Marti Epstein: Nebraska Impromptu

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About

Boston based composer Marti Epstein releases this collection of her chamber music including clarinet, featuring Rane Moore and the Winsor Music ensemble. Epstein's music is shaped in equal measure by modern icons Webern, Feldman, and Takemitsu, as it is by the expansive landscape of the American plains and her upbringing in Nebraska.

Audio

Marti Epstein’s music makes space for contemplation — of gestures, components of the musical fabric, harmonies, and timbres. Influenced but not at all restricted by alternate approaches to structure in the music of Morton Feldman, Toru Takemitsu, and Anton Webern, Epstein patiently examines musical ideas, deconstructing them as a way to consider them from all angles. This collection of music highlights instrumentations that include clarinet, and also shines light on Epstein’s penchant for expansive textures that are shaped by her childhood in the Great Plains. Nebraska Impromptu features Boston based Winsor Music and their clarinetist Rane Moore.

The recording opens with Oil & Sugar, an impressionistic quartet for clarinet, flute, violin, and piano that is inspired by a video by French conceptual artist Kader Attia. In the video, motor oil is poured over large blocks of sugar cubes, a process that is counter-intuitively depicted with graceful sensuality, mirrored in Epstein’s flowing score, despite the resultant chemical destruction that the oil wreaks on the sugar. Watery piano chords support interwoven melodic figures that form momentary harmonic areas.

In its opening section, Liquid, Fragile for clarinet and string trio presents lyrical, Americana fragments separated by extended rests. By interrupting these poignant gestures, Epstein establishes an expressive expectation and consistently breaks it, as if to pause and consider the emotional association of the Coplandesque music from a momentary distance. Preserving the construct of presenting islands of material separated by rests, Epstein turns to abstract gestures midway through the piece, focusing on ascending glissandi, swelled chords, and later pizzicati.

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The clarinet is most clearly in the fore in Nebraska Impromptu, a duo between Moore and pianist Donald Berman. The piano plays pastel voicings in the high register supported by low bass notes, while the clarinet occupies the middle register on its own. Epstein develops a symbiotic relationship between the two instruments — the clarinet crescendos through sustained values as the piano sound decays. A quasi-minimalist oscillating figure in rhythmic unison closes the work with nostalgic simplicity.

Komorebi, composed in 2017 for Winsor Music, turns small motifs around and around, shifting phrase syntax and internal instrumentation to bring out shades of quasi-semantic expression. As with much of the music on this recording, Epstein’s harmonic rhythm is fairly slow, giving time to inhabit the harmonies and hear how subtle adjustments to the counterpoint illuminate them.

The longest and earliest work on the recording is See Even Night (2001) for clarinet, viola, and piano. Feldman’s influence is apparent here, with an intensified microscopic lens on elements of the texture and their gradual evolution. Larger contrasts happen on a sectional level, with new sections signaled by shifts in dynamic and timbre. The result is a large-scale narrative that results from the relationships between large shapes, animated by the percolating aliveness contained within their minute variations.

Marti Epstein’s approach to motivic and structural development fits perfectly with her affinity for a spacious expressive world that captures the landscape of the American Plains. In Epstein’s music we are reminded of the vibrant, dynamic life that lives inside stillness, and the rewards that come with a quieter contemplation of its mystery.

– Dan Lippel

Producers: Jeffrey Means and Marti Epstein

Engineer: Jeffrey Means

Assistant Engineer: Francisco Gonzalez Navarro

Komorebi, See Even Night, and Liquid, Fragile were recorded at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts

Oil & Sugar and Nebraska Impromptu were recorded in Pickman Hall at Longy School of Music at Bard College

Cover Photo: David Ireland, Unsplash.com

Marti Epstein Photo: Andrew Sherman

Design & layout: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com

Marti Epstein

Marti Epstein is a composer whose music has been performed by the San Francisco Symphony, The Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt, Ensemble Modern, and members of the Boston Symphony. She has completed commissions for the Fromm Foundation, The Munich Biennale, the Ludovico Ensemble, Guerilla Opera, the Radius Ensemble, Tanglewood Music Center, Winsor Music, Boston Opera Collaborative, and the Callithumpian Consort. During the 2017- 2018 concert season, Marti’s work was featured extensively alongside the work of Anton Webern on the Trinity Wall Street’s Time’s Ar- row Festival in New York City. Her music was also performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players in Leipzig, Germany in June 2018. Her opera, Rumpelstiltskin, was presented with shadow puppetry in May 2019 in New York City. In November 2019, the Boston-based Ludovico Ensemble presented three portrait concerts of Marti’s music in celebration of her 60th birthday. In 2021 her music was featured as part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s streaming concert content.

