Controlled Indeterminacy in Text Scores (1): Nomi Epstein

I’ll be posting several interviews over the next couple of weeks about a commissioning project by the ensemble that deals with controlled indeterminacy in text scores. There are four participating composers: Ryoko Akama, Nomi Epstein, Sarah Hughes, and Tisha Mukarji, and there are two upcoming performances of the four pieces, one by in Chicago on May 31st, and the second at Dog Star Orchestra in Los Angeles on June 1st.

So maybe I’ll just start off asking how this project got started with the four commissions. What was the thinking behind it?

So one of the things that I’ve been really interested in with is text scores. We perform almost entirely text scores, and in researching text scores, I have a very strong interest in text scores that have a good amount of specificity in their notation and in what the composer would like the sonic outcome to be. They still all have a great deal of indeterminacy, but there’s a sound world intention, which is more specifically laid out, I would say in these scores more than in a number of other text scores. I’ve done a good amount of writing about this interest and have given papers on this type of text score before. I’ve found when I’m researching text scores for programming concerts, it’s these kinds of score I’m most interested in performing—the ones that have a little bit more specificity to them. We’ve commissioned just two pieces before, but they weren’t on the same concert. We commissioned Michael Pisaro to write a piece, and then we commissioned Kenn Kumpf [from the ensemble] once to write us a piece. Kenn’s going to write us another one actually for Make Music this year. So for this concert, I wanted to do a whole concert of commissions. But what I was also really interested in was finding a group of composers who were sort of multi-artists, meaning that they are not only composers, but improvisors and curators as well, and also performers outside of being improvisors. I started researching, and wanted to find a group of composers all around the same generation, but having grown up in different places. So that’s where this commissions project came from.

Was the idea initially that there would be two performances, one by in Chicago and the other at Dog Star in LA?

The commissioning project started before the Dog Star connection. After performing together on the Wandelweiser Festival in St. Paul last fall, Michael and I were waiting in the airport for our planes. I was telling him about some projects I had coming up and I mentioned this one, and he was really excited about it. He knows Sarah Hughes and he knows Ryoko Akama, and of course he knows me. At that time, Cat Lamb was going to be the fourth composer, though she had to step down because of some scheduling conflicts. He suggested doing this program on the Dog Star festival. ensemble ensemble

You talked about how much you value text scores, and how you’ve gravitated towards them. What are some of the things you find tend to be more possible with text scores than with standard notation or graphic or other forms?

I think what I most value in the kind of text score that I’ve been talking about is that there is a kind of a sound world intended, and how it’s realized, how the notes line up or the sounds line up, it’s so alive, and it’s so dependent on that moment of performance. There are so many different ways that it can go. It’s really exciting to listen to and to perform, because of the variations and possibilities. I suppose I’m pointing to the indeterminate elements in a piece. I think what can be really fascinating is just how the composer chooses what aspects and when those aspects will be indeterminate. These can allow for these kind of systems to play out with each part within the ensemble, and I love how/that they happen to line up or interact with one another.

The use of text scores often goes hand in hand with elements of indeterminacy. Certain things are defined and others are less so. It sounds like text is used to delineate what is more defined and what’s less defined, too. And so it’s interesting that in the description of the project, you talk about both control and indeterminacy. It seems like a sort of push and pull.

Yeah. That idea of push and pull, I feel constantly as a composer. I think I’m always trying to figure out what is controlled and what is not controlled, or what is predetermined and what is not predetermined. I always have something in mind that I want. It’s a texture or a sound world that I want to create. But it doesn’t have to be made up of elements fixed in space, a pitch space or a time space. So that notion of push and pull, or control and freedom, or predetermined and indeterminate, those two sides are something that I completely enjoy as an inner battle.

It was really interesting to see these differences between the four scores. There are certain things that tend to carry across, but then the way it’s done is very different between them. One thing I noticed in your piece is particular is that duration, so the number of seconds that things happen seems especially important. And I guess my question us whether that sense of how long things take, how long sounds are produced or silence, or whatever it is, if that is fundamental to the sort of sound world that you’re imagining.

Yes, definitely. I think of those as more of a controlled part of my composing. But in this piece especially, I feel that I’m setting up two things. One is like a loose system where the performers kind of navigate through these various sound types that I’ve set forth. For these parts of the piece, I’ve created the interaction between parts. But then there are other parts where they create or mold the system of interaction. They have to interact without me, without something that I have kind of curated, I would say. So with those moments where I’ve indicated the duration, although I usually give a range (for example a duration of 3 -10 seconds), its a way of me controlling the density of the texture, and then again, there are moments built into the piece where I won’t really have that control, where I’m not even ultimately sure of what’s going to happen. An example of this would be the moments where they have to listen to one another and create a composite number of sounds.

It was interesting to see how there are certain sections that line up, so like the I section. Everybody is playing I at once, right?

That’s right. The I sections are the ones where one listens to another but somebody else is listening to them. And together, these pairs, which turn into—

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They’re kind of like love squares.

Yeah, exactly. Like unrequited love squares. [laughter] That’s exactly what it is. These unrequited love squares where one— Well, it’s about more than unrequited love squares. It’s more about communication, something that I think a lot about, and something a lot of my scores (both traditionally and non-traditionally notated ones) as of late have been dealing with. But this is communication in a more systematic way, where we each hear differently. We focus on other things oftentimes when we’re listening to one thing, and others hear us differently than we hear ourselves, etc.

There’s an importance of listening, always listening to one but being listened to by another. And I think you’ve just answered my question. Is this a metaphor somehow?

Yes. I’m not trying to replicate a real life situation, but I think it can be just about listening in general, and also about communication, although maybe they’re the same thing. For some people, maybe they are the same thing.

