W hen I am painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see [in the painting-in-progress] what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I just try to let it come through.”H ave a listen to Marti Epstein’s new composition, ‘Troubled Queen’:
I t’s a 21-minute piece for mixed ensemble consisting of flute, bass clarinet, trombone, 2 violins, viola, cello, piano, and percussion—commissioned by the Callithumpian Consort, and premièred on 19-DEC-2011 at New England Conservatory in Boston.
B rooding, dark, and pulsatile... inspired by Jackson Pollock’s brooding, dark, pulsatile 1945 painting of the same name, one of the holdings of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
C allithumpian Consort was founded by Stephen Drury in the 1990s and is dedicated to the proposition that music should be, and is, an ‘experience’. The ensemble is deeply committed to supporting new music. Besides frequent performances of new music, Callithumpian also seeks to foster a vibrant and financially sustainable environment for composers and composing, and has commissioned many compositions over the past 15 years.
I would say that the composition students here are not composing jazz. Specifically, they’re not composing commercial music; they’re not composing ‘jingles’. They may be composing film music, because we have a lot of dual majors. They’re usually composing music that’s artistically interesting and specifically for the concert hall... To graduate [from Berklee], students have to have a portfolio of pieces and—very important—they have to have a certain number of these pieces performed. Because one of the aspects of a composer’s training is, how do you get people to play your music? So we try to get them to start doing that right away.”I hope her composition students had a chance to attend the première. Epstein leads by example. She doesn’t play musical ‘hardball’ with the listener or with the performers but instead pitches balls that are hittable, ‘accessible’. Not predictable or ‘easy’ pitches, surely. But captivating; natural; intuitive; emotionally moving and ‘fair’, not off-putting. This new ‘Troubled Queen’ is emblematic of the practical philosophy Epstein expresses in her remarks on Berklee’s website (quote above).
W hen I’m asked the inevitable question ‘What kind of music do you write?,’ I am always embarrassingly at a loss for words. Musicians want to know details of my harmonic language: is my music tonal or atonal? Nonmusicians often ask nervously if it sounds ‘modern’. Here’s the best way I can describe it: it is neither tonal nor atonal; I adhere to no preexisting method of pitch or harmony organization. I am more interested in the use of sounds as organizing musical materials than I am in melody or harmonic relationships. I also do not believe that atonality even truly exists; the term was an attempt to describe the music that broke away from Common Practice Tonality... My music is generally slow-paced. I always tell people that ‘You can take the girl out of Nebraska, but you can’t take the Nebraska out of the girl.’ The wide-open spaces that I experienced as a child, not so much in my living environment, but in the many car trips we took to Colorado to see my grandparents, were—and are—an integral part of my artistic psyche... I love living in the East, but I long for the space and expanse of the place in my childhood memories. I feel like my music is an expression of that longing.”L ike the Pollock painting for which the piece is named, Epstein’s ‘Troubled Queen’ ably evokes/represents psychiatric illness-as-storm—these looming clouds; this mixture of scary unrealness and can’t-look-away awe; these oppressive feelings that elude attempts to control them. This dark-grey, nightmarish 4-bpm thunder and lightning—or is it a deranged heartbeat? [bradycardic between 07:09 to 09:01, becoming asystolic at 20:30]
T he self-doubts, the dread and anxiety, the fractured esteem: are these contributing ‘causes’ or triggers of depression, or are they merely some associated ‘effects’ or symptoms of the condition? Chaotic arpeggios in the piano part; strokes of blue and green and yellow in the winds and strings and percussion—random sonic hail pelting us unbidden, as if formed by Pollockian flicking: flung up into the air, falling now under the unstoppable force of gravity. Callithumpian Consort members’ playing is sensitive and inspired in capturing this ‘Nature is not kind’ harshness...
G othic interiority. Obscure totems; we’re not sure what they mean or how we got here.
Reduction of life to crashing, heaviness. Primitive glare, no escape.
T he interleaved string, woodwind, and brass passages around 14:00-15:00 are especially poignant, and contribute yet more evidence demonstrating the ‘organic’/biologic origins of depression, disabusing the listener of any misconception he/she might have held regarding the depressed person’s responsibility to ‘prevent’ the condition or exercise more self-control and simply ‘Get better!’ under his/her own steam.
W hat’s more, the 21-minute timescale of this piece offers enough latitude to explore the wide range of colors and cognitive states that characterize moderate-to-severe clinical depression. In other words, this is the sort of subject that demands considerable scope; a ‘miniature’ would not be right at all, and would at best be pastiche, unless it were a cue in a film score, subject to constraints of the script and action. Fully developed in this 21-minute work, the character/subject becomes very real. The suffering/horror this depressed protagonist experiences is fully animated and convincing, and, through the performance, we can’t help but care about this person and about the plight of other such people in society. In summary, this new Marti Epstein composition is a beautiful work: it illustrates not only wonderful artistry and craftsmanship, but also conveys the political and social savvy that ‘the arts’ (artists/musicians, and the supporters who finance them and commission works from them) can have, to bring about wider and deeper appreciation for socially/clinically important issues and provoke concord and action to make things better.
E very so often, a painter has to ‘destroy’ painting. Picasso did it; Pollock; numerous others, too. And every so often, a composer has to destroy composing. Here, Epstein smashes conventional ideas of a composition—as John Cage and many others have done. But this ‘Troubled Queen’ is very clearly a composition—and a very beautiful, moving one at that.
- Marti Epstein website
- Marty Epstein, Professor, Composition, Berklee College of Music
- Marti Epstein page at Sigma Alpha Iota
- Callithumpian Consort website
- Callithumpian Consort blog on Wordpress
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