Marti was a two-time fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center (1986 and 1988) and a two-time fellow at the MacDowell Colony (1997 and 1998).

In 2020, Marti was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to compose Seven Sisters, Radiant Sisters for the Hinge Ensemble, Alpenglow for loadbang, and In Praise of Broken Clocks for soundicon. Marti is Professor of Composition at Berklee College of Music/Boston Conservatory of Music.

https://martiepstein.com/

Rane Moore

Clarinetist Rane Moore is well-regarded for her thoughtful, provocative interpretations of standard and cutting-edge contemporary repertoire. Fiercely devoted to the new music communities of the East Coast and beyond, Moore is a founding member of the New York based Talea Ensemble which regularly gives premieres of new works at major venues and festivals around the world. Ms. Moore has joined the award winning wind quintet, The City of Tomorrow, for the upcoming season, and is also a member Boston’s Callithumpian Consort and Sound Icon.

Sarah Brady

Flutist Sarah Brady, called “enchanting” (Boston Globe) and “clairvoyantly sensitive” (New Music Connoisseur), is principal flute with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and frequently performs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Boston Pops, Boston Ballet, Boston Lyric Opera and Odyssey Opera. She is a member of the Radius Ensemble and has performed as a guest artist with Boston Musica Viva, Talea Ensemble, Sound Icon and the Firebird Ensemble. After earning an undergraduate degree as a full scholarship student at the University of Con- necticut, Sarah received her graduate degrees from the Longy School of Music under the tutelage of Robert Willoughby. In 2007 Sarah enjoyed a sold out debut at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall with pianist Oxana Yablonskaya. A contemporary music advocate, Sarah has premiered and recorded new music from many of today’s leading composers, including new music commissioned by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project. Prize-winner in the Pappoutsakis Flute Competition and the National Flute Association’s Young Artist Competition, Sarah is currently the Commissions Coordinator for the National Flute Association. Her solo, chamber and over 70 orchestral recordings including a 2019 Grammy award winning opera recording, can be heard on the Albany, New Focus, Naxos, Oxingale, Cantaloupe and BMOP/Sound labels.

Gabriela Diaz

Georgia native Gabriela Diaz began her musical training at the age of five, studying piano with her mother, and the next year, violin with her father. As a childhood cancer survivor, Gabriela is committed to sup- porting cancer research and treatment in her capacity as a musician. In 2004, Gabriela was a recipient of a grant from the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, an award that enabled Gabriela to create and direct the Boston Hope Ensemble. This program is now part of Winsor Music. A firm believer in the healing properties of music, Gabriela and her colleagues have performed in cancer units in Boston hospitals and presented benefit concerts for cancer research organizations in numerous venues throughout the United States.

A fierce champion of contemporary music, Gabriela has been fortunate to work closely with many significant composers on their own compositions, namely Pierre Boulez, Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Lucier, Unsuk Chin, Joan Tower, Roger Reynolds, Chaya Czernowin, Steve Reich, Tania León, Brian Ferneyhough, and Helmut Lachenmann. In 2012 Gabriela joined the violin faculty of Wellesley College. Gabriela is co-artistic director of the much beloved Boston-based chamber music and outreach organization Winsor Music. Please visit winsormusic.org for more information!

Gabriela’s recording of Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan was highlighted in the New York Times Article “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Classical Music.” Critics have acclaimed Ga- briela as “a young violin master,” and “one of Boston’s most valuable players.” Lloyd Schwartz of the Boston Phoenix noted, “...Gabriela Diaz in a bewitching performance of Pierre Boulez’s 1991 Anthèmes. The come-hither meow of Diaz’s upward slides and her sustained pianis- simo fade-out were miracles of color, texture, and feeling.” Others have remarked on her “indefatigably expressive” playing, “polished technique,” and “vivid and elegant playing.” Gabriela can be heard on New World, Centaur, BMOPSound, Mode, Naxos, and Tzadik records. Gabriela plays on a Vuillaume violin generously on loan from Mark Ptashne and a viola made by her father, Manuel Diaz. Gabriela is proud to be a core member of the team that created Boston Hope Music, bringing music to patients and frontline medical workers during the pandemic. More info can be found at bostonhopemusic.org

