Composer and artistic director of Chicago based experimental ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic, Nomi Epstein releases "sounds," a compilation of her own works for ensemble and solo piano. Epstein's sensitive attention to timbre, phrase syntax, pitch, and silence invites the listener inside a sonic world that is rich in expression and poignant contemplation.
|01||Till for solo piano|
Till for solo piano
|Reinier van Houdt, piano||9:38|
|Collect/Project, Frauke Aulbert, voice, Shanna Gutierrez, bass flute, Francisco Castillo Trigueros, live electronics||8:58|
|03||Solo for Piano part I: Waves|
Solo for Piano part I: Waves
|Reinier van Houdt, piano||7:48|
|04||Solo for Piano part II: Dyads|
Solo for Piano part II: Dyads
|Reinier van Houdt, piano||17:04|
|05||sounds for Jeff and Eliza|
sounds for Jeff and Eliza
|Eliza Bangert, flute, Jeff Kimmel, bass clarinet, Nomi Epstein, piano||19:22|
|06||Layers for Piano|
Layers for Piano
|Reinier van Houdt, piano||13:46|
Nomi Epstein’s work exists beneath the superficial expressive armor that dictates much of our communication, musically and otherwise. She writes music that is fragile and penetrating, demanding that the listener release our collective fixation on mental quickness and information density and sit still, sometimes uncomfortably so, with sound, phrase, and silence. On this portrait release of her music, “sounds,” we are given the opportunity to hear these artistic convictions through the lens of her piano music as it contrasts with two experimental ensemble works.
The album opens with Till for solo piano, a solo piano work performed by Reinier van Houdt (who also performs the other two solo works). Feldman’s presence is felt in subtle syntactic changes over phrase repetitions. But Epstein is not bound by any preconceived process, freely venturing away from an established phrase structure for a poignant tolling dyad. After only ninety seconds, the work gets “stuck” on a six note ascending arpeggio figure for nearly three minutes, reveling in repetitions in which variable accents are the only changing parameter. If Feldman’s orders and reorders notes like words in a Gertrude Stein text, Epstein draws attention to how our perception of the same ordering shifts depending on emphasis. The subsequent section explores a similar phenomenon, now mapped onto accented dyads that occur at variable intervals over a steady pulse. Till closes with a series of slow repetitions of one unsettling chord, basking in the complex resonance it leaves in its wake.
for Collect/Project explores a different side of Epstein’s work, albeit one that is very much focused on sound and silence. Scored for voice, bass flute, and live electronics, Epstein creates small sound sculptures from the hybrid timbres emerging from the three performers. Opening with croaking and fluttering vocal techniques, the listener is immediately brought inside the direct tactility of sound in a way that makes the piano sound like a tool of sonic abstraction. Sustained tones and descending glissandi form composite sounds that blend the brittleness of the voice, the warmth of the flute, and the coolness of the electronics. Electronic white noise washes over the texture midway through, obscuring texts as the flute merges into the texture with its own air techniques. Flute and voice alternate fifths that slowly compress before a series of overlapping figures oscillating at different rates to close the work.
The two part Solo for Piano is a study in contrast, from the rumbling low register gestures of “Waves,” to the patient unfolding of sonorities in “Dyads.” The waves of the title in the first part are generated by the two hands playing close together on the bass end of the keyboard in a “continuously changing rhythmic gesture.” After each phrase crests, the murky resonance hangs in the air, before a new phrase washes over once again. “Dyads” contains a series of over-ringing two note chords, registrally separated but rhythmically regular. The seventeen minute work is hypnotic but not static, possessing a compelling level of variety within its self-imposed restrictions.
sounds for Jeff and Eliza for flute, bass clarinet, and piano (with Epstein at the keyboard) returns to the world of exquisite sound objects heard in for Collect/Object. The absence of electronics and the focus on multiphonic sonorities lends this work a more austere tone. The microscopic focus on the interaction between the three instruments makes each entrance consequential — does the piano enter first and the winds join its resonance, or are they separated to momentarily disentangle their sonorities? The sparseness of rhythmic and gestural contrast is balanced by the complexity of each composite gesture.
