffering and to work though it and flip it and make it a positive thing has come through stillness.” Accordingly, much of The Sentence feels low-lit: guitars twinkle softly beneath mournful oboe on “Is”; “Hearts,” which opens with a snatch of youthful conversation, gives way to soft brushes of guitar and pirouetting flute. There are also moments that are unsettling: On “Stillness,” a vibraphone plinks out a doomy, bluish-purple rhythm while the horns settle in gently. Overall, The Sentence is a quiet journey through the sum total of the human experience—a Peter & the Wolf of the heart.

Zach Cooper by Greg Herman

Unsurprisingly, the album was born of Cooper’s own spiritual journey. “I was introduced to teaching of Paramahansa Yogananda through his book The Autobiography of a Yogi, and have taken on a more serious meditation routine,” he explains. “I’ve learned a couple of actual practices that aren’t just lofty and mysterious. Before this, I’d been questioning things in this spiritual way, very internally—thinking deeply about all of the big questions that people have a hard time finding answers to. I felt like there were feelings I had that I didn’t have words for—and there’s still feelings I have that I don’t have words for. When I read Yogananda’s work, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s the thing!’ His words just resonated with me so much. I found a lot of answers with Yogananda—answers that brought on more questions, and answers that allowed me to grasp on to actual techniques and methods of finding answers for myself.”

The album began to come together while Cooper was still grieving McClung’s death. “In that time of mourning I was going through tapes and CDs of all these recordings that he and I made with our friends back in the day, and found all this crazy stuff—so many amazing sounds that we made together.” Cooper selected the best of those recordings, along with snippets of his composition projects from the University of Vermont and a piece he wrote for the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, and began delicately weaving them together, creating a kind of aural time-lapse photograph. “For example, on ‘Minds’ you’ll hear bass and acoustic guitar—that was taken from a little jam that I did on tape. Then you’ll hear clarinet and cello; that’s from a piece I did with Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble. All the vocals on that track are sung by Dan McClung. So that’s a good example that shows the different time periods on the record.”

Zach Cooper by Greg Herman

But even without the deep knowledge of Cooper’s backstory, The Sentence is uniquely moving. Despite the fact that its elements are pulled from so many disparate sources, they all feel completely unified, both in tone and mood. There are elements of jazz, classical music and even some of the moodier electronic work on the experimental label Karaoke Kalk (a disconcerting raygun-like shimmering sound appears multiple times on the murky “Incite”). The Sentence is an album that envelops slowly, music that rustles like tree branches in a midnight breeze. “There’s a lot of love in this record,” Cooper says. “If you think of it as me looking back at my former musical self, then it’s basically a child’s recording. The process of making the record was so self-nurturing—looking into my past for all the clues that led up to this record. There’s no political or social edge to it—it’s strictly love music. It’s self-love music, and it’s ‘everyone-love’ music. I hope that people can just feel the love in it and hopefully hold on to that love for themselves and treat themselves and their loved ones right.”

Photos by Greg Herman

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