Q&A: Joseph Bohigian

Composer Joseph Bohigian discusses “Pokr Khazer,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Joseph Bohigian. Photo: Raffi Paul.

Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.

Pokr Khazer” is Track 22 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: Would you begin by talking a bit about the miniature “Pokr Khazer,” written for Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, and the composition’s title?

JOSEPH BOHIGIAN: So “Pokr Khazer” is actually one of a few pieces that I wrote here in Yerevan, Armenia, using this idea. It’s graphic notation. I originally wrote a solo string-instrument piece using this kind of notation, then made another version for Sputter Box—and actually made a third version for a different duo.

I’m using these neumes called khaz. It’s an ancient Armenian music notation, about a thousand years old. That’s the text that Alina is singing [on the recording], too: different parts of that word. Armenian has its own alphabet, which I’ve been transcribing into IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)—the top line [of the text for the vocal part] is written in Armenian letters; the bottom line is IPA.

The title – “Pokr Khazer” – means little khaz-es. “Khazer” is just the plural of “khaz.” “Pokr” is small, or little. Nobody really knows exactly what all of the symbols mean anymore. That knowledge was lost, so I’m thinking of it as reinterpreting the symbols through graphic notation. The performers choose gesturally how to interpret each of the symbols. Each system is fifteen seconds, so they move through it together.

In the score, there are four lines that represent the general range or register of the instrument. And then, especially in this version, I left a lot about timbre and technique to the players.

“. . . I’m thinking of it as reinterpreting the symbols through graphic notation. The performers choose gesturally how to interpret each of the symbols. Each system is fifteen seconds, so they move through it together.”

Is the score meant to be interpreted linearly, both in terms of its fifteen-second blocks, and the way in which the notated symbols are arranged vertically for the three parts?

JB: Yes—if two players have symbols on top of each other, they should be playing them at the same time. They don’t need to have a timer going to know that it’s exactly fifteen seconds; it’s just a general guideline.

In this version of the piece, did you specify any extended techniques, or did the performers include any in their interpretation?

JB: No. Because I know the performers, I just said coordinate among yourselves some similar techniques, whereas when I was writing it for people I didn’t know as well, I specified a little bit more. There’s a key in the notes to how to read the score.

Pictured above: An excerpt from the opening of the score for “Pokr Khazer,” composed by Joseph Bohigian. The staves include notation for voice, bass clarinet, and djembe, respectively.

I was also interested in hearing about another piece you wrote, entitled +-+-+-+-++++-+-+-+-+-+-+-+–+- (or Plus-Minus), which Sputter Box performed live in 2019.  Was that composition initially scored for voice, clarinet, and percussion?

JB: Plus-Minus is for open instrumentation.

In what instrumentation was it originally performed?

JB: Violin, clarinet, and I think vibraphone.

Do you often focus on a specific style, or specific instrumentations, in your compositions?

JB: Recently, I’ve been narrowing down a few different things: one being indeterminacy, which you’re going to see in this piece and the other piece Sputter Box played (Plus-Minus). [I’ve been] trying to find different forms of controlled indeterminacy, where I’m looking for a certain texture and the best way to achieve that is through indeterminacy, and not trying to be so specific. And, as an extension of that, doing some work with graphic scores.

That has crossed over with the other thing I’ve been doing a lot of recently, which is live electronic music. I play with the technology-focused group Ensemble Decipher, and I’ve written a couple pieces for them. One used a graphic score.

So those have been a couple directions. And then, since I’ve been here, also exploring Armenian music and how I might incorporate that into my own music, because I don’t want to just write something that sounds like a folk song. I want it to sound like me. I’m Armenian and I grew up with Armenian music, and learning more here, [I’ve been] trying to see a way that works for me to incorporate that.

That’s what I’ve actually been working on with my dissertation piece, which I’ve been writing since I came here. I’m setting an Armenian text that I assembled from some different folk songs. I’ve been studying different kinds of Armenian music and seeing which elements I want to use in mine. And that’s how I got into the khaz [notation], because I was doing research and I read a couple books and articles about khazer. I was doing a lot of research on it for this and the solo string piece that I was writing, which is why I wanted to make a couple additional versions. I actually ended up getting a tattoo of one of the khaz symbols—so I spent a lot of time doing that research on it, for the tattoo and for the piece [laughs].

How cool!

JB: When I was doing my volunteering here, I was working at the Komitas Museum. Komitas was an early-twentieth century Armenian composer and he was also an ethnomusicologist, so he did a lot of research into Armenian music. He actually did a lot of research on the khaz notation, as well, so a lot of information about it comes from him. But apparently he said he was close to figuring out exactly how it worked, but then a lot of his research was lost or destroyed during the genocide, so we don’t exactly know a lot of what he knew.

