Boston Composer Marti Epstein Makes The Plains Reflective
Marti Epstein: Nebraska Impromptu Rane Moore, clarinet. Winsor Music Ensemble: Sarah Brady, flute. Gabriela Diaz, violin. Donald Berman, piano. Mark Berger, cello. Rafael Popper-Kelzer, cello. Peggy Pearson, oboe. John McDonald, piano. New Focus Recordings FCR 324 Total Time: 75:46 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Clarinetist Rane Moore is featured in five modern works by Boston-based composer Marti Epstein. She teaches composition at the Berklee College of Music/Boston Conservatory of Music. This collection of chamber pieces explores the expansive landscape of her home state of Nebraska. The pieces each incorporate different combinations that include a piece for clarinet and piano, a duet, trios and a quartet. Epstein’s music focuses are attention on subtle shades and colors. The dissonances often will resolve to a more expansive harmony that adds to the spatial quality of these pieces. Cells of material are used to provide an equal arching continuity in pieces that tend to feel more like stream-of-conscious reflections.
The album opens with Oil and Sugar (2016) which adds flute, violin, and piano. There is an interesting open sound to this music that also has little Impressionist feel. Lines seem to float about in this piece that also has some interesting block harmony that adds tension from time to time in this rather reflective work. Liquid, Fragile (2010) is for clarinet and string trio. Here, Epstein takes small musical gestures that see to reach outward while also creating a more spatial harmonic construction that lends a sense of openness. She is also exploring silence here (which is a bit unsettling when it first happens!) which pauses us to reflect on what has just occurred in the music. (This should be very effective in live performance but does take a bit of getting used to in this medium.) In the title work from 2013, Moore’s clarinet line moves in an angular fashion within its midrange with some moments that reach outward while the piano creates denser harmonies in alternate registers for contrast. With a barer palette of timbres, one can hear even more clearly how Epstein focuses on smaller musical gestures that have an innate simplicity that also feels like she is reflecting on her own memories. The music invites us to also take that same journey. Harmonic ideas in each of these pieces tend to move rather languidly and this is even more so in a trio for clarinet, oboe, and violin (Komorebi, 2018). By doing this, the listener is invited to contemplate the shifts in timbre and color that occur as these different instruments explore her smaller motives. From here we move into See Even Night (2001), the earliest piece on this album and one that perhaps gives us a window into her use of variation of smaller motives that has evolved into the style heard in the previous works.
The idea of variation of smaller motivic ideas, coupled with block harmonies is perhaps a bit reflective of the work of Morton Feldman and while her economy of ideas might be closer to serialist composers, her harmonic writing will feel closer to the American modernists. This latter due in large part to her landscape inspirations for some of the works included on this release. At the forefront of each of the works is a sense of contemplation and reflection that invites the listener to imagine the openness of Midwestern Plains. A sense of bittersweet memory may float across these memories from time to time that reminds us of a landscape that may also be vanishing. Nebraska Impromptu provides a subtle contemplation of these natural events in performances that capture this very well.