“sounds” concludes with another solo piano work, Layers for Piano. The piece shares the suspended, ethereal quality of “Dyads,” but features a three layered notational construction. The top layer, a single note floating melodic line, is the only layer that is metered, written with specific note values and rests. The other two layers are notated spatially -- their rhythmic organization is meant to be placed around the top melodic layer. The second layer contains single staccato notes that shadow the melody, written as quarter notes on specific pitches, and the third layer contains watery chord clusters, notated as gestures which indicate register and interval span but not precise pitch. As the piece unfolds, the clusters migrate around the register of the piano and become more variable rhythmically and with respect to articulation. Throughout, Epstein’s compositional focus seems to be as directed towards the rich resonance vibrating inside the piano as to each newly introduced pitch.
The music on this collection is uncompromising, not in its impenetrability but in its refusal to pander. While the sound of van Houdt’s piano defines the world of this recording, the two ensemble works confirm Epstein’s focus, albeit from varied directions. Epstein’s expressive world insists on quieting the mind and opening up to subtleties of sonic detail. A listener’s willingness to forego an expectation to be entertained by extroverted sound is duly rewarded by the sublime experience of her poetic compositions.
- Dan Lippel
Tracks 1, 3, 4, 6: Recorded July 17, 2019 Nicolas Lefèvre, engineer; Sunny Side Inc., Brussels
Track 2: Live concert recording October 9, 2016 Grayson Elliott Taylor, engineer; Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago
Track 5: Recorded February 21, 2019 Nick Broste, engineer; The Shape Shoppe, Chicago
Liner Notes: Jennie Gottschalk
Cover Photo: Nomi Epstein
Graphic Design: Juli Sherry
Producer: Nomi Epstein
Editing/Mixing/Mastering: Alex Inglizian, Experimental Sound Studio, Chicago
Nomi Epstein, D.M.A, is an active composer, curator/performer, and music educator. Her works have been performed at Ostrava Days, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Darmstadt, Bang on a Can, and Akademie Schloss Solitude, and she was twice invited as an Artist-in-Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Epstein is the recipient of four CAP grants, and was featured in the Chicago Tribune for her work as a composer, curator, teacher, and performer. Contributing 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,” her compositions have been performed throughout the US and Europe by such artists as ICE, Ensemble SurPlus, Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink, Dal Niente, Seth Josel, and Eliza Garth.
In 2012, Epstein produced/curated a 5-concert John Cage centennial festival in Chicago, and was invited to present at the Northwestern University Cage Symposium and serve as composer-in-residence at the Florida State University Cage Festival. She is founder/ curator of the critically acclaimed, Chicago-based experimental music concert series “a.pe.ri.od.ic.” She continues to perform experimental music with a.pe.ri.od.ic, and NbN (her improvisation trio, in residence at High Concept Laboratories in 2012).
As an educator, she has served on the faculties of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern, and Roosevelt Universities. She is currently head of theory at the British School and instructor of theory, composition and aural skills at DePaul. Epstein holds degrees from Columbia University, New England Conservatory, and Northwestern University where her principal teachers included Fred Lerdahl, Michael Gandolfi, Marti Epstein, Amy Williams, Jay Alan Yim, and Augusta Read Thomas.http://www.nomiepstein.com/
Reinier van Houdt started working with tape recorders, radios, objects and various string-instruments at a young age. He studied piano at the Liszt-Akademie in Budapest & the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. He developed a fascination for matters that escape notation: sound, timing, space, physicality, memory, noise, environment - points beyond composition, interpretation and improvisation.
He has built himself an unusual repertoire that consistently resulted from personal quests; from collaborations with composers & musicians, from research in archives, from the composing and staging of music-performances or from unorthodox studies of classical music, and from endless tape recordings he made since the eighties.
Aside from his own music he premiered music by Robert Ashley, Alvin Curran, Kaikhosru Sorabji, Francisco López, Christian Marclay, Charlemagne Palestine, Yannis Kyriakides, Maria de Alvear, Jerry Hunt, Michael Pisaro, Walter Marchetti, Jürg Frey, Nomi Epstein. He has also worked with Annea Lockwood, John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Luc Ferrari, Peter Ablinger.
