The Art of Tonality and Sonic Images: Composer Marti Epstein

You’ve taught Composition at Berklee for eighteen years. How did you come to teach at Berklee?

I’ve taught at Berklee nineteen years. There was an opening for a part-time position in the composition department, I applied for it, and got it.

Marti Epstein
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE COMPOSER

What was teaching your first class at such a famous school like?

You have to remember that in Boston, Berklee is not really any more “famous” than any other school. If I had gotten a teaching job at New England Conservatory, or Harvard, that would have been equally intimidating. I was much more nervous about teaching in general. I had taught ear-training at Boston University as part of my doctoral fellowship, and was teaching theory and piano to kids at the Rivers Music School. Teaching college theory classes was a whole other thing. I was pretty nervous, and continue to be at the start of each semester! Even for courses I’ve taught nearly forty times!

John Cage was interested in moving beyond tonality; he was a student of Schoenberg whose work moved beyond a “centralized melodic idea” or tonal center.

John Cage was about so much more than just harmonic language. In fact, many of his earlier pieces sound quite “consonant,” almost tonal. He was about changing what music can be. I always tell my students that Schoenberg emancipated the dissonance, Stravinsky emancipated rhythm, and Cage emancipated sound.

Cage was a student of Schoenberg, and it’s important to understand what that meant in the 1930s. Schoenberg taught his American students the rigors of TONAL harmony and counterpoint before ever letting them move on to more complex harmonic languages. Cage chose to study with Schoenberg because he felt that, if he were going to study music, he needed to go to the “Head of the Company” (Cage’s words.)

You’ve been quoted as saying that you “do not believe that tonality even exists.” Could you please expand on that statement?

Well, I never said that, and in fact believe exactly the opposite. What I have said is that Tonality is a very specific thing, it is music that must have the following:

  • a pitch center around to which all the harmonies in the pieces relate;
  • a V7 (dominant 7th) chord which defines said tonal center (and then, by definition, a half step relationship between the 7th scale degree and the tonic);
  • tertian harmony (chords built in thirds);
  • and it must have clear, prescribed relationships amongst the harmonies (what I mean by this is that all the harmonies in the piece have a logical relationship to each other- either moving away from or back to the home tonality).

What this means is that there is about one hundred years of music, between 1700-1800 that fits somewhat clearly into this category. Everything else both before and after this period of Common Practice Tonality is on the tonal continuum to greater and lesser degrees. Music written in the 14th century is decidedly modal; much 20th century music is centric, but not at all tonal, etc.

What I actually said is that I don’t believe that atonality really exists. All non-tonal masterpieces have some sense of harmonic hierarchy, even if the language isn’t tonal in the strict sense of the word, as I have defined it. I hear centricities in the music of Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez, two brilliant 20th century composers of decidedly dissonant non-tonal music. By that token, I would never call their music atonal. I would say that they each construct their pitch and harmonic language in their own unique non-tonal ways, but they are not atonal.

I’m trying to clear up the misconception that there are two kinds of music — tonal and atonal. In fact there’s tonal music, and then there are thousands of other kinds of music, some of which doesn’t even use the conventional Western system of dividing the octave into twelve equal parts!

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