Nomi Epstein: On Things Mostly John Cage

Chicago-based composer Nomi Epstein is a prominent new music artist that has had pieces being featured quite frequently in the last few months at local festivals (Sextet and Music for Four Strings were just performed at Roulette and The Flea Theater, respectively), and this coming June, two more will be coming: A piece for Wild Rumpus to be performed in San Francisco on June 8th, and piano and soprano at Symphony Space in NY on June 16th.

Nomi has been very active as both a musician and a curator, having done this with her own series and just recently the 3-day event for his 75th birthday A John Cage Festival, which she had some time to discuss with us.

CM: Can you talk about the John Cage festival and how you worked on it?

NE: I have an experimental concert series that I co-founded and am the sole curator of called that I research the pieces for, program, pull the performers together and perform on, and that series is sort of based on this idea of a post-Cage-ean experimental notated music. For that concert series, because Cage is a real staple and foundation of experimental music, I really wanted to see if, under the guise of, I could organize a large festival, and the difference between my series and the Cage festival is that I had none of my players on the Cage one, it was actually all players from the Chicago area and then some performance artists, sound artists, choreographers, and so on. At first, I thought it would just be a small festival at one concert, but as I was planning it, I realized there were a lot of pieces that I felt were important to program, and that I myself wanted to hear, and sort of collect together and present. So, it turned into this 5-concert extravaganza. Usually, it’s a team of people that undertake a festival, but this one I did all by myself, and it was like another dissertation. But in the end it was worth it.

With my festival, I tried to provide a real mix. It was 19 pieces ranging from 1925 to 1992, the year he died. He was incredibly prolific.
In curating the festival, I picked up the pieces that I wanted to program, and then I got in touch with various performers that I know, and asked them if they’d be interested in this specific repertoire. One of the areas of Cage I was really interested in was the indeterminate works, which there are a whole bunch of pieces of that exemplify that compositional technique, but I wanted to do something with the number pieces, the late works of Cage.

CM: Who were some of your favorite performers?

NE: Some of the performers that I had–I brought a group from Bowling Green, OH called Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, and they are just amazing. They are so skilled, and they are just wonderful singers, and they performed half of a concert of vocal music, or music that can be performed with voice, and I thought that was unbelievable! There’s a well-known new music group called Fulcrum Point, and the pianist from there, Kuang-Hao Huang is sort of a colleague of mine from when I used to teach at Roosevelt (He teaches there as well), and I had him playing at the opening concert In a Landscape, and it just blew us all away!

I wanted to program Concert for Piano and Orchestra on the opening concert, and that piece has a lot of variability to it, even in its instrumentation, and so I chose to present it without piano. The score is actually a bunch of solos that can be all performed simultaneously or in groups, and I had two performers in mind–James Falzone, who’s a very well-known clarinetist in Chicago, and he won all sorts of awards, does jazz and improv–He just performed the Concert for Piano and Orchestra when the Merce Cunningham Legacy tour was in town, so he’d already learned it from Christian Wolf and several others, people that had been performing it for many years. I thought he’d be great to perform it on this festival. The cellist and founder of MAVerick Ensemble, William Jason Raynovich–his doctoral work was on Cage and his notation, and he’s performed a lot of the repertoire, so I put him together with James. I had Michael Lewanski (Dal Niente) doing the optional conductor role.

CM: “Concert for Piano and Orchestra” is different literally every time it’s played. When they performed it at the Avant Music Festival Cage celebration concert, it had singing and speaking! Everything is optional and anything seems to be appropriate for Cage.

NE: He did believe that all sound is art, but he also entertained the idea that simultaneity–that upon chance, this is happening at the same time as this, was just stunning, and it can be a beautiful thing to just sit and take in.

CM: With Cage it runs the gamut from breathtaking, to jarring, to something almost unbearable. When they performed “Four3” with rainsticks, sine waves and piano, they did it with an Elliot Caplan film called “Beach Birds for Camera”, and they would go back and forth playing a few bars of piano and coming back to the rainsticks. It was kind of an unsettling feeling watching this. Two halves of my brain are on opposite sides of it, one saying “Let’s leave” and the other saying “No, wait, it’s John Cage!”. I’m of the world where Cage’s music is still quite polarizing to the point where at another time, I wouldn’t have tolerated it, and now it just seems that it would be foolish not to give it a chance.

NE: I think you were pointing to this, but Cage has an enormous variety of repertoire. His early works are fully notated, and there’s nothing indeterminate about some of them, and especially his percussion repertoire–the pieces are very square, rhythmically, and you’re using these micro-macroscopic rhythmic structures that really pull you into this block form, and then you come to some of his later number pieces, which have or can have more of a spacious feel to them. It’s interesting because I think it’s also dependent upon the performers, and there can be a lot of leeway with you’re chosen performance practice or methods. I take very, very seriously this indeterminacy, and I take it probably more seriously than maybe I should. I think very diligently about what decisions I am making and how those affect the performances, and how I might want to shape the performance. As a curator, sometimes I do shape, and make some of the decisions for the performers. But it’s true, there’s so much variety in his output. There’s so many different kinds of pieces, and different kinds of notation.

