Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Robert Martin: Melding Music, Culture, and History 

Robert Martin: Melding Music, Culture, and History 

Headshot of Robert Martin

It’s been a long and winding path of interwoven musical and cultural influences for Robert Martin (BM ’74, MM ’75, Composition) from his days at Peabody to his current roles as composer and executive director of the Zethus Fund for Contemporary Music.

In 1976, he moved to New York to pursue postgraduate studies as the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Charles Ives Scholarship for outstanding music composition. He survived by copying music for other composers, but it wasn’t much of a living, and he describes himself as nearly destitute. In 1979, he received a Fulbright Scholarship in music composition to study Alban Berg’s opera Lulu in Vienna; he believes he is the only person to have studied with both George Perle and Friedrich Cerha, the two leading experts on Berg. He also ventured behind the Iron Curtain several times to meet composers he was interested in. “I met a number of great composers who even now are unknown in the West, and I heard firsthand about the government suppression of creative freedom,” he says.

In 1980, he returned to New York and took an entry-level position at a small consulting firm on Wall Street. He worked his way to the level of senior vice president at a leading investment bank and eventually served as financial advisor to the City of New York. Following his retirement, Mr. Martin began traveling in Asia, visiting Korea (home of Pansori epic song), Taiwan, and Hong Kong. As the 1999 recipient of the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship in music composition, he spent six months in Japan, visiting hundreds of temples and gardens, attending dozens of Noh plays, and studying other old music forms and notations. Critics note that his compositions reflect the aesthetics of both Eastern Europe and eastern Asia. When he returned to New York, he established the Zethus Fund, a flexible funding approach for contemporary music.

Mr. Martin, who has had more than 100 pieces published by Theodore Presser Company, applied to the North/South Consonance’s Call for Scores competition and won for several consecutive years. After he received a Grammy nomination for his chamber orchestra composition titled They Will Take My Island, the North/South Consonance Chamber Orchestra presented a retrospective concert of his music in early 2015. The concert, in recognition of his musical achievements and large body of original work, included music spanning four decades.

Meanwhile, Mr. Martin makes it a point to continue exploring the interconnectedness of musical and cultural influences. “Often I am disappointed by how little current musicians know about the history of Western opera,” Martin says. “I continue a lifelong study of this history because it is a driving force into the creative flow of western classical music.”

— Rachel Wallach