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