Nomi Epstein: cubes

Monday 31 July 2023

What little I’ve heard of Nomi Epstein’s music has been made from apparently simple structures that define certain parameters of the sounds to be used at any given time, but otherwise leaving the means of realising those sounds and placing them in a larger structure up to the performers. It requires trust in the musicians to be open and creative when interpreting the sometimes paradoxical requirements of a score that is both specifically restrictive and unspecifically permissive. The common effect I’ve heard in her compositions to date is the way they direct the musicians towards producing complex, composite sounds in ways that are utterly unfamiliar and leave you uncertain as to how they were produced. You could say that extended techniques are being employed, but in this case it’s a bit beyond that and beside the point: the instruments and how they are being used are not the issue, as the nature of the sound is suffciently strange to remove the question of its production from speculation. Paradoxically, this method makes the instrument an invisible means to a audible end, just as in ‘conventional’ music.

The new Epstein album on Sawyer Editions features just one work, an hour-long duet for violin and percussion titled cubes. Composed in 2020 for violinist Erik Carlson and percussionist Greg Stuart, it expands upon those compositional concerns into extremes; of commitment, timbral uncertainty, audibility and durations. The opening sound, a partly-voiced drone that sounds half-organic and half-mechanical, takes up the first five minutes of the piece. Epstein describes the score as twenty-four “building blocks of sound” and that primary focus on timbre together with the elemental structure of the piece are nakedly evident throughout the sixty minutes. The juxtaposition of one slab of faint but dense sound after another appear to be the result of collage, with the sounds seemingly made from very small activities blown up by close amplification – this isn’t exactly stated but is alluded to in the brief sleeve notes. Carlson and Stuart’s sonic discoveries in this piece are extraordinary, having sought out and pursued the most quiet, unobtrusive sounds to bring out an inner life and character to each one. In general, the two of them work to create complex unpitched sounds redolent of woodgrain and small interior spaces. Listened to once, it seems dry and austere. Playing it again in the background, it keeps catching you out with some striking detail you hadn’t noticed before. Repeated listenings sound different each time as some other small thing suddenly grabs your attention. Whether you consider it to be a tape collage or a violin-percussion duet is a moot point. “I wouldn’t have made this piece for anyone else,” Epstein writes, and I can’t imagine anyone else would have realised the score in this way.