Reinier van Houdt plays in David Tibet's Current 93, where he worked Nick Cave, John Zorn, Anohni, Jack Barnett. He is also one of the moving forces behind the experimental music collective MAZE.
He performed in such diverse venues as The Roulette & the Issue Project Room in New York, Colegio Ildefonso Mexico City, Café Oto & Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, DOM in Moscow, Setagaya Gallery Tokyo, Paradiso Amsterdam, Apollohuis Eindhoven, the New Library in Alexandria Egypt, REDCAT & the Wulf in Los Angeles, Mills College Oakland, Non Event Boston, Kuryokhin Center in St Petersburg, Trafo Budapest, Nuits Nomadiques in Paris, Brut in Wien, HAU and Volksbühne in Berlin, Empty Gallery Hong Kong, Tramway Glasgow and Klangraum Düsseldorf. Appearances in festivals CTM Berlin, Meltdown London, Angelica Bologna, Holland Festival, Warsaw Autumn, Incubate Tilburg, UNSOUND Poland, Primavera Barcelona, November Music Den Bosch, and many others.
He won an award at Ars Electronica Linz 2012 with Francisco López, the Prix Europe 2015 with the Andcompany&Co and the first prize at Videoex 2019 with filmmaker Takashi Makino.
“Hamburg’s queen of avantgarde” (Hamburger Abendblatt Jan. 2010) Frauke Aulbert is one of the most active and multi-talented vocalists in the field of contemporary music today. Her almost infinite, impressive vocal sound palette enfolds a nearly four octave range next to classical singing (diploma), over- and undertone-singing, multiphonics, techniques from Bulgarian folclore, Korean gugak, gamelan, jazz, dhrupad, beatboxing a.s.o.
Concerts led her to festivals all over the world: Witten Days for New Chamber Music, Casa Giacinto Scelsi Rome, Radio France/Festival Présence, ZKM, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Onassis Centre Athens, Internationale Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Warsaw Autumn, LIG Art Hall Seoul, Resonant Bodies New York, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Ear Taxi Chicago, Sommerliche Musiktage Hitzacker, International Stockhausen-Summerclasses, Hamburger Klangwerktage, Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Klang Copenhaguen, What’s next Brussels, Berghain and Klangwerkstatt Berlin and many more, to Brasil, the USA, Australia, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Tunisia, Georgia and South-Korea.
Frauke Aulbert was awarded various prizes and grants, a.o. the first price by the Stockhausen-foundation, as well as artist residencies in Rome (Goethe Institut), Paris (Cité Internationale des Arts) and Stuttgart (Akademie Schloss Solitude) in 2016/17, where she is currently working on her project ‘Beatboxing and the Avant Garde’.
Frauke Aulbert has collaborated with composers such as Georges Aperghis, Vinko Globokar, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Hans-Joachim Hespos, Simon Stockhausen, Brigitta Muntendorf, Heera Kim, Michael Maierhof, Geoffroy Drouin and Alexander Schubert. She has been recording for film ('The Future', Miranda July), CD (Decoder Ensemble, Magic Malik etc.) and radio (Deutschlandradio, RAI, Radio France etc.)
Frauke Aulbert is founding member and artistic (co)director of her groups Collect/Project (Hamburg-Chicago), Decoder Ensemble (Hamburg) and Forum Neue Vokalmusik (Hannover). She studied in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, and in Kiel and Hamburg, Germany. Her diploma thesis examined ‘Overtone singing in Contemporary Music’.
Flutist Shanna Pranaitis fearlessly expands the realm of sonic possibility for her instruments through innovative performances and educational projects, in which she integrates new and historically reimagined works with multi-disciplinary elements to create seamless, immersive concert experiences. She is interested in exploring ways to engage and involve a wider community in the process of
experiencing music. An important part of this work is the close cooperation with living composers, poets, movement artists, and other interdisciplinary artists, around the world on the development of new work. Shanna travels the world regularly to perform and teach as a solo guest artist and with the chamber ensembles Memoria Nova (Andrew Rosenblum, piano) and Collect/Project. She has performed and taught as a guest artist in Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, The Netherlands, South Korea, Mexico, Colombia, and the United Kingdom. In 2017, she co-curated and co-organized the first multi-day festival of Galina Ustvolskaya’s music in the United States. She is the co-founder of FluteXpansions, the first comprehensive e-learning platform and laboratory for composers and performers to explore contemporary flute music and techniques. he most recent recording includes a disc of Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s works for flute on NEOS (summer 2020). She performs on a Burkart flute and piccolo and Kingma bass and alto flutes.
