When Marti Epstein kindly sent this disc to me for review she “warned” me that it was gentle music. In her liner notes she elaborates that her Midwestern roots will always inform her work. As fellow Midwesterner (I hail originally from Chicago) I have an idea what she means. There is a certain gentle affability which seems to characterize folks from the Midwest and no doubt this affects artist expression as well.
This disc contains four such gentle compositions ranging from Grand Island (1986) to A Little Celestial Tenderness (2013). As such it is a cross-section of Epstein’s work though it is hard to say, of course, if it is an accurate picture or overview.
The first piece Hothouse (2000) is a piece for two pianos which works on a couple of levels. It is quite listenable as a concert piece and seems to be a very effective way of using short phrases replaced by silences as a valid compositional technique. Loosely interlocking phrases are replaced by silences gradually which lull the listener to the conclusion.
The second track is Grand Island (1986) which is the composer’s depiction of a drive to the city of Grand Island in Nebraska. This piece for piano, two harps and two percussionists is complex enough to require a conductor (Jeffrey Means) but the complexity does not make for difficult listening. Rather this is an impressionistic audio narrative of the composer’s experience driving through the Midwest as a child. It has a very similar character to the first piece with silence being very important to the texture which fades to silence as the journey ends and perhaps the restless child has fallen asleep.
A Little Celestial Tenderness (2013), the most recent on the disc, comes in at under two minutes and evokes Copland-like harmonies in a “tiny” piece written in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Ludovico Ensemble who perform the music on this disc (the composer plays one of the pianos on Hothouse). The unusual instrumentation here is flute, clarinet and cimbalom.
Hypnagogia (2009) is the most experimental music here and is very much the star of this release. It exists only in parts with no unified score and asks the performers to perform as if they were alone. It is an attempt to depict the state of mind between waking and sleeping. This piece is more concerned with sound than silence and the mobile-like appearances of the sounds does create a dream-like texture which, as warned, is also very gentle but not without a touch of anxiety at times. It is perhaps the most substantial (over 45 minutes), striking and successful piece on the disc and brings it to very satisfying conclusion.
The recording has a warmth and presence and the musicians seem well-suited to the tasks at hand. This writer will be pleased to hear more from these artists in the future.