Marti Epstein: more interested in the use of sounds as organizing musical materials than in melody or harmonic relationships

Marti Epstein (November 25, 1959) started studying composition in 1977 with Professor Robert Beadell at the University of Nebraska.  She has degrees from the University of Colorado and Boston University, and her principal teachers were Cecil Effinger, Charles Eakin, Joyce Mekeel, Bunita Marcus, and Bernard Rands. 

Marti was a fellow in composition at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1986 and 1988 and worked with Oliver Knussen and Hans Werner Henze.  As a result of her association with Henze, she was invited by the City of Munich to compose her puppet opera, Hero und Leander, for the 1992 Munich Biennale for New Music Theater.  She was on the jury for the 1994 Biennale.

Marti has received commissions from the Paul Jacobs Memorial Commissioning Fund, the CORE Ensemble, ALEA III, Sequitur New Music Ensemble, the Fromm Foundation, guitarist David Tanenbaum, the American Dance Festival, the A*DEvant-garde Festival of Munich, tubist Samuel Pilafian, flutist Marianne Gedigian, the New England Brass Quintet, the Iowa Brass Quintet, Boston Conservatory, Boston University Marsh Chapel Choir, pianist Kathleen Supové, the CrossSound New Music Festival of Juneau Alaska, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, the Radius Ensemble, the Ludovico Ensemble, and the Callithumpian consort. The Longy School of Music commissioned her to compose Quartet for BSO English horn soloist Robert Sheena to be played at the Inauguration of Karen Zorn, their new president. Marti’s music has been performed all over the world by ensembles, which include the San Francisco Symphony, the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt, the Atlantic Brass Quintet, and Ensemble Modern.

The Atlantic Brass Quintet, Sequitur New Music, The Seattle Trumpet Consort, pianist Kathleen Supové, guitarist Ulf Golnast, Robert Sheena with the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, and the University of Iowa Brass Quintet have recorded Marti’s music.  In 2015, the Ludovico Ensemble recorded and released Hypnagogia, a CD of Marti’s music. She was a resident at the MacDowell Colony in 1998 and in 1999.  She was a recipient of a 1998 Fromm Foundation Commission, and she won the 1998 Lee Ettleson Composition Prize.  She is a recipient of a 2005 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Marti is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow and will be composing works for Hinge Ensemble, loadbang, and soundicon for her Fellowship project.

Marti is an active pianist and a devoted teacher.  She plays prepared piano with guitarist David Tronzo in the Epstein/Tronzo Duo.  She is Professor of Composition at Berklee College of Music, where she has taught harmony, counterpoint, and composition since 1991, and is also on the faculty of Boston Conservatory. Marti is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in Music Composition.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I distinctly remember sitting at my grandma’s piano at age 3 making up a “song about bells”. I didn’t compose anything again until several years after that, but I think memory speaks to a musically creative spirit.
Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

I loved Beethoven, Debussy, and Mussorgsky best when I was a kid, but once I went to college to study music, Feldman, Cage and Takemitsu became – and still are – critically important to me. Now, however I also become influenced by composers in my own peer group – Linda Catlin Smith, Bryn Harrison, Cat Lamb, Chaya Czernowin, etc.
How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

I approach it very much from the perspective of proportion and scale, similarly to the way a visual artist or architect might approach form.
Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use? 

I try to engage with composing everyday – either actually sitting at my desk, or thinking or both. I never use a computer for anything composition related.

I believe that the direct connection from the inner ear to the hand to the pencil to the page is absolutely critical for the development of creativity. There is an element of “desirable difficulty” (from Wikipedia: A desirable difficulty is a learning task that requires a considerable but desirable amount of effort, thereby improving long-term performance.) that makes the act of composing a more deliberate one, and therefore a deeper and more imaginative one. The speed that can be achieved with inputting music into a computer very clearly and demonstrably (as I have noticed with my students) negatively impacts the fluidity and flexibility of compositional ideas. Again, this has been my experience. I know others have different experiences, but this has been very true for me and for my students.
Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip.

Most of my pieces are very long, but here is a shorter one. It’s called Oil & Sugar (for violin, flute, clarinet, and piano) and was inspired by a video installation by Keder Attia, also called Oil and Sugar.

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