Francisco Castillo Trigueros (b. 1983) is a composer of contemporary chamber, orchestral and electronic music from Mexico City. He has received numerous distinctions such as the Jury 1st prize at the Edes Prize, NEM Young Composers International Forum, the BMI Student Composer Award, honorable mentions in the 2010 and 2011 Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, and four nominations for the Gaudeamus Prize in The Netherlands.
Castillo Trigueros has worked extensively with intercultural ensembles. His intercultural work draws from his multi-cultural raising in Mexico, and deals with issues of identity, diversity, and hybridity. It presents diversity while creating unity. In his work Prisma, for oboe, 6 East Asian instruments, and strings, the distinctive eastern and western sound worlds are blended together to create a unified fluid timbre.
Francisco has also composed numerous pieces for traditional music ensembles and orchestras, often including the use of electronics. His pieces are often inspired by visual art. His work Nealika, which he wrote in 2009-10 for eighth blackbird, is inspired by the fluid symmetry and colorful patterns found in Huichol visual art. His work Emblema | Blau for flute, string quartet, and percussion, is structured using one of the most emblematic figures in Mexican culture: the pyramid.
Francisco's recent collaboration with biochemist Josiah Zayner on The Chromochord, an instrument that allows the sonification of nano-sized light-responsive proteins found in plants, has been featured in several publications including Scientific American.
Orchestras, ensembles and performers that have performed his music include the Holland Symfonia, Orchestre National de Lorraine, Chicago Composers Orchestra, eighth blackbird, ensemble dal niente, Atlas Ensemble, Nieuw Ensemble, Asko Ensemble, Pacifica String Quartet, Spektral String Quartet, Fonema Consort, Jason Alder, Brian Conelly, Ryan Muncy, and Shanna Gutierrez.
His mentors and teachers include Augusta Read Thomas, Shulamit Ran, Kotoka Susuki, Howard Sandroff at the University of Chicago; Theo Loevendie, Richard Ayres, Fabio Nieder at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam; Shih-Hui Chen, Kurt Stallman, Pierre Jalbert at Rice University; and Haruko Shimizu and Jose Tavarez in Mexico City.
Castillo Trigueros recently obtained a Ph.D at the University of Chicago, where he served as Computer Music Studio Manager for three years.
Flutist Eliza Bangert is in demand throughout the Midwest as an orchestral player, chamber musician, and new music interpreter. She has been a substitute with the Grant Park Symphony and with the Chicago Symphony, where her engagements have included subscription concerts, the MusicNOW series, and concerts at Ravinia. She has performed in the pit and in the stage band for Lyric Opera and Lyric Opera Unlimited, and in the pit at Chicago Opera Theater. She performs regularly with the Illinois Philharmonic, is a performing member of the Chicago Philharmonic, and in 2017 won the second flute audition with the South Bend Symphony. Since 2011, she has held the Third Flute/Piccolo chair with the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra.
Since 2012, Eliza has been a core member of the experimental music ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic, which recently gave the American premiere of Tim Parkinson’s opera Time With People following a Fall 2016 residency at High Concept Labs. She has also appeared with the International Chamber Artists, Fonema Consort, Palomar, and Ensemble Dal Niente. In 2014, together with flutist Dalia Chin and mezzo-soprano Kate McDuffie, she commissioned new chamber works from Monte Weber, Scott Scharf, and D. Edward Davis. This project, called “in the same breath,” toured to the Florida Flute Fair and the Omaha Under the Radar festival.
Eliza holds degrees in flute performance from DePaul University and the University of Northern Iowa, where her principal teachers included Mary Stolper, Angeleita Floyd, and Torleif Ander. She particularly enjoys playing piccolo, and has coached extensively with the CSO’s Jennifer Gunn.
