The Art of Tonality and Sonic Images: Composer Marti Epstein

Marti Epstein

MARTI EPSTEIN is a composer whose music has been performed by the San Francisco Symphony, The Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, Ensemble Modern, and members of the Boston Symphony. She has completed commissions for the Foxborough Musical Association, the Fromm Foundation, The Munich Biennale, the Iowa Brass Quintet, the CORE Ensemble, Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, Longy School of Music, the Ludovico Ensemble, and Guerilla Opera. In 2005, she was a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant. Epstein has been a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center (1986, 1988), and has been in residence at the MacDowell Colony (1998, 1999). She is also on the Steering Committee for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project Scoreboard and is the Composer-in-Residence for the Radius Ensemble for their 2010-2011 season. Epstein is Professor of Composition at Berklee College of Music and also teaches composition at Boston Conservatory. Read more at

American Etude #4

COMPOSED BY Marti Epstein (2004)
PERFORMED BY Marti Epstein

Was music important to your parents? What are their musical backgrounds?

Yes, my father is a professional musician, and has been one since he was fifteen. My mother played the flute when she was a girl. My father sang and performed with his older brother when he was quite small, then began studying saxophone and clarinet at a very young age. My mother has little formal training, but loves music.

What is your first musical memory?

Playing the piano at my grandma’s house. I must have been only two or three. I remember making up a piece about bells.

You’ve studied and played both piano and clarinet. Do you still practice and/or perform as a musician on one or more instruments?

Actually, I also studied and played harp, viola, and classical guitar. I still actively practice and perform on the piano.

Is it important for a composer to keep playing?

Absolutely. Composers must know from experience what it is like to rehearse and perform a piece of music before they can dare to make demands on other performers.

Which composers have influenced you the most and why?

I remember listening to Toscanini’s recordings of the Beethoven symphonies with the NBC Orchestra. My parents had this record, and I listened to Symphony No. 5, 6, 7, and 9, endlessly as a young child. This was my first inkling of the power and complexity and incredible emotional content of classical music. This was also my first awareness of my desire to possibly be a musician of some type.

Later, after I had decided to become a composer (or rather, after it became clear to me that that’s what I AM) when I was seventeen, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring called to me. I had never heard anything like it, and still consider it one of the most remarkable creations by a human being. When I went to college, my ear-training teacher was David Lang (he is now a famous composer, won the Pulitzer Prize among many other awards). He really educated me about living composers and all different styles and aesthetics. I was quite ignorant of modern music until that point. He made me aware of composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman whom I now consider to be my musical fathers in a way. Their unique sound worlds and ways of thinking about music and the possibilities of music completely changed my life.

When I was getting my doctorate and had become a Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, I fell completely in love with the music of Jean Sibelius. His original way of expressing musical time is hugely influential to me. Other composers I love, both because of their sound worlds and unique ways of approaching composition are: Toru Takemitsu, Jo Kondo, Earl Kim, Gustav Mahler, Witold Lutoslawski, Gyorgy Ligeti, Kaija Saariaho, and Bjork, just to name a very few. And I still come back to Bach, Scarlatti, Debussy, Ravel — if I’ve left a composer out, that does NOT necessarily mean he/she hasn’t influenced me! There are just too many to mention.

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