https://www.eurekaensemble.org/boston-hope-music

Donald Berman

Pianist Donald Berman has been on the frontlines of new music scholarship, performance and recording for over 30 years. His CDs include The Unknown Ives Volumes 1 and 2, and The Uncovered Ruggles (New World), the 4-CD set Americans in Rome: Music by Fellows of the American Academy in Rome, The Piano Music of Martin Boykan, and Scott Wheeler: Tributes and Portraits (Bridge). Berman has also recorded The Light That Is Felt: Songs of Charles Ives with Susan Narucki, soprano, and concertos by Christopher Theofanidis (Summitt) and George Perle (BMOP Sound). He was a prizewinner of the Schubert International Competition in Dortmund, Germany. A Harvard Radcliffe Institute Fellow, Berman is currently President of The Charles Ives Society. He serves as Chair of Keyboard Studies at The Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mark Berger

Violist and composer Mark Berger has toured throughout the United States and internationally as a member of the Lydian String Quartet. In addition to his work with the quartet, Berger frequently performs with many of Boston’s finest orchestras and chamber ensembles including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, Emmanuel Music, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Worcester Chamber Music Society, and Music at Eden’s Edge. He has recently appeared as a guest artist with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Boston Musica Viva, Chameleon Arts ensemble, and Radius Ensemble. Strongly devoted to the performance of new music, Berger has performed with many of Boston’s new music ensembles including Sound Icon, Dinosaur Annex, Ludovico Ensemble, and ALEA III. He has recorded solo and chamber works for Albany, Bridge and Innova records. An acclaimed composer, Berger’s works have been presented by many of the leading contemporary ensembles in the Boston area. His compositions have received awards and recognition from the League of Composers/ ISCM, ASCAP, and the Rapido! Composition Competition. Berger is Associate Professor of the Practice at Brandeis University.

Rafael Popper-Keizer

Rafi Popper-Keizer picked up a bow when he was two years old and hasn’t put it down since. From an early age, however, his clearest affinities were mathematical, and it was on this basis that he was accepted as a full-time student at the University of California of Santa Cruz at age 12, by which point he had already completed two years of undergraduate coursework at that institution. Just for a little variety, he enrolled in a music theory and literature class. The following semester, he changed his major and never looked back.

In 1995, Rafi moved to the East Coast to pursue a Masters of Music and Artist Diploma at the New England Conservatory. From that time he has been a prominent member of the Boston arts scene, twice dubbed “a local hero” by the Boston Globe. He is the principal cellist with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Emmanuel Music, Chameleon Arts Ensemble, Monadnock Music, Cantata Singers, and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and enjoys regular or guest affiliations with numerous other organizations including Winsor Music, Sound/Icon, and the Ludovico Ensemble.

Rafi is featured on over two dozen recordings, which include the premieres of Robert Erickson’s Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, Thomas Oboe Lee’s cello concerto Eurydice, Malcolm Peyton’s unac-companied Cello Piece, and Yehudi Wyner’s De Novo for cello and small chamber ensemble. His most recent recording is a disc of major unaccompanied works by Kodaly and Boston-based composer Ralf Gawlick, Musica Omnia. Rafi lives in Cambridge with his wife and two children. His hobbies include semicolons.

Peggy Pearson

Oboist Peggy Pearson is a winner of the Pope Foundation Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Music. Lloyd Schwartz, who received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, called her “my favorite living oboist.” Peggy has performed solo, chamber and orchestral music through- out the United States and abroad. She is principal oboist with the Boston Philharmonic and solo oboist with the Boston-based Emmanuel Chamber Orchestra, an organization that has performed all of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. She is also a member of the Bach Aria Group. According to Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe, “Peggy Pearson has probably played more Bach than any other oboist of her generation; this is music she plays in a state of eloquent grace.” Ms. Pearson was the founding director of, and is oboist with, Winsor Music, Inc., and a founding member of the ensemble La Fenice.

She has toured internationally and recorded extensively with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and has appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s as principal oboist, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Music from Marlboro. In addition to her freelance and chamber music activities, Peggy Pearson has been an active exponent of contemporary music. She was a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute in con- temporary music, and has premiered numerous works, many of which were written specifically for her.

