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Sepik Suite

Link to live recording by Laurent Estoppey

(Sepik Suite starts at 1:02:30)

© 2021, MaLoMaLo Press

for Soprano Saxophone

I. River Journey: Ambunti to Kanduanum

II. Ayiimta: Our Daily Sago

III. Murder Mountain

IV. Song of Atipiik

Duration: 16:45 min.

Program Notes:

When asked to write a saxophone solo for Laurent Estoppey, I quickly decided to connect the piece to the diverse Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. Because of Neil Coulter, who played saxophone, wrote a dissertation on the music of the (Sepik) Alamblak people, and advised me as I wrote a thesis on the music of the (Sepik) Pouye people, I had always mentally connected the saxophone with the Sepik.


The first and third movements of this suite feature two prominent geological phenomena in the Sepik region: the Sepik River and the mountains of the Sepik, represented by Murder Mountain. In “River Journey,” I determined the first pitch of each beat by overlaying a grid onto a map of the Sepik River. The performer improvises subsequent pitches and fluctuating tempo, allowing the performance to change as a river would change from day to day depending on the rainfall. The grid also determined placement

of grace notes, representing tributaries, and multiphonics, representing oxbows. A repeat of most of the material in a different character suggests that different people may use the river for different purposes. To develop a structure for “Murder Mountain,” I used a topographical map of the mountain with another grid overlay. The register and techniques used change based on the altitude. Although I am unaware of the origins of this mountain’s name, it nevertheless inspired a sinister atmosphere for the movement.


The second and fourth movements incorporate aspects of music important to the lives of the Pouye people, thanks to their generous permission. Both movements use a rhythmic phasing technique found in their talmou genre. The second movement presents variations of the tune of the Melanesian Pidgin song “Jisas em i Bret Bilong Laip” (Jesus is the Bread of Life), which the Pouye appropriated and translated into their language. Their translation of bread, “ayiimta,” literally means “very/true food”

and refers to sago, their staple starch. “Song of Atipiik” refers to the origin of talmou music, a song and dance genre which one of the Pouye ancestors received from a spirit named Atipiik. Each talmou song uses the same tune, but adjusts it to fit different couplets (similar to but more complex than western Psalm chanting). The first section presents each line of the couplet a few times, the second section presents the tune on vocables such as “O” and “E,” and the third section repeats the first. In this instrumental version, each repeated phrase corresponds to a rendering of the talmou tune based on specific texts. The beginning phrases come from traditional talmou songs, many of which have to do with asking spirits for help with pig hunting:

Yawo, yawo, yawo, yawo, yawo, yawo

We, wo, matki pepe-wo;

matki pepe-we-wo

Pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig

We, wo, [make the pig stand] with the vine,

with the vine-we-wo

The phrases later on come from talmou songs which Pouye composers wrote in recent years to mesh their traditional music with the Christian worldview they have adopted:

Jona Godwii kiil karakake,

karakake, karakake

Reyetwartlaiye, reyetwartlaiye,

Godwii kiil reyetwartlaiye

Jonah [against] God’s word rebelled

rebelled, rebelled

Proclaimed, proclaimed,

God’s word proclaimed

Variations between performers and as a group from one repetition to the next result in talmou songs which are flexible but identifiable. I have reflected this aspect of talmou through written variations and sections to be improvised based on previously presented material. I took all photos during my time in Papua New Guinea. Beyond pigs, pictures in the last movement feature talmou performance attire.

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