He made his musical debut as drummer on a local television program and in the mid-1970s he played guitar for a Washington, D.C. jazz club house band. He took up the cello while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. During this time he formed his own group, The Moose Skowron Tuned Metal Ensemble and began constructing instruments for it.
Tom Cora - The Passing - Live in La Spezia (Italy) 1993
In 1979 Cora moved to New York City where he worked with Shockabilly guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, introducing the cello to the honky tonk circuits of North America. He performed at improvising clubs and venues in New York with John Zorn, Fred Frith, Andrea Centazzo, Butch Morris, Wayne Horvitz, David Moss, Toshinori Kondo and others.
Fred Frith & Tom Cora. Rehearsal at the Kitchen, New York. February '89.
Cora also collaborated with George Cartwright and Bill Laswell which led to the formation of the art rock band Curlew in 1979. Cora remained with Curlew for over ten years and appeared on five of their albums.
Carol Emanuel - harp, Tom Cora - electric cello, Bill Frisell - electric guitar, Bobby Previte - drums (5:48)
In 1982 Tom Cora and Fred Frith formed Skeleton Crew, an improvising rock and jazz band best known for their live performances where they played various instruments simultaneously. Cora and Frith were each one-man bands on stage and for their act, Cora constructed musical contraptions he could play with his feet. The band existed for five years during which time they toured Europe, North America and Japan extensively.
Skeleton Crew - "You may find a bed" (The Country of Blinds (1986))
They made two studio albums, Learn to Talk (1984) and The Country of Blinds (1986), the latter with Zeena Parkins who had joined the band in 1984. In October 1983 Skeleton Crew joined Duck and Cover, a commission from the Berlin Jazz Festival, for a performance in West Berlin, followed by another in February 1984 in East Berlin.
Steve Lacy and Third Person. Knitting Factory, New York, NY januari the 4th 1992
Cora was also a member of the improvising trio Third Person, formed in 1990 as a live collaboration with percussionist Samm Bennett and a "third person" who changed from concert to concert. Two CDs of some of their performances were released, The Bends in 1991 (with "third persons" Don Byron, George Cartwright, Chris Cochrane, Nic Collins, Catherine Jauniaux, Myra Melford, Zeena Parkins, and Marc Ribot) and Luck Water in 1995 (with "third person" Kazutoki Umezu).
The Ex and Tom Cora - Fire and Ice
Cora performed with a number of other bands, including Nimal with Momo Rossel and post-rock quartet Roof. In 1990, he played two concerts with Dutch anarcho-punk band, The Ex, and the success of this collaboration resulted in Cora performing hundreds of concerts with The Ex and appearing on two of their CDs. In 1995 in The Netherlands, Cora and Frith collaborated on Etymology, a CD-ROM sound sample library of sonic sounds and wire manipulations.
Tom Cora's cello was prepared, electronically modified and highly amplified. He developed the style of playing sawed chords and percussive riffs as if his cello was an electric guitar. He banged, scraped and twisted it and did whatever else was necessary to produce the sounds he wanted.
Cora explored non-idiomatic improvising and studied Turkish and Eastern European folk music. The influence of this folk music is evident in much of his work. Skeleton Crew once devoted an entire concert to playing only Eastern European folk tunes.
Tom Cora died of at the age of 44. John Zorn also compiled Hallelujah, Anyway - Remembering Tom Cora, a two CD set featuring a selection of recordings by Cora and some of the groups he recorded with, plus new recordings of Cora's compositions.