Peggy Pearson has been on the faculties at the Bach Institute (a collaboration between Winsor Music, Emmanuel Music and Oberlin College), Songfest, the Tanglewood Music Center, Boston Conservatory, MIT, U. of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Wellesley College, the Composers Conference at Wellesley College, and the Longy School of Music of Bard College.

John McDonald

Recently described as “the New England master of the short piece,” John McDonald is a composer who tries to play the piano and a pianist who tries to compose. He is Professor of Music at Tufts University, where he teaches composition, theory, and performance. His output concentrates on vocal, chamber, and solo instrumental works, and includes interdisciplinary experiments. Before coming to Tufts in 1990, he taught at Boston University, Longy School of Music, M.I.T., and the Rivers Conservatory. He was the Music Teachers National Association Composer of the Year in 2007, and served as the Valentine Visiting Professor of Music at Amherst College in 2016-2017. His newest recording is At All Device (Bridge Records 9528; a collection of piano works played by soloist David Holzman; 2020).


Reviews

5

The WholeNote

Music that follows in the tradition of Morton Feldman is perhaps best suited to live performance, an experience to share among an audience; but alone by the stereo, in a room with the windows open for spring air is good too. The release this month of the music of Marti Epstein features fine performances by all participants, notably clarinetist Rane Moore, whose rich and brilliant sound is heard on each track.

The works display the influence of Feldman and also Toru Takemitsu. They should be enjoyed in a spirit of contemplation and peace. These are calm explorations, invitations to dream, and journeys without goals. Three of the five pieces reference or respond to visual inspiration. Oil and Sugar, for clarinet, flute, violin and piano (2018), references a conceptual video of motor oil being poured over a mass of sugar cubes. Komorebi for clarinet, oboe and violin (2018), is the Japanese word for sunlight filtered through leaves. Nebraska Impromptu, for clarinet and piano (2013), was inspired by the landscape of Epstein’s childhood. A visual artist herself, she stretches her musical colours across great expanses of “canvas.”

The debt to Takemitsu is especially apparent in Komorebi, but Epstein is an original artist within this aesthetic realm, and for those who enjoy contemplative naturalist art, the performances are delightfully in tune and in synch. She allows remarkably long silences to divide and set off the swatches of sound, like negative space in a painting, allowing the listener to savour the previous moment before hearing the next.

— Max Christie, 7.16.2022

5

Take Effect

The Boston composer Marti Epstein offers us a collection of chamber works, where a handful of esteemed musicians highlight a songwriting approach that’s as expansive as her one time home state of Nebraska.

“Oil & Sugar” starts the listen with Rane Moore’s clarinet, Sarah Brady’s flute, and Gabriela Diaz’s violin interacting with warmth and mystery in the harmonic setting, and “Liquid, Fragile” continues with Mark Berger’s viola and Rafael Popper-Keizer’s cello adding much to the expressive and abstract dynamics that are often faint with a delicate beauty.

The title track occupies the middle spot, and pairs Moore’s clarinet with Donald Berman’s keys in the uniquely minimal climate where each instrument recruits its own distinct register, while “Komorebi” meshes clarinet, oboe and violin into a rare intimacy amid the slow rhythm and stirring harmonies.

The album exits on “See Even Night”, where clarinet, viola and piano interact for nearly 30 minutes as the textures flow evenly with much attention to timbre, space and structure.

Epstein has an impressive resume, and this portrait of the American Plains is yet another a high point in a catalog of work that’s been globally appreciated, as it should be.

— Tom Haugen, 8.06.2022

5

Avant Music News

Composer Marti Epstein’s Nebraska Impromptu is a collection of works highlighting her writing for small ensembles featuring clarinet, played here by Rane Moore. The pieces on the album span 2001-2017; although each has its own individual sound, all share a consistent aesthetic based on the unhurried deployment of mostly quiet, discretely bounded events made up of tightly aggregated instrumental colors.