In addition to her performing life, Eliza is an orchestra librarian for the Grant Park Symphony and AWR Music, where she enjoys the opportunity to organize and alphabetize everything in sight.http://elizabangert.com/
Jeff Kimmel is a Chicago-based clarinetist whose work encompasses improvisation, new and experimental music, and interdisciplinary collaborations.
Jeff is the clarinetist of the experimental music ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic, and has performed at the Chicago Cultural Center, Harris Theater, and Logan Center for the Arts. He is a regular contributor to Chicago’s improvised music community, collaborates with Andrew Tham as part of the multimedia concern Current Conditions, and has toured with puppet theatre company Manual Cinema.
Jeff’s work has been funded by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and he was awarded a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts to work with Roscoe Mitchell. Originally from Greenville, SC, Jeff holds a B.M. from New England Conservatory of Music.
Composer Nomi Epstein is an integral part of Chicago’s new music community. She’s an educator, curator, and, most notably, the founder and leader of a.pe.ri.od.ic, the city’s most steadfast and open-ended ensemble devoted to experimental composition. Unfortunately, her advocacy has often obscured her work as a composer, so her first portrait album comes as a welcome reminder.
The collection includes three austere solo piano pieces—all performed by the superb Dutch pianist Reiner van Houdt—that on first blush suggest the influence of Morton Feldman. Till for Solo Piano opens with a spare, ascending six-note pattern that receives very subtle dynamic variations as it proceeds, in terms of attack, before applying a similar technique to a glassy dyad, and concluding with a single chord patiently decaying before repeating. The two-part Solo for Piano moves from cycling lower-register patterns into a series of shifting dyads that are still resonating when the next voicing occurs. For Collect/Project is a dynamic piece that uses voice (Frauke Aulbert), flute (Shanna Gutierrez), and electronics (Francisco Castillo Trigueros), all arranged in shifting combinations and timbres, while Sounds for Jeff and Eliza features Epstein on piano along with bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel and flutist Eliza Bangert.
— Peter Margasak, 7.01.2020
Sounds is a delicate and sparse collection of pieces by Chicago-based composer Nomi Epstein. Deep listening often comes in the form of immersive drones, but here, Epstein brings about inner pontification through short phrases and quietude. This is the type of music whose silence is just as powerful as its sound.
— Vanessa Ague, 8.07.2020
US composer Nomi Epstein appears before us on a CD album with six compositions for solo piano and a few for small chamber configurations. The album is aptly titled Sounds (New Focus Recordings FCR260). Sounds is a meaningful title as Ms. Epstein's music gives us a heightened attention to the timbral qualities of tone production. It is also music that to some extent has the element of process, a semi-ritualized doing in patterns neither redolent of classical or song modes of unfolding (e.g., abacaba), rather coming to us with relation, at times repetition as abstraction, at times long tones and deliberate, open ended soundings that hang together like fantastic canvases in sound--in timbre-tone--where modern abstract visual art would use pigment.
The overall presence of the music including the repetitions are ambient in the manner of later Morton Feldman rather than, say, Steve Reich.
The trio of Frauke Aubert on voice, Shanna Gutierrez on bass flute and Francisco Castillo Trigueros on live electronics have special sonance on the 2016/19 "for Collect/Project." is simply gorgeous,a living breathing sound being that quietly maps out a path to a deep space inside us. It unfolds without a lot of repetition, through-composed cosmic tones it has in abundance.
The solo piano works alone are worth the entrance fee! Each has its magic. "Layers for Piano" (2015/18) is a memorable gem. Similarly there is mysterious beauty in "Till for Solo Piano" (2003) as well as "Solo Piano Part I: Waves" (2007/11) and "Part II: Dyads" (2007/11/19).
The 2018 "Sounds for Jeff and Eliza" makes a beautiful sonance for Eliza Bangert, flute, Jeff Kimmel, bass clarinet and the composer at the piano. Long tones alternate in ways that iterate same and altered, change and stasis in ways that are exceedingly beautiful if you allow them to open to you.
