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.

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

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!

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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