Thursday, August 28, 2008

An Interview with Paul Epstein

The composer Paul A. Epstein was, as a student, near the center of the storm which I have here called the radical music. As a graduate student at UC Berkeley, he was a member of a composition seminar that included La Monte Young and Terry Riley, which was, in turn, part of a very lively scene in the San Francisco Bay Area. More information about Epstein and his elegant music is available at his website, here.

DJW: Could you briefly describe your musical background and orientation prior to your study at Berkeley? How would you have then described your own musical style and what repertoire attracted you the most?

PAE: I grew up in Boston. My mother taught piano and made a valiant attempt to teach me. After four years (I was eight) we agreed it was hopeless, and I switched to clarinet. My earliest memories include my mother practicing Chopin and Met opera broadcasts on Saturdays.

Boston was anything but a hotbed of new music in those days, but we had good classical radio, and the BSO occasionally did one of the safer 20th century works. The first modern composers that made strong impressions on me were Copland and Stravinsky. I can't remember hearing a piece of 12-tone music before college. I started to think about composing somewhere around my senior year in high school. If I had started then I probably would have wanted to sound like the Copland of the Clarinet Concerto or the Stravinsky of L'Histoire du Soldat. I actually started writing in college and found that I wasn't very good at imitating specific styles, so I pretty much had to find my own way. At some point I decided to try 12-tone, but with very little theoretical knowledge prior to Berkeley.

DJW: What drew you to study at Berkeley? Which composers on the faculty did you work with? Did you always see eye-to-eye with your teachers on musical matters? Were there other graduate students with whom you had useful exchanges?

PAE: I don’t remember specifically what drew me to Berkeley. The Bay Area looked like an attractive change of scene, and the department had a strong reputation, though in large part for its historians like Lowinski and Kerman. And it was a liberal arts program, which is what I was used to. In those days we liberal arts types looked with scorn at conservatory-style programs.

In the three years that I was at Berkeley the composition seminar was taught by William Denny, Joaquin Nin-Culmell, and Seymour Shifrin. I remember Bill Denny as an accomplished orchestrator, soft-spoken, with a gentle sense of humor. Neither he nor Nin-Culmell tried to steer us in any particular stylistic direction, which was just as well given the makeup of the class. I was most stimulated by what La Monte Young and Terry Riley were doing, which at various times involved extremely sparse, post-Webernian textures, improvisation, noise-based material sometimes verging on happenings, and La Monte’s conceptual pieces. Among the performances that La Monte organized was Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 for 12 radios which I had the pleasure of participating in.

I wasn’t yet prepared to go in the direction of La Monte and Terry’s more radical work, but it left its mark and I think informed much of what I did during the 60s and early 70s.

Terry had a more immediate impact on my work. He introduced me to the poet and film-maker James Broughton, who generously allowed me to set three groups of his poems. The first became a piece for reader and instruments that the members of the composition seminar performed at the annual Student Composers Conference with La Monte as reader.

The laisser-faire approach of Denny and Nin-Culmell vanished abruptly when Seymour Shifrin took over the Seminar. Shifrin was a brilliant musician who insisted that we know where every note came from and was going. That worked well for some, less well for others. Typical of the kind of tensions that occasionally arose was the time we found out that Merce Cunningham’s company was to perform on campus and that Cage would be with him. When we suggested to Shifrin that we’d like to invite Cage to speak to the Seminar, he went ballistic. Cage was not a real composer, and there was no way he would be allowed into Shifrin’s classroom. On the other hand, Shifrin taught a seminar entirely devoted to Moses und Aron that was a highlight of my time at Berkeley. Seymour was an extraordinary man. As much as he questioned our ideas, and as fiercely as he defended his own, he always treated us as colleagues.

The most important class for me outside of composition was David Lewin’s Webern seminar. The analytical skills I picked up there carried over directly into my 12-tone writing but also influenced my minimalist work in subtle ways.

In my last year at Berkeley, I was able to audit Berio’s composition seminar at Mills College. I spent the following year studying with him in Milan.

DJW: Did you have contact with Robert Erickson or any of his students, or others who went on to found the San Francisco Tape Music Center?

PAE: I didn’t get into electronic music until I got to Tulane in 1963, so I really wasn’t involved with the Tape Music Center. I never met Erickson. I met Pauline Oliveros out there, but I didn’t get to know her until much later.

DJW: You made a distinction between your own twelve-tone and experimental works. For several composers, beginning probably with La Monte Young, features of a radical and minimal style, including very long tones, increased use of repetition, and isolation of groups of tones that suggested, if fragmentarily, tonality, emerged in the context of twelve-tone or free atonal scores. So it appear to have been more complicated than a simple opposition between twelve-tone and experimental music. How did this distinction play out in your own music?

PAE: A very interesting question. I’m afraid I can only address it in a rather convoluted way.

After spending a year in Milan, I wrote one instrumental piece - 12-tone and strongly influenced by Berio - after which I found that that approach no longer worked for me. For the next few years I did electronic music, first at the Tulane studio started by Otto Henry; for one summer at Alvin Lucier’s Brandeis studio; and later at Temple University, where I made several pieces for live performance on the Moog synthesizer. I would characterize this work as experimental in that it proceeded from the capabilities and limitations of the available equipment rather from a clearly envisioned objective.

While at Tulane, director Richard Schechner, painter/designer Franklin Adams, and I started The New Orleans Group to do collaborative work in intermedia. This work began with a large-scale Happening-like piece and culminated in an environmental staging of Ionesco’s Victims of Duty. Schechner moved to New York in 1968, where he started The Performance Group, and a year later I moved to Philadelphia. That summer I began working with The Performance Group on their environmental staging of Macbeth. With TPG, Schechner, following Jerzy Grotowski’s model, had put aside all extraneous media, including incidental music, to focus on the performer. My role was to develop musical material with the actors, most of whom had strong voices but limited musical training. While we were able to use some strictly notated material, much of the music involved improvisation. With the actors I developed a set of exercises, derived in part from the vocal work they were already doing, that served as a basis for much of this music. After working on several productions I developed a piece with five members of the group, Concert for TPG, that involved scored as well as semi-improvisational sections.

In the mid-70s I began to work with the Philadelphia-based dance group, Zero Moving, adapting much of the work I had done with actors. At the same time I found my way back into instrumental music, and here’s where we re-connect with Berkeley. I was working on a piece for voices with text fragments by Gertrude Stein. (It would eventually become a dance piece, Four Movements for Moving Voices Moving, with all the vocal work done by the dancers of Zero Moving.) Most of the piece was semi-improvisational, using the full speech-to-song spectrum. When I got to the final section, that all changed. The text, appropriately, had to do with repetition. I found myself writing a simple diatonic melody proceeding in repeating canonic fragments. The process was similar to that of In C, which I had heard for the first time, belatedly, shortly before. I had loved the piece but had no idea that it was anything I wanted to emulate. So the Stein piece was a kind of conversion experience, and it determined my musical progress from that point on. Since then my music has continued to involve an exploration of melodic pattern. In C was a major catalyst, and the work of another acquaintance from my Bay Area days, Steve Reich, was another crucial resource.

Although my break with dodecaphonic music was complete, I’ve come to understand that minimalism involves some of the same tools and mind-sets. In fact I would describe much of my music as diatonic serialism.

DJW: Could you describe the music you're working on now? What elements of continuity with your earlier interests are present? Are there any new directions that interest you in particular?

PAE: For the past few years I’ve been working with rhythmic cycles that are prime to one another as a way of greatly increasing the period of repetition. I’m trying to retain something of the rigor, system, and economy of means of early minimalism while reducing surface repetition. Most recently I did a piece for flute, bassoon and piano that used 12 cycles of 3 to 37 16th-notes (all the prime numbers plus 4.) Recently I was startled to realize that there was a direct connection to the Moog pieces I did around 1970, where I modulated a tone with several slow waves that were out of phase with one another. In both cases short repeating cycles combine to create an apparently non-repeating resultant melody.

My music remains largely, though not exclusively, diatonic. And most pieces now include changes, even frequent changes, in the pitch collection.

In two recent pieces I paid tribute to Terry Riley and Steve Reich, whose music continues to be a source of pleasure and inspiration. The second movement of my AlgoRhythms 2 is entitled “At C” and dedicated to Terry. And one of my set of piano pieces, Interleavings, is dedicated to Steve. Entitled “ParaPhase,” it alternates notes of the Piano Phase and Violin Phase patterns.

Finally, another continuity with my early work is an involvement with text. I’ve had a long-standing collaboration with the poet and novelist Toby Olson that has thus far produced two chamber operas and a half dozen sets of songs and chamber vocal pieces.

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