‘Conducting Life’ film tracks music star who began his journey in Aspen

“Conducting Life” short-film screening this week at Isis Theatre, plus conversation with Cox and Moore.

Anna Meyer
The Aspen Times
A still of Roderick Cox from 'Conducting Life."|Diane Moore

Growing up in Macon, Georgia, Roderick Cox was always surrounded by music. 

“I was woken up with music playing, and I was driven to school with music playing, and I was picked up with music playing and oftentimes went to sleep with music playing,” Cox said.

Over a decade later, Cox — now in his early 30s — is more than a rising star in the international orchestra scene. Based in Berlin, he travels around the world as a guest conductor, gracing global orchestras with his musical prowess.

Filmed over seven years, the documentary “Conducting Life,” directed by Aspen filmmaker Diane Moore, charts Cox’s journey from a fellow at the Aspen Conducting Academy at Aspen Music Festival and School to his role as a young conductor in the Minnesota Orchestra and finally to the world-renowned conductor he is today.

A still of Cox from “Conducting Life.”|Susie Knoll
Diane Moore

“We could … actually see him moving through a certain time frame, an early part of his career, and we could experience the highs and lows of his journey,” Moore said. “It was very rewarding for me to watch Roderick grow as an artist. He has the talent — certainly he’s a very talented artist, and he is so dedicated. It was wonderful to watch him grow and mature as a person and as an artist.”

Beginning in his elementary school band and then continuing to a fine arts magnet high school, Cox has been a musician for essentially his entire life. 

Cox’s experience playing the French horn in his undergraduate orchestra allowed him to better understand how the different sections of the orchestra, from woodwind to brass, synergize to create the full orchestral sound.

“I was always fascinated about the idea of what the conductor did — this person that stood in front of the band or the orchestra and had to have somewhat of a command of a variety of instruments and work to bring everyone together around a unified sound,” Cox said. “As a horn player, you’re oftentimes focused on playing your own musical line. But as a conductor, you have the opportunity to absorb or learn every line in the orchestra and learn how they fit together and really dive deep into the composer’s life and the context of the piece to really inform your interpretation of the music.”

Cox and Moore collaborated to create the film, contributing their respective expertise in music and film.

“This film wasn’t so much about him, but it was made with him, collaborating with him,” Moore said. “You hear his voice as he’s really opening up and sharing what it was like as he can move forward in his musical journey.”

In making the film, Moore and Cox had to build a relationship of trust. To foster a strong personal relationship, they spent time together, aside from time spent filming.

“I had earned his trust, and he had to trust me, and he had to believe in me that I was going to make something that I think he would be very comfortable with and proud of,” Moore said. “You have to invest yourself and your time into the future, if you want to be successful with that.”

As a result of understanding each other on a personal level, Moore was able to emphasize Cox’s voice in the film and fully capture Cox’s story.

“A lot of it is the focus of his own voice, but it’s weaving in different elements of his story so that it’s a portrait. You’re in there, you’re up close to what he’s experiencing,” Moore said. “I had a person who was willing to open up different parts of their life to me over time, and I don’t know how often that happens.”

The film exposes a sense of emotional vulnerability from Cox’s childhood through the conductor auditioning process. It reveals how Cox navigated a challenging upbringing, conveying how he was inspired by mother’s inventiveness, determination and unwillingness to admit defeat.

“If you have something you want to accomplish in your life or achieve, there’s no short circuit; you really have to be focused, and you have to work really hard,” Moore said. “Sometimes it may seem daunting, but Roderick prevailed.”

According to Cox, his journey was supported by teachers and mentors who encouraged and facilitated the pursuit of his trajectory as a conductor.

In honor of the support he received as a youth, Cox founded the Roderick Cox Music Initiative to uplift talented classical musicians from historically marginalized groups in the Twin Cities. 

“It’s inspired by my own story of being helped as a young kid by the Otis Redding Foundation in Macon, Georgia,” Cox said. “It’s there not only to provide mentorship from me, but also the financial support and also the musical support that young people need in order to support their advancement in classical music.”

According to the film, Cox is among 1.8% of African Americans in the U.S. orchestra industry.

“I very firmly believe in the power of music to unify people and to bring people together,” Cox said. “The more we continue to expose people to (music) and help people advance and have opportunity and access to music and art in general, I think, just makes our society a better place and makes more holistic individuals.”

Aspen Film will host a screening of the short film about Cox, which premiered earlier this year, at the Isis Theatre on Wednesday. Following the film, Cox and Moore will join the audience in conversation about the film.

On Aug. 19, Cox will return to AMFS — this time, as a guest conductor.

“It’s a coming home for him of sorts, and for me, it’s the filmmakers coming full circle,” Moore said. “I think it just speaks to his talent and how hard he’s worked, and to AMFS’ conducting program.”

If you go…

What: Short film (31 mins.) “Conducting Life” about Roderick Cox, hosted by Aspen Film, and conversation with Cox and filmmaker Diane Moore

When: 5 p.m. Aug. 17

Where: Isis Theatre
Suggested donation: $10 (students are free)

More info:

Also: Aspen Chamber Symphony, featuring conductor Roderick Cox

When: 5:30 P.M. Aug. 19

Where: Benedict Music Tent

Tickets: $82

More info:

“Conducting Life” film poster.
Courtesy Aspen Film