When Marti Epstein was a teenager, she got an invaluable piece of advice from a teacher at her Omaha high school. Epstein, by then a talented pianist and clarinetist, wanted to major in music when she went to college. But the band director, Steve Lawrence, who also taught music theory, cautioned her that “there are an awful lot of really fantastic pianists and clarinetists, and it’s very competitive. Maybe you should think about doing something more unusual,” as Epstein put it in a recent interview. Something that would also use her proficiency in theory, which he’d noticed. Like, perhaps, composing.
Kids can be both prickly and protective of their identities at that age, and it wouldn’t have been surprising if Epstein had taken Lawrence’s suggestion as discouragement, or ignored it entirely. Instead, she took it in the spirit in which it was meant, and began taking monthly composition classes at the University of Nebraska, and that was that.
“It found me, I guess you could say,” Epstein said. “I instantly knew this was my home.” Now a composer, Epstein serves on the faculties of both the Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory, and her works are the subject of “Hypnagogia,” a new CD by Ludovico Ensemble. Its release is being celebrated at a Tuesday concert at Boston Conservatory, where two of its works are on the program.
As is the experience of many other budding composers, Epstein’s perspective got some hard jolts in college (at the University of Iowa). None was bigger than that delivered by her ear-training teacher, David Lang, who would go on to found the composers’ collective Bang on a Can. At the time — the late 1970s — the closest thing to contemporary music she’d encountered were works by Hindemith and Stravinsky.
“I was the only freshman composing student in the class,” she recalled by phone on a recent evening as she walked to Symphony Hall for a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert. “He said, ‘Tell me what living composers you know.’ And John Williams was the only one I could think of.”
Lang gave her a long list of required listening, “all sorts of stuff that completely turned my head around.” What hit her most powerfully was Morton Feldman’s crystalline, supremely unhurried “Rothko Chapel,” a revolution in postwar composition. “When I had the Feldman on, it was like having an epiphany,” she recalled. “It was like, I can’t believe I could actually write music that sounds like this. I’d never heard anything like it before.”
Feldman’s spirit left its mark on Epstein. Though not written on Feldman’s epic scale, her works — such as “Bloom,” an English horn concerto written for the BSO’s Robert Sheena — are generally slow-moving, their structure and intentionality hidden beneath sounds that are open-ended and ambiguous. Epstein likes to say that if she had had any talent for the visual arts she would have gone in that direction, and that many of her compositions are best heard as aural paintings rather than as unfolding narratives.
Perhaps for that reason, Epstein never starts with a prearranged plan or set of harmonic material when she composes. What matters for her are the instruments at hand, which govern the colors she’ll have at her disposal. After those are clear, “I walk around a lot, and I swim and I think about what the piece is going to be.” As the piece begins to take shape she forms a visual plan — form and proportion are critical, whereas “pitch and rhythm and that sort of stuff is part of the last piece of the process.”
Emblematic of these traits on Tuesday’s program is the composition that shares its title with her new CD: a 50-minute single-movement piece named for the state that bridges wakefulness and sleep. All seven of the instrumental parts are precisely notated to be played at slightly different tempi, with no reference to how they are to align. Nicholas Tolle, Ludovico’s artistic director, wrote in an e-mail that the parts “are so carefully constructed that they are constantly weaving in and out of each other in ways that can't be prearranged, and the result is spectacular.”
Epstein almost never writes at the piano, and she never uses a computer. “I just hear it in my head and write it,” she said. “And the older I get and the more I do it, the more accurate I get. But there’s always a little gap between what you imagine in your head and the way it’s really going to sound.
“And I actually think that that gap is a good thing,” she continued, “because I think it makes us more creative. Which is why I try to get my students not to use a computer when they compose. It makes it too real, and not in a very attractive way. From what I’ve seen, it takes almost all the imagination out of the process.”
At Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory, Tuesday at 8 p.m. Free admission. www.ludovicoensemble.orgDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidg