N O M I   E P S T E I N composer


Translation: a conceptual chamber opera (2015)

for 2 soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor,

flute, clarinet, violin, viola, 2 percussion


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 my 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 life). 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, with 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 a 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 with regard to notation and plot characterization is a way of communicating or translating the initial idea, and translational processes continue on the part of the performers while changing the written (score and libretto) into the sonic/visual.

The most obvious type of translation in this work occurs between members of the ensemble. Individually, each performer explains/defines her/himself to the group of performers (albeit abstractly), after which the remainder of the group attempts 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, interpret their findings, and realize them sonically.

Rather than a linear or narrative approach, TRANSLATION is a cyclical work. In this egalitarian performance practice, a complete performance of TRANSLATION would offer 10 cycles each one comprised of a performer presenting her/his own text score solo followed by the remainder of the ensemble's text score response. (Please note that the above video shows only 4 cycles out of 10.)

Notated as a set of parts only, this piece utilizes my Text Series technique where text becomes the structure of the work. The performer’s silent reading of it in performance, along with directions on how to “use” the text, dictate what should be done and when. No text painting is involved, rather the text is an event catalogue, and rhythmic scheme which relies on the individual’s reading pace and choice of word/symbol.

The opera raises various questions regarding the ontology of the individual, the distinctiveness of differences, the nature of language, and the distinction and confusion between imitation, representation, shared idea, and reiteration. Also what arises are discussions of perspective, human thought process, critical thinking and other philosophical inquiries including: How do we each define ourselves to others? Does this definition aptly reflect our true selves? Is our definition effected by the community we find ourselves in, and therefore does it change from minute to minute depending on those who are around us? Are we ever really understood? What is the meaning of understanding someone, or knowing someone? Is defining yourself to others in effect a falsity because it is a translation from essence to some sort of other medium (spoken/written language, facial expressions, body movement). Or, are our true selves a combination of all these communicative abilities?

Commissioned by First Take, The Industry

Premiered February 2015 by The Industry/wildUp

Live concert recording

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Los Angeles, CA