Nomi Epstein : compositions centering around sonic fragility

Nomi Epstein
Nomi Epstein (photo credit: Jeff Kimmel)

Nomi Epstein, D.M.A, is a Chicago-based composer, curator, performer and music educator. Her compositions center around her interest in sonic fragility, where structure arises out of textural subtleties. Her music has been performed throughout the US, Europe, and Asia by such artists as ICE, Ensemble SurPlus, Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink, Dal Niente, Noble Fowl Trio, Quince Vocal Ensemble, Rhymes With Opera, Seth Josel, and Eliza Garth, and at festivals such as Ostrava Days, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Darmstadt, Bang on a Can, and Akademie Schloss Solitude. She has contributed works to Australian flutist Janet McKay’s 2009 US tour “Those Vanished Hands,” guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan’s “New Lullaby Project” and percussionist Joe Bergen’s new vibraphone collection “For Semy.” She was twice invited as an Artist-in-Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and has received grants from The Foundation of Contemporary Arts (Emergency Grant), Chicago’s DCASE (Individual Artist Grant), and New Music USA (CAP Grant). In 2016, she was awarded the inaugural Staubach Fellowship for Darmstadt. She was featured in the Chicago Tribune for her work as a composer, curator, teacher, and performer.

Epstein is an active and passionate curator and producer, founding and leading, the critically acclaimed experimental music performance collective devoted to notated, acoustic, post-Cagean experimental music. In 2012, she curated and produced the 5-concert John Cage centennial festival in Chicago involving performers, sound artists, dancers, and multi-media artists from around the Midwest. Her work with Cage’s music and influence led her to present at numerous centennial events. She was invited to present at the Northwestern University Cage Symposium and serve as composer-in-residence at the Florida State University Cage Festival.

In 2014, Epstein co-organized (with Peter Margasak) The Chicago Wandelweiser Festival which brought Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, and R. Andrew Lee to Chicago for the 4 festival events. The festival featured’s debut album release concert, a cd of ensemble works by Jürg Frey on which Epstein performs. In 2017, she co-organized (with Shanna Gutierrez) the first US large-scale festival of the music of Galina Ustvolskaya, ‘Power In Sound,’ a 3 day festival in conjunction with a conference organized by the U of Chicago/UIC ‘Found in Time: Forgotten Experiments in Soviet Arts.’

As a practitioner of experimental music, Epstein performs regularly with ensemble, her multimedia, experimental improvisation trio NbN, and Articular Facet. She continues to research, lecture on, perform and program experimental music.

As an educator, she has served on the faculties of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern, DePaul and Roosevelt Universities, and in 2016 served as Visiting Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Iowa. She has been the head of theory at the British School since 2007. Epstein holds degrees from Columbia University, New England Conservatory, and Northwestern University.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

It was a memory of sound, though the sound was inside my head. When I was little and wasn’t feeling well, I would stare at a small mark on the wall that I always thought looked like the mouth of an alligator. I would repeat one word in my mind over and over again until I lost all sense of what the word was, and it was just sounds. As I was doing so, the word would get slower and slower and my sense of time would shift so that I was perceiving a much slower sense of time passing.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

When I was in school and starting to learn about the New York School, I was completely fascinated by the works of John Cage and Morton Feldman. It was their notational explorations – Cage’s indeterminacy, Feldman’s conception of sound as object or mechanism – that were most influential. Those are still quite important to me as they really helped to shape my younger mind. Although there have been additional influences like the life-work of Pauline Oliveros, those two have, of course, remained influential.

I was able to study with Marti Epstein (of no relation) a bit later, a composer whose work is also quite influenced by Feldman/Cage, and who herself, studied with Bunita Marcus. Her music and the way she conceives of sound and structure have been very important to me as well.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

I enjoy creating works with frayed edges, and without transitions between sections/ideas/textures. Formally, my works is dependent upon the textures that I create. I work with modular form quite a bit. My final published layouts (or ordering of sound objects/textures) in a piece may be arbitrary, and I can often imagine sections being in completely different places. Early on, I wrote a few pieces where this change of ordering was built into the piece for the performers to explore, but more so now they become fixed … still somewhat arbitrary, but fixed on paper nonetheless.

For longer works, I am generally completing a process which has multiple areas. For example in my Sextet, I have multiple super pitch areas. Super pitches are wide pitch spectrum – for example an F# which includes microtonal slants above and below the pitch. The process includes sounding the super pitch built from each voice playing different pitches within it. A rotation through different voicings, and with different timbral qualities articulated with each voice (instrument) takes place over a certain number of measures, and then the same process is carried out for the next super pitch area, and so on. At the end of each super pitch area, there is a ‘suspension passage,’ which is sort of a temporal re-imagining of the super pitch idea. This piece in its full form has never been performed, and has only been presented in its abridged form which lasts roughly 20-25 minutes. In the recording of the piece that you may hear online, there is only one ‘suspension passage,’ which is the close of the piece (only for the last super pitch area).  The work in full would most likely last around 35-45 minutes.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?

My writing schedule is not as regular as I would like. I mainly work project to project. Some of these projects are curatorial, research, or performance. But for my composing, I work with pencil on paper. Much of my pre-compositional sketching involves lines (intersections of), shapes, and conceiving or visual processes, or types of motion. My initial notation of a piece usually involves these lines, prose describing sound particularities or textural attributes, and yes traditional musical notation. After the piece has been completed on paper, I engrave it on the computer. Engraving can be a frustrating part of the process for me because I’m constantly second guessing the best way to ‘trick’ the software I’m using into creating the specific graphic I want. It’s a somewhat torturous game of sorts.

Please describe a recent work.

‘long, after’ written for an experimental symposium/concert that I do in Boston each summer.  Here, each person in instructed to sing a series of long tones on any pitch: 10 long tones, then 9, then 8, then 7, etc.  Each singer moves through the long tones at their own pace.  However in between each set of long tones are instructions to either be silent, or to create a muffled, incomprehensible speech for short moments.  These ‘in-between’ moments are notated with instruction with the word ‘after,’ for example, the instruction might say ‘after your 5th long tone, make muffled sound for 5-8 seconds.’  Another layer of the piece requires each performer to listen and come in with one (any in the group) other performer before they begin each new line.

This recording is from August 2017, and is performed by Jennie Gottschalk, Erik Carlson, Ian Power, Katie Porter, Colin Tucker, Eddie Davis and myself.  This is a live concert recording from Third Life Studio, Somerville, MA.

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