Oil and Sugar (2016), for piano, clarinet, flute, and violin is exemplary. The piece’s basic elements consist of a series of brief motifs within a restricted range of harmonic movement; Epstein intertwines them among the four voices in a way that dramatizes to good effect the timbral differences of the similarly compassed winds and strings. By relying solely on clarinet, oboe, and violin, Komorebi (2017) displays this effect even further. The title track, 2012’s Nebraska Impromptu for piano and clarinet, plays with contrasts of range rather than color, as the clarinet takes the role of middle voice in between the piano’s upper and lower registers. Liquid, Fragile (2010) for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello is a broken-textured piece that uses long silences as structural supports dividing gently drifting sonic events. The earliest and longest work represented, the twenty-seven-and-a-half minute-long See Even Night from 2001, is a subtly subtractive piece for clarinet, viola, and piano that begins with a relatively dense polyphony of short, repeating, overlapping motifs and then gradually develops through a simplification of lines and opening up of overall textures.

— Daniel Barbiero, 5.15.2022

5

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

There is something new under the sun with Marti Epstein and her Nebraska Impromptu (New Focus Recordings FCR 324). It is an album of music for clarinet and various chamber configurations, handled gracefully and winningly by clarinetist Rane Moore and the Winsor Music players. There are five works in all, written between 2001 and 2018.

The music apparently spawned an interaction between a student and the composer, which I stumbled upon on FB but I lost track of when I went back to the newsfeed. It got my attention because it addressed what today's Modern music scene is all about, essentially in the composer's view (rightly) it is less and less about some kind of 12-tone Serialist High Modernism, but then in fact is in a wildly open post-one-thing world. Now any regular reader of this Blog knows I champion that very notion, that what one might hear today exists within a wide expanse of possibilities, and that nothing automatically can be assigned a status above another in terms of "currency." The discussion made me want to hear the album and I realized it was on my stack ready to be heard.

And as it seems plain to me and happily so, this collection of Marti Epstein chamber gems finds its own turf in an ever unfolding, lyrically yet fully tonal palette of brilliant sound color and rhythmically, gradually blooming contrapuntal open form. And the music is in line with the wide-open set of expectations of what one might find in any given collection of New Music these days. So three cheers for that.

So to my mind the five compositions presented here are as interesting and as introspectively encompassing as anything new out there today. Epstein responds to the many things now "in the air" in New Music without joining any particular school in some slavish way. We get processual and repetitive elements but not as a paradigmatic constant, no more than, say, a Modern poet might add reiteration to the substructure of unfolding without, say, committing to the absolute, almost ritual systematicity of a Gertrude Stein. The world has turned and we individually and collectively can take what insights we have gotten from the Modernist generations and move it further along expressively.

Perhaps we are in an age where the program notes are not an essential part of hearing what is going on. We can trust our now fully Modern-and-beyond musical senses to understand and appreciate what is being expressed. The press sheet mentions the influences of Webern, Feldman and Takemitsu as well as the American plains and Nebraskan vistas. I understand and concur--and if I might be so bold to suggest, there is a fragile, terse yet overarching beauty in classic Webern that of course never depended completely on 12-tone procedures, there was more there and Ms. Epstein has taken it to heart!

Each of the five works stands on its own in terms of structure, in terms of syntax and spacing. So we listen with gradually more enthusiastic responses to "Oil & Sugar" (2016), "Liquid, Fragile" (2010), the title work "Nebraska Impromptu" (2013), "Komorebi" (2018) and "See Even Night" (2001).

Rane Moore's clarinet work here is nothing less than magical. The spellbinding, ever renewing presence of clarinet and differing chamber combinations underscores Ms. Epstein's poetic luminosity, be it clarinet and piano, same with additional flute and violin, or with viola, and then clarinet, violin, viola and cello, or oboe and violin in tandem with clarinet.

Every piece has its place in the contemplative matrix, each revealing a slightly different musico-inventive acumen.

After a good number of hearings I am sold on all of it. Someone of the caliber and originality of Marti Epstein does not come along every day, of course. But we are lucky for such a revealing newness that emphasizes a togetherness more so than an "advancement" per se. It advances into itself. We are all the better for it. Bravo! Strongly recommended. Music for the present day and ages to come!

— Grego Applegate Edwards, 5.11.2022

5

I Care if You Listen

The music of Marti Epstein longs for wide open spaces – which might seem like a strange choice for a composer who has been a mainstay in the Boston new music scene for 30 years. But expressing a need for silence and expansive landscapes while living in a cramped and fast-paced city environment feeds into the inherent dramatic arc of her work.