This music has the kind of depth that perhaps is the antithesis of the "popular." That is not to say that it does not open the listening self to sheer aural expressivity, with a widely spatial lyricism that is not literal in the way it "means," but nonetheless has much to understand in the way it straddles the inner aural self and a potentially infinite outward spatiality.
If you give this one enough listening frequency it should pay you back with a profoundly meditative inner space when you return to each new listening session. In this way it affirms that there are indeed places to go beyond the American School of Cage and Feldman. Highly recommended.
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 9.13.2021
Composer/pianist Nomi Epstein’s music, as demonstrated on the portrait recording sounds, is made up of fine-grained distinctions between sounds and between sound and non-sound. This is evident particularly in the three compositions for solo piano: Till (2003), Solo for Piano (2007-19), and Layers for Piano (2015/18), all of them performed by Reinier van Houdt. Till, which opens the album, surrounds deliberately picked out, largely quiet individual notes and chords with silences to create differential effects of dynamics and register. The first part of the two-part Solo for Piano, appropriately titled “Waves,” features oscillating, closely-spaced tones that particularly in the lower registers merge into something like a massed, grey noise. The second part opposes “Waves’” sonic blur with unhurried, precisely defined pitch groups. Layers for Piano, a three-part work, places delicate sonic fragments consisting of single notes and muffled dissonances within a range of quiet, subtly distinguishable dynamics. The other two compositions in the collection are for trios: of voice, bass flute and electronics, and for flute, bass clarinet, and piano. The first of these, for Collect/Project (2016-19), is a low-key drama of contrasts between the hollow tones of the bass flute (Shanna Gutierrez) and the abrasively dense interventions of the electronics (Francisco Castillo Trigueros). When Frauke Aulbert’s voice breaks through into a sonic clearing, the effect is bracing and revelatory. The 2016 sounds for Jeff and Eliza, for flutist Eliza Bangert and bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel, who perform it here along with the composer on piano, builds harmonies from the wind instruments’ multiphonics superimposed on isolated notes and chords from the piano. The piece’s very slow harmonic rhythm lends it a sense of timelessness.
— Daniel Barbiero, 6.08.2020
Nomi Epstein is the leader of the New Music ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic, which has performed quietly radical music in Chicago for the last ten years. The group’s presentations have included music by Michael Pisaro, Catherine Lamb, Christian Wolff and Pauline Oliveros. Many times, the featured composers directly collaborate with a.pe.ri.od.ic, either during rehearsals or helping to perform their music. In the weeks before COVID-19 shut everything down, Epstein and her ensemble performed one piece by Peter Ablinger that involved plumbing the raw acoustics of a loading dock, and another by Annea Lockwood that translated a map of Houston’s bayous into a score for sounds that floated like ghostly memories.
To effectively present such music, one must often grasp diverse, elusive concepts and frame them without drawing unnecessary attention to one’s own presence; working variously and often concurrently as a conductor and performer, Epstein has done this many times over. But she is also a composer, and while she has contributed to a.pe.ri.od.ic’s programs over the years, sounds is her first solo recording.
Over the album’s 76-minute duration, pianist Reinier van Houdt plays three lengthy compositions alone, and two very different trios handle the rest. Together they present a stance that is economical, patient and particularly concerned with permutating patterns. But patience doesn’t mean that you can’t put the pedal down; van Houdt does just that on Till for solo piano, which enables him to articulate one iteration of a chord or phrase while another hands in the air. Over the course of nine and a half minutes, the moments when hammers hits wires seem to shift from foreground to background, overtaken by a fog of decaying sound. The next piece, for Collect/Project, changes the scene like a suddenly activated overhead floodlight. Nothing cloaks the trio’s articulation, and both the distant-train woosh of Francisco Castillo Trigueros’ electronics and the initial back-of-the-throat cackle of Frauke Aulbert’s voice will bring you up short. As the piece progresses, Aulbert and bass flautist Shanna Gutierrez juxtapose and overplay similar phrases and gestures so that even when you hear one musician at a time, you always hear them in relation to each other.