CM: Has Cage had an incredible effect on your own music?

NE: I think indeterminacy plays a huge role in my music, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what elements I predetermine and what elements I leave indeterminate in my music, and I sit there and mull it over for weeks and months for each piece.
As a composer, early on, I’ve always been around new music, perhaps more of the academic new music, because growing up, my father was the founder of one of the most established new music groups in Boston called Collage New Music, so I used to see all these composers in the basement rehearsing–Gunther Schuller was always over as well as other composers, and I didn’t know what they were doing. I’d hop on the stairs with my sister and we’d listen. There used to be a soprano in the ensemble, and after they left, we’d go to the piano and poke around and scream and pretend like we were imitating what we just heard!

But anyway, I’ve been around this music for a long time, and before college, I was introduced to the works of the New York school, and mostly through a professor named Marti Epstein, who is of no relation to me, but she happens to be a fantastic composer living in Boston, and her greatest influence was Morton Feldman. I think that I was exposed to his music along with Christian Wolf, Earl Brown and John Cage, but Morton Feldman’s music became very important to me. Aesthetically I was really drawn to it, and my focus had been with that connection for quite a while–in my doctoral work, I spent a lot of time researching the New York school. At the time, one of my professors, Amy Williams–Her father was Jan Williams, who was a colleague of Feldman’s and worked at the University of Buffalo with him, and half of Feldman’s trios were written for him. So, he would come to campus quite often, and I would be able to interview him and talk about him, and had a really good insight. To Amy, he was Uncle Morty!

CM: [laughs]

NE: Aesthetically, I would say, from a very simplistic point of view, my music has a tendency to be quiet and slow, so I would say that Feldman perhaps is more of an influence, but in the last few years, I was at Darmstadt in 2010, and I was shocked and quite floored that all of the European lecturers (and these are the European avant-garde, this is kind of what’s going on right now in Europe) in their talks all mentioned John Cage–they didn’t mention other American composers, and often times, they didn’t mention any other composers, but everything would always come back to John Cage and his aesthetic standpoint. Not necessarily his music, but his thought, and his philosophy on aesthetics, and that really kind of planted a seed in my head.

Cage is currently very relevant, and his philosophies have sort of become foundational, I think, and maybe that’s more recognized in Europe, I don’t know. I do think, without a doubt, in the experimental music scene, Cage is like a God, but it, of course crosses over into other artistic fields, and I wonder if, in American conservatories it’s not recognized enough, and the relevance, and the influence of Cage, currently, what we’re doing right now, and just from a ground level, where we go from here, but I think in other fields, he is quite respected, and I think recognized for what he’s given us.

In the last year and a half, I’ve been really interested in sound art, and some of my music has sort of veered towards this middle ground towards sound art and contemporary music, because I conceive what I’m doing as a sound sculpture, not purely installation, but not really in line with contemporary avant-garde music, so I’ve been really interested in sound art, and I’ve been meeting a lot of the sound artists in Chicago, and coming into contact with them at the school at The Art Institute of Chicago–Their sound program is really phenomenal, and they certainly have an allegiance to John Cage, more so than my composer friends from Northwestern.

I came across a funny little tidbit doing research, reading my library stuff, as this is 2012, I was thinking about a centennial event I was involved with in 2011, and the collection of pieces actually started in 2010 for that. At a certain point he was pretty well-respected and known, so when it came to be his landmark birthdays, which was 65 or 75, everybody would want to do a festival, come and talk, give a lecture, do his music, and he would say they’d start a year or two before the actual birthday year, and they would go a year or two after the birthday year, and he only had one year to work! [laughs] There’s a centennial website where you can see all of the events that started in 2010, and earlier, and will probably go through 2013. All over the world and Europe. Europe started well before us, quite early. Every school, every university, every ensemble is putting at least one Cage piece on their program. It’s a huge year. I think 4’33” will be probably be performed way too much. [laughs]

CM: I saw Jenny Q. Chai last month at her Carnegie Hall show, playing the piece by Inhyun Kim titled Parallel Lines where there’s several pages of sustain being turned while she’s still holding it, and the awkwardness of that reminded me of 4’33”, and I thought the audience would start laughing.

NE: What’s different about Cage’s music with the listener and the audience is that I think he would invite laughter. There’s a sort of levity in his music that I certainly don’t have in my music–I wouldn’t want anyone to laugh in my music, but I think in his, he would invite that, and I think he’d encourage that just to relax, and whatever your reaction, it would be the right one to go with that. I don’t know her music her music well enough, but about the long sustain in her piece, even though in one way, we might find a similarity between that and Cage, her intention is perhaps different, and the relationship between music, the sound and the lack of movement and the audience is most likely different from 4’33”.
Inhyun’s company Ear To Mind is really incredible–they put on these fantastic shows, so that should be an interesting concert. Megan Schubert is performing my piece “piano and soprano” with David Kalhous.

Click here to buy tickets for the Live Art II concert at Symphony Space featuring Nomi’s work “piano and soprano”–June 16th at 7:30 PM
Nomi’s concert series

Nomi Epstein, composer (
Nomi’s website


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