Marti describes her music as “sad” and “slow-paced,” but those descriptors miss a kind of nostalgic joy and energy that underlines everything she writes. Marti’s compositions live in a beautiful in-between state, never fully settling on one mood, style, or texture for too long. She says, “I know that there are people who think my music is too modern, whatever that means. And then there are other people who think it’s not modern enough.”a beautiful in-between state, never fully settling on one mood, style, or texture for too long. She says, “I know that there are people who think my music is too modern, whatever that means. And then there are other people who think it’s not modern enough.”

Even though she recently marked three decades of teaching harmony, counterpoint, and composition at both Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory, the vast Nebraska plains of her youth still resonate as an influence. She says that those landscapes, along with the broad terrain of the American west she’s observed on cross-country train trips, have become a frequent source of inspiration for her writing. “A lot of people feel terrified of the wide open space and they get bored,” she says. “I suddenly start to feel open in my body when I’m experiencing that. And it’s something that’s not only visually beautiful to me, but kind of psychically beautiful to me.

Nebraska Impromptu, Marti’s latest album released in April 2022 on New Focus Recordings, is a portrait of her relationships to locations, specific instruments, and performers. As much as Nebraska Impromptu is about the midwest, it’s also about the community of music makers in Boston that Marti has built up around herself. Most of the performers are local, and the album was produced by conductor Jeffrey Means, founder of Boston’s Sound Icon.

The centerpiece of Nebraska Impromptu is Marti’s professional relationship with clarinetist Rane Moore, the Co-Artistic Director of Winsor Music. “Rane sort of made all these pieces her own, even the ones that weren’t written for her, because she brings a deep understanding of my music to her performances.” That sentiment speaks to Marti’s commitment to working with musicians who can bring a personal touch to their performances. “I think that this is the thing that every composer needs, should want, should try to cultivate, et cetera, because we are nothing without not only committed performers, but without good performances of our music.”

The album’s title track expresses Marti’s love of being immersed in sweeping physical landscapes through wide musical spacings; the duet between Moore and pianist Donald Berman features the piano exploring both highest and lowest registers, while the clarinet sits firmly in the middle. This idea of composing with a visual impetus has become an important aspect of Marti’s creative process. Some of her compositions, like her 2011 work Troubled Queen based on the Jackson Pollock painting of the same name, have a direct relationship between music and visual art. But on Nebraska Impromptu, the relationship between the two mediums is not always such a direct parallel.

For example, Oil & Sugar was initially inspired by a video project of the same name by Kader Attia, a silent film that shows stacked sugar cubes slowly disintegrating into motor oil. Marti says, “To watch what happens to the sugar when the oil is melting — it is really beautiful. It turns out [Attia’s] video has a very specific political meaning talking about the colonization of countries whose main product is sugar by countries whose main product is oil…I wasn’t aware of that when I first saw the video and just thought, ‘Oh, my god. I hear music when I’m looking at this.’”

A 2020 recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Marti has recently been commissioned by local new music groups like Hinge Ensemble, loadbang, and Sound Icon. Last season, the BSO Chamber Players featured her work Komorebi for oboe, clarinet, and violin on a program that also included pieces by Jennifer Higdon and Shulamit Ran. And in January 2022, Navona Records released a studio recording of her opera Rumpelstiltskin performed by Guerilla Opera, who gave the work its world premiere in 2009.

But despite Marti’s status as a composer with high profile accolades and frequent performances of her music, she still feels an underlying sense that these accomplishments have been hard won. She began her composition studies in 1978 at The University of Iowa, transferred to the University of Colorado in 1980, then pursued a Master’s degree at Boston University. For all that time, Marti remembers that she was only one of two non-male students — and often the only non-male composer in any given program. “For a while it was really exciting to be the only one, and then after a while it started to be clear to me that that is a very short-lived euphoria,” she says. “It’s much better to be not alone, to have others with you.”

Our field has begun to move towards a more equitable scenario for people of different genders, but historically, funding and other forms of support have been geared toward young and emerging artists. While this mentality is well intentioned, it often creates a situation where older artists are unable to access opportunities. It also sends the message that if composers haven’t achieved a certain level of success before aging out of composition competitions and calls for scores — usually around age 30-35 — then they might as well give up. But this flies in the face of countless canonized composers who didn’t write their best works or gain notoriety until late in their lives.