It depends how much they listen.

Yes, exactly. But it’s also this reliance on somebody else or something else in order for you to know what to do next.

So it sounds like you’re building that indeterminacy more deeply into the premise. As I looked through your piece, I started wondering, how would this piece be different, with the same number of players, if there were grouping of two, or one group of eight, rather than two groups of four, or if there were irregular groupings somehow. Is that something that you thought about, in terms of it being four plus four?

I did think about it, and why did I settle on this? I liked the small containment. But I like the idea of it being kind of a smaller, contained group where the person you listen to is in a different direction from the person you play to, or who listens to you. And so there’s something about the directionality of your sound production and your listening that I was interested in.

I was just imagining a circle of eight rather than a circle of four, where you’re listening from your left but performing to your right.

Right. But then it’s different. What I do like about this is that it’s front and side, as opposed to left and right. And then they’ll line up, I think be very different depending on where the audience is placed in relationship to them. But I think with the long line, also the listening to somebody far away, I don’t know. I was interested in the directionality.

But could you imagine it being split, like being just one group of four?

Yeah, I could. I don’t think it would be as effective, but on the other hand, I could imagine there being another group of four involved. But there wouldn’t be counterpoint with the I sections if we only had one group of four, or rather as interesting a counterpoint between the groups when their sound events come in. So it would be more cacophanous if there were twelve players, or any multiple of four beyond eight.

It seems like it’s a counterpoint of textures probably more than other elements, both the pitched and unpitched and the short sounds and the longer sounds. That seem to be a really important facet of your music generally, that carries over from the more traditionally notated work. This is pretty fully notated for what it is, too.

Right. And that’s something that I really like to do with text scores, is have them be fully notated. I love notation, and it’s I think a really neat challenge to create a piece which I think can have variation in texture, and certain sound worlds, and can be really manicured, I guess, still without using traditional notation. That I find really exciting and fun.

It’s interesting to me with the instructions that go along with this score in particular, that it’s natural to underline things like listening. It’s an instruction, where it’s implied in traditional notation, for example, that you listen to cue. In this case you’re explaining exactly what to do and how to do it, and what the responses are. It’s like the form of the notation allows for greater clarity about the intent of the work. It’s right on the surface, and it’s part of the value system of the performance.

Levels of specificity are not often talked about in text notation, even though I think that’s a really important part of a score, or something that’s not included in the score or not part of the score.

I think so much is handed from or performed by the composer, so they’re involved with the rehearsals. There’s a lot in experimental music generally that goes un-notated.

And I don’t want it to be like that. I know there are still things that I didn’t notate that I could have, should have. But I do want it to be something where anybody can pick up, and once they read the directions, can perform and put together accurately. It is a an unfortunate tendency with text scores, or I think even just with any notation that’s not traditional notation, to take too much liberty, or on the other hand, to follow, like what you were saying, in the performance practice that they believe a piece comes from.

That probably has to do with your experience with as well, performing or actualizing a number of these text scores. You’ve probably come across questions along the way.


And it sounds like that’s affected your work.

I’ve also performed a lot, and I’ve sent the recordings to various composers, and without it being in the score, have received very clear intentions about its performance that we did not capture.

That doesn’t tend to be found out until after the performance.

Right, exactly. I think something that’s very common, even in traditional notation, is that we forget to notate things that we intend. So it’s just as common with text scores, or maybe more common with text scores, because we’re intentionally leaving things to be decided by the performers, or at the time of the performance.

It’s been really interesting for me to look at how the piece is constructed and the types of descriptions you’ve given, and the types of contingencies you’ve set up. That balance, that push and pull, seems really compelling. I’d be interested, since you’ve received the other three pieces now, what you have found in the range of responses you’ve gotten to this project.

I think that we have a range of approaches to the text score, which I really appreciate, and I’m really happy to see. Like Ryoko’s, I think is very poetic. I’m really looking forward to delving into all of these. It’s a nice range of approaches to text notation. They say something about each of the composer’s voice, and their experience with text scores. And I like that… a lot.

It’s really interesting to see. I think the one thing that they have in common is that there are time blocks.

I think it’s even interesting, because from a notation point of view, we’re dealing primarily with words, although there’s lines and rests and fermatas in Tisha’s score. Its fascinating in the same way that although we all learn how to speak, nobody tells us how to form each sentence we speak. We’re constantly composing how to verbalize our thought, and we do that all day long. Nobody told me how to set up this sentence I just said. On the other hand, we have a very specific way that we notate in traditional notation. We have measures. We have different staves for various instruments. We have meter. We have note values. We have pitches. We have dynamics. There’s all of this. We have a tempo, and so on. And then when it comes to this notation, we don’t have a standard at all. So, it’s utterly fascinating to see how everybody set their own score up, even visually on the page.

They’re all totally different.

Yeah, they’re just completely different font and size, and Tisha’s looks like some handwritten, and portrait versus landscape, and I just think it’s so fascinating. And it looks like Tisha’s notes are after the score, and her notes about how to read the score are after the score and vice versa for others. It’s just a completely different way of putting information on a page.

And literally what’s on each page. Sarah’s is in parts, right?

Yes, exactly.

And with yours, everyone is going to be looking at the same page, where with Ryoko’s, you sort of have to inhale it and then exhale it. It needs to be processed, and then probably there would be some notes from that that would be used for the performance, because it doesn’t make sense to spread those pages across the stand. It’s really interesting how they came out. If you’d had 100 to choose from, you probably could have picked these four to be a diversity.

I’ll have a score exhibit at the concert so people can see how different the approach to notation was.

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