Epstein only plays on one track, sounds for Jeff and Eliza. It would be fair to call her creeping phrases “composer’s piano,” but don’t take that as faint praise; it’s a recognition that when she is present, it’s to perform a function, and part of that function is to point your ear where she wants it to go. Each ringing note sets a boundary that around the long tones of Jeff Kimmel’s bass clarinet and Eliza Bangert’s flute. As on Till for solo piano, repetition and duration erode one’s sense of time and sharpen one’s focus on the sounds themselves. That self-effacement probably also explains why van Houdt’s playing is what you hear on the two-part Solo for Piano and Layers for Piano. By handing the performance over to a player with such an exacting touch, she invites the listener once more to spend some time inhabiting the realm of sounds.
— Bill Meyer, 10.09.2020
There is something absolutely irresistible in the way Nomi Epstein confronts matters of boundary. The dis-ease involved in categorizing her music, a boundary issue to be sure, is certainly not reflected in the listening. Her work is beautiful, quietly challenging and infinitely subtle, catering to nothing but the emergence of each element in a malleable context. To point to the near-silent felicities of so much Wandelweiser would be both obvious and far too easy, because Epstein’s music bristles with a different sort of energy. Hers is a soundworld of beauty and concision, but as each piece unfolds, depth of experiential listening occurs via the superficially simplest means. Her ensemble pieces are studies in timbral chromaticism. Something akin to the Spectralists is at work as Jeff Kimmel’s bass clarinet and Eliza Bangert’s flute transcend their boundaries on the titular piece, dedicated to them. It is almost rapturous to hear their multiphonics elide with Epstein’s delicate pianism. Dig into the special moment captured at 5:46, just to cite one frozen instant as tone and sound meld to push harmonic boundaries well past convention. Such a moment has its analog as Frauke Aulbert’s vocalizations usher in For Collect/Project (2016–19). If Alvin Lucier is invoked in its pulsing clarinet and oscillator sweeps, the interactions are entirely Epstein’s own as they inhabit different areas of the stereo spectrum, the sum total alive and brimming with the occasionally confrontational energy a great concert recording can offer.
The other pieces are similarly vibrant. Piano recordings are improving by leaps and bounds, as exemplified by Reinier van Houdt’s superb contributions. As annotator Jennie Gottschalk observes, the unifying factor here is subtle differentiation, and van Houdt’s playing is a treat for the ears. In the sonorities comprising Till’s subtly Protean repetitions, he realizes Epstein’s contrasting stabilities and instabilities with grace and power mirroring the breadth of the recording itself. Every nuance of the instrument is captured in technicolor, every resonance clear, present, and finally evaporating into the nebulous region between mist and point. Conversely, “Waves,” part of Solo for Piano, rumbles and glides along beneath a glassy surface of upper partials, but it’s the way notes are connected that separates van Houdt’s playing from that of so many practitioners of “contemporary” music. Layers brings the various elements of Epstein’s piano writing together and makes a wonderfully expansive but nuanced conclusion to this excellent portrait disc.
I’m not in the habit of reading liner notes, or anything else, as I listen to a disc, but Jennie Gottschalk’s accompanying essay is such an excellent guide through these tones and timbres that a recommendation is in order. She knows this music from all directions but allows the mystery behind it to remain silent. The package is unified in that music and notes present a dialogue whose subject matter, at its core, is embodied beautifully and succinctly in the album’s title.
— Marc Medwin, 2.22.2021
Already featured twice in the New Focus catalog as member and director of the collective a•pe•ri•od•ic, Chicago pianist and composer Nomi Epstein has an obvious affinity with the poetics of Wandelweiser, an expressive “movement” that more than any other perpetuated the legacy of Morton Feldman and of John Cage’s late ‘number pieces’. This bond is also reflected in her curatorial activity which, up to now, has led her to organize a celebration in five concerts for the centenary of Cage’s birth in 2012, and a festival dedicated to the same Wandelweiser in 2014.
In her first portrait album, the American author appropriately entrusts her pieces for solo piano to Reinier van Houdt, one of the most sensitive interpreters of today’s reductionist avant-garde, already in close collaboration with Michael Pisaro (The Earth and the Sky, Shades of Eternal Night) and Bruno Duplant (Lettres et Replis).