So [Komitas’s work] sort of was the basis of Armenian music theory. I was studying his music and the folk songs that he collected, and I ended up making a text. What I was doing there was mostly translating folk song lyrics from Armenian into English, and I was noticing a lot of patterns of topics that would come up in the different songs, so I took fragments of lyrics from different songs about similar things, and assembled a new text. That’s what I’m setting in the piece.

Is it a pastiche, in a way?

JB: I tried to assemble it in a way that it makes sense as a new, complete text. The title is The Water Has Found its Crack.

What’s the instrumentation?

JB: It’s for three sopranos, percussion, and violin, viola, and cello.

As a composer, what’s it like hearing, for the first time, a performance or recording of a work of your own that incorporates graphic notation or open instrumentation, or explores indeterminacy in some way? For a work that is very open with regard to interpretive possibilities, is the experience hearing it played (or sung) for the first time ever surprising? Is it different every time?

JB: It depends on the piece. I try to write it in a way so that it’s not going to be completely different every time. To me, it should still sound like the same piece. And in the pieces that I’ve written, there are different levels of openness.

This is one of the most open that I’ve written. But, for example, in this version for Sputter Box I wasn’t too specific with the different techniques, but in the original one that I wrote, I had a friend of mine who’s a violinist play through it, and it sounded pretty much like what I was thinking. In that way, I feel like if you work with a performer a little bit, you can get the ideas across in a way that it’ll be consistently the same piece.

Pictured above: Closing system of the score for “Pokr Khazer.”

That’s so interesting! What draws you to this more open approach to composition and performance?

JB: I guess for me it’s partially an experiment in seeing what works and what doesn’t—partially because it’s just something different than what I was doing before. With this piece, specifically, I was really interested in these neumes and seeing how I could incorporate them into a piece, even though I didn’t really know what they meant musically in their original context.

The original khaz notation is symbols above a text. If you search khaz notation online, you can see it has the text, and then the symbols are above the text—even in the original version, they’re not too specific. It’s aiding an oral tradition. That kind of goes along with this not being super specific in the notation in my version, as well.

“Because it’s a graphic score, I was thinking initially very visually in terms of the aesthetic layout of the piece. Even if the listener’s not going to be seeing it, because of the nature of the score, I think it’s important for me to inspire something in the performers by the way it looks.”

It’s wonderful to learn about khaz notation, and the ways you’ve explored it here in this composition. Is there anything that we haven’t discussed today that you’d like to add?

JB: Well—I didn’t really talk about the text that much, but there’s not that much there because it’s all [parts of] one word. But I like that idea of exploring the sounds of that word by breaking it up into its components and parts. I’ve been studying Armenian this whole time, so I’ve been really interested in the sounds of the language itself.

Is there a particular inspiration behind the mood of the piece or the way the text is shaped in the score?

JB: Yes. Because it’s a graphic score, I was thinking initially very visually in terms of the aesthetic layout of the piece. Even if the listener’s not going to be seeing it, because of the nature of the score, I think it’s important for me to inspire something in the performers by the way it looks. So I’m thinking more spatially about events, as if they were physically in front of me. And then, thinking in terms of varying the texture between one person playing, two people playing, all of them playing, nobody playing—to get some variety there. That’s, I think, one of the most prominent aspects of a piece like this.


The above interview took place in June 2020. For more music by Joseph Bohigian, visit josephbohigian.com.

This article is part of a series, featuring interviews with 16 composers whose work is featured on Sputter Box’s debut album. Read the feature article here!

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. #ShelterInSound

Q&A: John Secunde

Composer John Secunde discusses “A Pool,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

John Secunde. Photo: Abbey Secunde.

Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.

A Pool” is Track 18 on the album.

“. . . Over the last year and a half or so, I’ve been finding myself more and more drawn to this sort of miniature, aphoristic style of pieces. And so I think this opportunity fit perfectly within that context. It’s an extension of what I’ve been drawn to.”

NATASHA NELSON: Would you begin by speaking about your inspiration for “A Pool,” written for Sputter Box?

JOHN SECUNDE: The poet who wrote the text, H.D. – Hilda Doolittle (1886–1961) – is one of my favorite poets. I really liked this poem, but it’s very, very short, so I didn’t really have any context in which to set it that would make sense, other than a very short piece. When I saw this new opportunity, I thought this is the perfect use for this poem.

Have you written for Sputter Box’s instrumentation previously?

JS: I have written for voice in other sort of small chamber contexts, but not this particular trio.

And what’s your primary instrument?

JS: I studied saxophone.

Was composing for this instrumentation different from your approach to other compositions? Did any challenges arise?

JS: I think that so often we’re used to hearing voice with piano or a large ensemble—a fuller sonority. It’s an interesting challenge to have voice in a chamber context, when you’re also trying to make sure the other instruments are playing an active role, too – like in typical instrumental chamber music – so that everyone feels like they have an important part.

“I think that so often we’re used to hearing voice with piano or a large ensemble—a fuller sonority. It’s an interesting challenge to have voice in a chamber context . . .”

How was this process of collaborating with an ensemble remotely different from workshopping a piece of music in person?

