Cole Pulice is playing what appears to be a woodwind instrument. But it’s actually a MIDI controller, turning all the qualities that would inform the tone of a traditional saxophone—breath control, finger positioning, and so on—into data. Their initial breaths become staccato digital blurts, the sound of a chiptune composer starting to draft an 8-bit video game score. As Pulice’s playing becomes more involved, their music jolts to life with a kaleidoscopic smear of ambient sound.
The 34-year-old musician is demonstrating this process over a tangle of wires in an Oakland practice space, a mop of long hair pulled loosely back from their face and chunky hoops hanging from their ears. Although they are a dazzling saxophonist, the network of cables, pedals, and synthesizers around them are as central to their recent records as any old-fashioned instrument.
Pulice is playing “HP / MP,” the opening track from Scry, their recent album of experimental jazz, which mixes traditional saxophone playing with electronic psychedelia and passages of ambient music that sound as if Pulice performed them from inside a cathedral of rose quartz. “I wanted to lean into that ephemeral, fragmentary, dream-like surrealism of betweenness,” Pulice says. Their sonic landscapes can be meditative and peaceful or, like “HP / MP,” invigoratingly disorienting. Along with To Live & Die in Space & Timetheir collaboration with synth artist Lynn Avery, Pulice was responsible for two of 2022’s finest experimental records.
Pulice, who is currently working on a PhD in cultural studies and comparative literature, answers questions thoughtfully, taking brief pauses to fully consider what they want to say. Their composition process is similarly gradual, with improvisation followed by deep reflection of what the music represents and communicates. As they tinkered with Scry, the album started to reveal itself as being autobiographical. “I was thinking about gestures, states of being, and headspaces in a lot of ways that were really personal,” they say. “Pre-pandemic, post-pandemic, moving from Minneapolis to Oakland—it’s really crystallizing what I’m working with right now.”