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.

Juliet Fraser, spilled out from tangles

Thursday 23 April 2020

It’s good to remember that music is still being made. There’s a new album out soon by Juliet Fraser – I’ve raved about her singing before. In terms of presentation, spilled out from tangles is more of a showcase for the singer herself than for a particular composer. Four pieces, each by a different composer, all of them for soprano with only electronics for accompaniment. All four works were written for Fraser; the oldest composer here is in her early forties, the youngest not yet thirty. Throughout the disc, electronics are used only to provide backing: the emphasis here is less on advanced technology and more on how it is used in different ways to provide a sympathetic pairing with the voice.

Nomi Epstein’s collections for Juliet is a simple arrangement of glissandi in vocalise, with several recorded versions of Fraser heard simultaneously. Strangely, with nothing but voice, this piece sounds the most electronic: as tones merge and diverge in slow sweeps, beating frequencies and modulations arise in ways that augment the voice into something more than human. Fraser sings pure tones – almost; there is always some warmth in her voice, a vibrato more felt than heard. What seems at first a technical exercise becomes a much more reflective and intimate experience as the piece progresses. Epstein places much of the construction and interpretation of the piece on the singer; it’s a much more complex process than appears to the casual listener. Fraser’s realisation imbues the music with a sense of development and direction, making it sound natural and deceptively easy.

Lisa Illean’s A through-grown earth sets lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins to an ensemble of sampled and recorded strings, bowed and plucked, but subtly transformed. Harp and zither gain a harmonic sheen that hovers in the background, high overtones joining Fraser’s duplicated voice in ghostly chorus. She sings delicately, but with a quiet strength, her vibrato more expressive when signing poetry. Illean’s music often has that delicate quality too, which in the past has occasionally threatened to retreat into preciousness but is redeemed by her interest in just intonation and microtonality. Colouration inevitably takes on a darker, deeper hue and both composer and singer avoid the easier choices. The electronics in this piece allow more control of the tuning and add to the otherworldly atmosphere.

In this context, Sivan Eldar’s Heave feels the most conventional work. Fraser sings with great sensitivity and sincerity “a story of growth: out of the earth, into one’s own body and, finally, memory… body into light”, with an elegantly composed electronic soundscape. There’s plenty of tastefully detailed geological sounds reminiscent of the BBC Natural History Unit at its most accomplished, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve heard it all somewhere before, more than once. Lawrence Dunn’s While we are both returns to the same form as Illean’s work, of Caitlin Doherty’s poetry set to music in just intonation. The unfamiliar tuning is played on purely electronic instruments, with no obvious acoustic model. Just intonation lends itself well to unhurried music, and Dunn’s piece slowly unfolds in a dreamlike haze. Fraser sings with even greater expressivity here, almost like a lied, which just adds to the strangeness when the suspended harmonies break into high-pitched little trills. It feels simultaneously like a very early work for FM synthesisers and something very new.

The sleeve notes list two of the works as receiving their first public performance at Kettle’s Yard on 2 April. Sadly, that never happened, of course. Hopefully Fraser will be able to perform this programme live, sooner rather than later.