While in college in 1998, I went to a performance by the Callithumpian Consort at New England Conservatory. Led by Stephen Drury, the ensemble played a musical game piece by composer and saxophonist John Zorn called Cobra. It was one of maybe a dozen musical experiences in my life that totally blew my mind and changed my understanding of music.

Stephen Drury stood at a table surrounded by a semi-circle of instrumentalists. The performance involved frantic finger-pointing, cue cards of mysterious letters and numbers, the putting on and taking off of hats, and enormous energy. I seemed to be watching the group have a musical conversation, but in a language I didn’t understand. Like witnessing an argument in Russian, I could understand the moods and gestures but not the meaning of the communication. After the show, I asked Stephen Drury where I could get the score. He told me the “score” was just a few pages of written notes, and that he would leave me a copy hidden on his porch. It felt like a treasure hunt, and I later learned that Zorn never published Cobra; it passes from musician to musician to those who seek it out.

Austin Cobra Players

The Austin Cobra Players

In 2004 I was living in Austin, TX, a town full of incredible musicians. I put together an ensemble to play Cobra which, for lack of a more clever name, we decided to call the Austin Cobra Players. The composition of the group reflected the musical diversity of the city: rock, classical, Indian, electronic, jazz and uncategorizable musicians. The beauty of Cobra lies in its completely improvisational nature; it never dictates what to play, just how to interact. The openendedness of the game thus provides musicians from various backgrounds a structure to play within.

Cobra involves a prompter and a group of musicians who communicate with each other via hand signals and cards. The cues signal changes like “imitate another player” or “play a duo with someone.” The changes tend to be abrupt, similar to scene cuts in a film. Zorn even provides a method for musicians to break all the rules by putting on a hat to become a “guerrilla”. Egalitarian in nature, any musician can ask the prompter to cue a change. It’s a game without winners or losers, just players.

Cobra cards

Cue cards

Mystery, serendipity, and comedy were common aspects of our monthly performances. Here is a piece from my final show with the group at the Church of the Friendly Ghost, 25 July 2004 (featuring Hatim Belyamani, Mehdi Boudra, Brent Fariss, Holland Hopson, Aaron Lack, Lisa Mims, Philip Moody, Chris Petkus, Aaryn Russell, Bob Sawey, Adam Sultan, Travis Weller, Brandon Young, and myself):

After I left Austin for New York, the Players were co-led by Hatim Belyamani and Chris Petkus until the group’s performance venue closed down. In October 2009, a new ensemble formed from the ashes of the Austin Cobra Players: Mongoose. Their first show was for the Just Like The Rodeo festival of improvisation at Gnap! Theater Projects, and leaned more heavily on theatrical improvisers than musical improvisers. Here is their performance from 4 February 2012 at the Blanton Museum, part of the John Cage MUSICIRCUS (prompted by Chris):

Zorn’s Cobra is adaptable enough to accommodate improvising actors and dancers as well as musicians, and I’m glad that Mongoose still performs in Austin today.

For insight into performing Cobra with Zorn himself, check out this more scholarly article by Dylan van der Schyff.