After Decades in Boston, Marti Epstein is Still Chasing the Psychic Beauty of the Plains

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.”

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.’”

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…It’s much better to be not alone, to have others with you.

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.”


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