The uncertain, immersive atmosphere of “Till for solo piano” (2003), clearly inspired by Feldman, highlights the changeability of a same ascending progression – repeated between the second and fourth minute – based on the degree of pressure on the keys, alternately skimmed or struck hard like little stabs; around this moment of epiphanic suspension there’s a coming and going of questioning phrases, gently disconnected textures that lead to the extreme synthesis of the hovering irresoluteness, with the regular tolling of a single chord left to resonate with the sustain pedal.
At first more abstract and elemental is the diptych “Waves / Dyads” (2007/11/19): gloomy atonal ripples in the low register evoke the perpetual motion of a restless nocturnal tide, until the indistinct tangle of darkness unravels in the second movement, stark and shining in the calm pace of minor and irregular chords (dyads, in fact) which, despite this, are far from an even temporary pacification of the soul.
Lastly, “Layers for Piano” (2015/18) is a further, perhaps less incisive variation on the late Feldman’s moods tending to colourlessness, structured according to three different but uninterrupted temporalities and articulations: the second in particular, as pointed out by Jennie Gottschalk in the liner notes, complements the supporting melody with respective “shadow pitches”, like a tracing of vague footprints that further undermine its fragile balance.
The coherent solo corpus is accompanied by two more parallel glances to Epstein’s sound universe, this time in relation to wind instruments: the trio “for Collect/Project” (2016/19) explores the twin phonetic properties of bass flute (Shanna Gutierrez ), voice (Frauke Aulbert), and electronics (Francisco Castillo Trigueros), hypothetical manifestations of a same breath at the meeting point between Salvatore Sciarrino’s imaginary naturalism and Alvin Lucier’s microtonal shifts.
Finally, the threadlike harmonies of “sounds for Jeff and Eliza” (2018, respectively Jeff Kimmel on bass clarinet and Eliza Bangert on flute) also are the opaque reflection of the piano chords performed by the author herself, the primary source of a tonal glare that in the soft breaths and overtones of the winds unequivocally traces back to Jürg Frey — one of Wandelweiser’s most distinctive exponents. Thus is closed the circle of contemporary protagonists who variously inform the emerging style of Nomi Epstein, even now quite valuable and worthy of attention.
— Michele Palazzo, 6.14.2020
Pianist Nomi Epstein writes magical, otherworldly, spacious music that sometimes brings to mind Federico Mompou, other times Messiaen. The piano pieces on her new album Sounds – streaming at Bandcamp – linger with an often mournful, sparse belltone ambience. These works are deceptively minimalist: the way Epstein slowly shifts between relentlessly unsettled harmonies is artful to the extreme. She keeps the pedal down for maximum resonance. If there was any sound tailor-made for the unreality and immersive angst of the lockdown, this is it.
The first composition is Till For Solo Piano, played meticulously by Reinier van Houdt. The obvious antecedent seems to be Satie’s Vexations; the way Epstein subtly shifts harmonies while maintaining a creepy, bell-like ambience is as masterful as it is hypnotic.
Solo for Piano part I: Waves is aptly titled, its graceful series of low lefthand rumbles building a picturesque portrait of water washing a beach at night, and slowly brightening from there. The minute dynamic shifts in the brooding, steady conversation between left and righthand in the uninterrupted, eighteen-minute part two, Dyads are more celestially captivating. Again, Satie’s Vexations comes to mind
Van Houdt returns to the keys for the concluding number, Layers for Piano, with its contrasts between stygian reflecting-pool resonance in the lefthand with slowly shifting, spare, unsettling close-harmonied accents in the right. Occasional flinging gestures in the the upper registers dash any hope of a persistent, meditative state.
There are also two chamber works here. For Collect/Project, a hazy, lighthearted electroacoustic piece featuring vocalist Frauke Aulbert with Shanna Gutierrez on bass flute is ridiculously funny in places. And the composer herself plays the album’s sparest piano on the title track, Eliza Bangert’s flute and Jeff Kimmel‘s bass clarinet providing nebulous wave motion and a mist of overtones behind her. What a stunningly individualistic and often haunting album: let’s hope Epstein can continue build on what promises to be a brilliant body of work.
— Delarue, 2.10.2021