The Art of Tonality and Sonic Images: Composer Marti Epstein

In its most basic sense, music is sound. How far can the definition of music be pushed? Is it best to say that music is sound communicating experience? Or is it a series of “sonic images” defined ultimately by the listener?

According to Edgard Varese, music is organized sound. What Cage was trying to do with his use of silence, was to include what he called “unintentional sound” as available structures in a piece of music. Try walking down the street and pretending that all the sounds you are hearing are part of a piece of music. You will listen to those sounds very differently. By the way, this is not a qualitative judgment, this is just a basic definition of what music is and can be.

Is there one instrument or combination of instruments for which you prefer writing music?

It’s like magic in a way. I have to feed my creativity by doing all those things to let it happen. I can’t force it. But it takes great discipline to focus and point the mind towards the act of creation.

I love writing chamber music because it is intimate and flexible. I also love writing orchestral music, but it’s difficult to get orchestral music performed. I have not written a piece that wasn’t a commission for someone in a long time, so in a way, I find my inspiration from the people who ask me to write for them. Having said that, I am so lucky in that I have some friends who are some of the most fantastic musicians in the world. I have written three pieces now for the English horn player in the Boston Symphony, a musician whose playing I have loved since I first heard him play Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela in 1998. His playing and musicianship inspire me. (You can download the concerto I wrote for him, called Bloom, from iTunes).

I do have certain other favorites; I love the harp and have written a great deal of harp music. I studied harp with Melody Malec at Burke High when I was in high school and as a result have an idiomatic feel for the instrument. The cello is pretty amazing, and I am very excited to have been asked for a solo cello piece from Rhonda Rider, a fantastic Boston-based cellist who has Grand Canyon residency next year.

I also write a lot of piano music. The piano is my first love, and I write for both myself to play, and for my friends and their students.

One of my favorite compositions of your work is “The Five Chairs,” performed and recorded by the Atlantic Brass Quintet. The liner notes describe how the name of this piece comes from a pub of the same name in Lenox, Massachusetts. For this listener, a large, primal, open landscape was evoked — the rests and the pacing are particularly meaningful and effective, implying something both deep and questioning — reminiscent, perhaps, of the longing described in your artist’s statement. Could you comment on the creative process involved in this piece and your creative process in general?

5 Chairs

5 Chairs
COMPOSED BY Anthony Holborne,
Oskar Bohme, Marti Epstein, Claudio Monteverdi, Alvin Etler AND Ray Luke
(Summit, 2004)

I never compose at the piano, and I never compose at the computer. I do a lot of percolating, thinking, listening to other music, walking, and swimming. Generally, I then start to get sonic images and the shape of the piece starts to appear. It’s like magic in a way. I have to feed my creativity by doing all those things to let it happen. I can’t force it. But it takes great discipline to focus and point the mind towards the act of creation. Once the piece begins to take shape, and then I must find the pitch and rhythm combinations that will make the sound happen. I cannot do it sitting at the piano; I have to try to imagine it away from an external sound source. I do sometimes go to the piano to check things, but that only works really well when I’m writing for piano. I often find that when I get a block, it’s because I am writing too much. Often for me the artistic process is about getting rid of things, paring things down.

Pianist Kathleen Supové recorded “She Fell Into A Well of Sorrows,” which was your first work combining a live performer and electronics. Could you say something about that first experience with electronic music? Do you prefer writing music for traditional instruments?

It was really my only effort in electronics. I prefer acoustic instruments. I do like to manipulate acoustic instruments sometimes; I do a lot with prepared piano (putting objects in and on the strings of the piano to change the sound of the strings). I just really like working with live performers who breathe and touch to create sound. It’s very human and organic.

What are your upcoming projects and future plans?

I am working on the solo cello piece for Rhonda Rider, then I will write a piano 4-hands piece for two young students at the Rivers Music School for their annual Seminar on Contemporary Music for the Young. After that, I will start work on a piece for the Callithumpian Consort, a fantastic avant-garde new music ensemble in Boston. Lastly, the Ludovico Ensemble will be doing a 2-CD recording of my music in the fall. I also have many performances coming up this year, including a concert of my music at the Omaha Jewish Community Center on Monday May 23, 2011.

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