JS: If you’re in the room with an ensemble, you can test things out, ask questions. But I think being a wind player, I had a general idea of how things play on the clarinet. I’ve played clarinet before and I also have experience doing some percussion, so I have an idea of what it’s like playing the drum.

I’m looking at the score, and I’m really curious about this initial marking – “Bright, but cautious” – and how it might relate to the mood of the piece, or to the text in particular.

JS: Sure. The text is very abstract, yet clear and specific. It’s not really clear what Doolittle is describing in the phrases:

“I touch you. You quiver like a sea-fish”. . .”What are you—?”

The only [more concrete] description of the thing she’s talking about is “banded one” at the end, which doesn’t really tell you a whole lot. Therefore, “Bright” is sort of descriptive of the fuller-thinking motion, but “cautious,” as sort of unsure.

What was it like writing this type of miniature structure of a piece?

JS: Actually, over the last year and a half or so, I’ve been finding myself more and more drawn to this sort of miniature, aphoristic style of pieces. And so I think this opportunity fit perfectly within that context. It’s an extension of what I’ve been drawn to.

“Doolittle was part of this school called Imageism. That’s sort of the whole point of that school of thought: focusing on a very specific, small, single object, and treating that as its own, whole world . . .”

You mentioned H.D. is one of your favorite poets. What draws you to either the poet’s work, or to this poem, in particular—or both?

JS: More broadly, with regard to the poem: it’s very detailed, but it’s also very narrow in focus. Generally, there’s a single object [as the main focus], a lot of the time.

Doolittle was part of this school called Imagism. That’s sort of the whole point of that school of thought: focusing on a very specific, small, single object, and treating that as its own, whole world, which also reflects my interest in the miniature.


Find John Secunde’s website, including recordings of musical works by the composer, at johnsecunde.com.

This article is part of a series, featuring interviews with 16 composers whose work is featured on Sputter Box’s debut album. Read the feature article here!

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. #ShelterInSound

Q&A: Michael Kahle

Composer Michael Kahle discusses “A Mood,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Michael Kahle. Photo: Samantha Kahle.

Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.

A Mood” is Track 16 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: Would you begin by talking a bit about your inspiration and process for writing “A Mood”?

MICHAEL KAHLE: As soon as I saw the Sputter Box call, I went searching for a text. I was drawn to the text that I chose, “A Mood” (by George MacDonald), for the imagery that it talks about, like “My thoughts are like fire-flies, pulsing in moonlight.” Throughout the whole text, there’s a lot of imagery that I felt I could bring to the forefront in a piece with such interesting instrumentation that Sputter Box has: the bass clarinet, the voice, the djembe. That led me to do different things with intervals, like the rhythmic ostinato in the bass clarinet, thinking “Thoughts are like fire-flies, pulsing.” So there’s this pulsing motion—that kind of idea.

Did writing for a digital medium, specifically, influence your approach to the composition in any way?

MK: I don’t think so. Mostly it was just excitement that I knew it was going to be recorded and it was going to be a great opportunity. I don’t think it directly affected the writing process in any way.

What’s your primary instrument or instruments?

MK: Voice, primarily.

Do you have any favorite composers, for vocal writing or other genres, either present-day or past?

MK: For the voice, I really like Schubert. I know that’s a pretty easy answer but . . . [another] favorite composer probably would be Mahler, overall. And he did some great writing with voice, too.

Oh, excellent choices. I’m a huge Mahler fan. Is there anything about those two composers’ approaches that draw you to their writing styles?

MK: I’d say the expressivity that both of them share, especially Mahler—I mean the stuff like Das Lied von Erde. I think the thing with Schubert is you look at “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” and “Erlkönig,” and at the time that he was writing those, to be able to have almost programmatic [music] – the spinning wheel in it, or the horse moving – is just very, very cool to me.

Yes! That’s the second time I’ve gotten to talk about Mahler today. So, it’s a good day.

MK: Yeah, that’s a good day.

Will listeners hear extended techniques in “A Mood”?

MK: Yes. The two biggest ones are the slap-tonguing in the bass clarinet and then some Sprechstimme in the soprano.

Was any particular imagery in mind when indicating Sprechstimme in your interpretation and setting of MacDonald’s poem?

MK: Yes. I used Sprechstimme specifically – mostly on the word “pulsing” – to allow the singer to create that pulsing, pulsing [imagery], like there was this growth in excitement, or pulsing-forward kind of idea.

What led you to choose this poem in particular?

MK: It was very short. There was a clear focus on each line: there’s “My thoughts . . . / My heart . . . / My soul . . .” and then it speaks a little bit about each. There was a clear expressiveness to the poem and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to bring that expression to life. And Sputter Box did a great job with it.


Find Michael Kahle’s website at michaelkahlemusic.com.

This article is part of a series, featuring interviews with 16 composers whose work is featured on Sputter Box’s debut album. Read the feature article here!

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. #ShelterInSound