Ageism is a barrier that Marti feels she is facing now. “When I was younger, I was looked over probably because I was non-male. But now that I’m older, I’m overlooked in favor of the much younger women. This is a thing that keeps happening, and sometimes I’ll say, ‘Oh, did you ever consider asking me to do this?’ And I’ll be met with, ‘Oh, I never thought you would’ve been interested.’ I have been interested for 40 years, you know?”

Despite her justified frustrations with the music industry, Marti is also grateful for how many opportunities she’s been given in her career. Not many composers achieve what she has, and she’s well aware of this. She still loves composers like Bach and Beethoven, but also sees a future where composers from the classical music canon can coexist with living composers. “I think the answer isn’t to not perform [Bach and Beethoven] – the answer is to make the room bigger.”

— Clover Nahabedian, 9.08.2022

5

Fanfare

This album of chamber music for clarinet—two quartets, two trios, and a duo for clarinet and piano—takes its name from the duo, Nebraska Impromptu. Boston composer Marti Epstein wrote it as an evocation of her childhood in Nebraska and memories of its landscape. Other works take off from the Japanese word for dappled sunlight shining through trees (Komorebi), a video at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art of “a large block of sugar cubes over which motor oil is poured” (Oil & Sugar), and a phrase from Night’s aria in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (See Even Night).

These diverse inspirations imply a wide-ranging imagination, and Epstein, who is a professor at the Berklee School of Music and its newly merged partner, the Boston Conservatory, can look back on a prestigious career and elite associations. She studied with Oliver Knussen and Hans Werner Henze in the 1980s. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow and was twice a fellow of the MacDowell Colony. This is my first encounter with Epstein’s music, but it has received performances at a high level internationally, including with the San Francisco Symphony and Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

Heard without the accompanying bio, Epstein’s clarinet music is so spare and rarefied, its gestures so minimal, that it isn’t surprising that her chief influences include Morton Feldman and Anton Webern. I almost need to say no more. Single pitches, bare scale fragments and arpeggios, elided tones, and close harmonies predominate. The materials are so simple, in fact, that for me, the chief appeal of this album lies in one area only, Epstein’s ear for timbre. Clarinetist Rane Moore is asked to blend with other instruments—flute, oboe, violin, viola, cello, or piano, drawn from the Boston-area ensemble Winsor Music—much more as a tint in a controlled color spectrum than as a soloist. There is no fast music or technical display. The greatest challenge, I surmise, comes when Moore is asked to play at the softest dynamic very high or very low in the instrument’s register.

Phrasing as such isn’t called for, but the tiny, often isolated gestures in Epstein’s scores are as minutely calibrated as those in Webern’s most minimal works. I confess that I wish there was more to listen for, but no one can deny the beauty and exquisite craftsmanship on display. I hear three distinct modes that these works operate inside (although the composer no doubt has conceived of many subtleties that escape me). The first is repetitive, closely knit motion within a compressed scale, as displayed in Oil & Sugar, scored for clarinet, flute, violin, and piano. The second mode consists of very short, gem-like aphorisms spaced between marked silences, as in Liquid, Fragile, where the clarinet is joined by a string trio (violin, viola, cello). Finally, there is the Feldmanesque mode of the longest work here, See Even Night, which lasts 27 minutes and involves three players—clarinet, viola, and piano—in extended near-stasis as very small gestures get reduced even smaller until silence is tapered into at the end.

The difference between the simplistic and the rarefied is defined by context. If you knew nothing in advance about the cultural context of Webern and Feldman, their music might make no sense and even seem random. We are decades past the origins of both composers, so their music is embedded in contemporary music culture as firmly as Mozart and Beethoven are embedded in mainstream music culture. There’s no going back, and yet Epstein’s idiom, as respected and rewarded as it is, needs a tuned-in mind and sympathetic ears. Expect haikus, not an epic. Without close attention, a sensation of sonic wallpaper can set in.

Fanfare’s readers already know where they stand in relation to Webern and Feldman, which will serve as almost an unerring guide, I think, to how they will respond to this release. The performers are close colleagues of the composer and often were kept in mind when individual pieces were written. Therefore, the performances are close to ideal, as is the recorded sound. A fulsome essay by Robert Kirzinger, well known in Boston as annotator for the Boston Symphony, is frustrating, because brief, cogent descriptions of each piece are juxtaposed with the kind of cloying praise that results when the writer is too close to the composer or else too eager to please.

— Huntley Dent, 8.26.2022

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