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First Take: Nomi Epstein on TRANSLATION

All week we’ve been posting an interview a day with the composers on The Industry and wild Up’s First Take event, taking place on February 21. Most of those composers have written operas. Nomi Epstein, today’s guest, seems to have broken opera down and potentially created something entirely new.

Composer Nomi Epstein. Photo by Marc Perlish photography.

Composer Nomi Epstein. Photo by Marc Perlish photography.


Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.

TRANSLATION: a conceptual chamber opera is a work which distills the conceptual material of opera- a complex layering of translations-while dismissing the tradition of opera’s expressivity, dialogue, and narrative/dramatic structure.

The topic of translation has been important in my work since 2007 when I began dissecting the compositional process by looking at how an idea for a piece materializes or translates itself into an actual sonic piece of work (i.e. the various steps/types of translation this idea takes in order to get to its sonic point). I am fascinated by how the end point is so far from the beginning, clearly demonstrating distortion of the initial idea due partly to translational processes the composer can’t control -the brain processing and translating material/ideas into other formats, the interaction between the performer and the score, the sonic realization, the listeners perception, and what we can control- the type, specificity and character of notation.

When something is translated, it changes language, (be it spoken, structural, temporal, media type), and distortion is unavoidable. TRANSLATION raises questions regarding the nature of language, representation, perspective, (mis)communication, imitation, human thought process and the ontology of the individual.

Inherent in the process of translation, or changing one language into another, is some degree of loss of content, metaphor, or marker from the original language. In opera, a plot is translated into a durational structure containing text, sonic language (instrumental and vocal), characterization, scenery, casting, costumes, and acting, each attempting reinterpretation, communication, or translation of this original idea.  Each of the choices the composer/librettist makes in how to notate and characterize the plot is a way of communicating or translating the initial idea, and translational processes follow on the part of the performers while changing the written (score and libretto) into the sonic.

In TRANSLATION there are also multiple translation layers.  These layers can be perceived aurally and visually through a complexity of distorted relationships that the individual and group performers must navigate both from score directives, and performative means. The score challenges the performers to attempt their own forms of translation, but within very strict confines or structures that I have given them.

The most evident type of translation in this work is found between members of the ensemble.  Individually, each performer will explain/define her/himself to the group of performers (albeit abstractly), after which the remainder of the group will attempt to read/understand the individual.  While defining her/himself, each performer uses a language, whose syntax is created by the composer, unique to her/himself including the specificity of the voice/language, and the perspective of first person, among various other musical parameters.  When others try to “know” this performer, they each must translate information using their own tools, interpreting their findings, and realizing them sonically.

What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?

Though I haven’t written an opera before, I’ve written a lot for voice, and also several large scale structures.

Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?

No For several years I’ve been focusing on translation as a structural inquiry and as pre-compositional thought, and have also worked with text score notation.

What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?

Right now I’m working on a trio for Sonic Hedgehog, a US/European ensemble, a text score for my ensemble, and a large ensemble work for this year’s Dog Star Orchestra.

Here’s a solo piano work of Nomi Epstein’s, recorded by Eliza Garth.

Recordings of more of Nomi’s recordings are available at in of our series of interviews with the composers on First Take we’ve got Andrew McIntosh. Complete details on First Take 2015 are available at

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