Marilyn Nonken, recipient of The Nouveau Classical Project’s 2014 Visionary Award
“The music I’ve been fascinated with for the past few years is known as spectral music, which came out of Paris in the early 1970s and reached New York just around 2000. In my own artistic life, I feel like I came of age with this music in my ears and in my hands.”–Marilyn Nonken
On October 8th, The Nouveau Classical Project will honor pianist Marilyn Nonken with the 2014 NCP Visionary Award at their Annual Benefit in New York City. This award recognizes innovative leaders whose work has made a significant impact on the new music community. In addition to being an incredible musician, Ms. Nonken is the Director of Piano Studies at New York University and recently wrote the book “The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Debussy and Scriabin to the Digital Age,” published by Cambridge University Press. Please read below for an exclusive interview with Ms. Nonken and READart.
Interview with Marilyn Nonken: Thoughts on New Music and Exploring the World Beyond Pitch and Harmony
RANY: For those who might not be familiar with the genre of “new music”, how would you define it?
MN: It seems strange to me that people ask for definitions of “new music,” as the word “new” usually doesn’t seem to pose challenges. Is a book from 1926 new? Are clothes from the fifties new? Of course they’re not. Music from the 1920s or 1950s is not new, either. Some listeners assume that certain kinds of music they haven’t heard before must be “new” — when really it is just new to them. So I try to make this distinction. The term “new” is useless to describe music in any meaningful way. Simply put, “new music” means recent music that is made during our lifetime – either by composers who are still living, or from the recent past. For popular music, there are many ways to describe specific styles–Death Metal, Emo, Afropunk, K-pop, Classic Rock. Similarly, there are just as many categories within classical music like Contemporary Classical or Composed Music, and they are just as different from one another. Chance music. New Complexity. Minimalism. Terms like this can be a place to start. We should be like the Germans and create new words to describe new experiences! The music I’ve been fascinated with for the past few years is known as spectral music, which came out of Paris in the early 1970s and reached New York just around 2000. In my own artistic life, I feel like I came of age with this music in my ears and in my hands.
RANY: At what point in your artistic career did you become interested in new music?
MN: I was 17 years old and studying classical piano at the Eastman School of Music. I had a close friend whose name was Alton Howe Clingan, and he was a composition major. He wrote fabulous music, inspired by composers of the New Complexity Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy. It was edgy, colorful, and virtuoso. He had a brilliant cycle of pieces inspired by Yukio Mishima. And he couldn’t get any of our friends–gifted kids our own age destined for careers in music–to play his scores. In that conservative environment, “new” music was not a priority. It was not valued as part of our training. Most of the teachers seemed to think that music history tanked around the time of World War I, and they conveyed this attitude to their students. To them, playing anything written after that point was optional, and most likely a waste of time.
RANY: What are some first repertoire pieces you would recommend for a pianist who is interested in new music? What about first pieces to develop an understanding of extended technique?
MN: There is no simple answer to this question – the repertoire is so vast! Each pianist must find the composers for whom s/he feels an affinity, and finding these mysterious bridges takes a willingness to explore.For pianists interested in modern music, there are groundbreaking works to study by Olivier Messiaen, Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Pierre Boulez. There was a whole line of composers who moved through Darmstadt in the mid-century–Luciano Berio, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Gyorgy Ligeti, for example — whose piano etudes have become close to “standard” repertoire. Additionally, there is also a wonderful trove of American music that relates back to Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Ruth Crawford, and leads up to Elliott Carter, Donald Martino and a subgenre informally known as “Uptown” in New York. Equally germane to this short list is the music of John Cage and the New York School, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and all of the people they influenced as well, like the Bang-on-a-Can composers. There is a whole world of Minimalist and Post-Minimalist, New Complexity and New Simplicity composers to explore. I always recommend that pianists talk to composers their own age, and find out what they are listening to, and what makes them tick. I still work this way myself. I ask the composers I admire: What do you listen to? What do you want to hear?
Extended techniques are unusual ways of playing an instrument. For example, on the piano, there are ways of making sound apart from the hands on the keyboard, and the feet on the pedals. One always has to ask if these techniques are effective. As an artist, you want to make certain, if you’re going to do something radical, that you are doing it for a profound musical reason. The works of George Crumb, such as his Makrokosmos I & II, are a good way to get a feel for what extended technique is all about. There is no way to learn how to do this but to roll up your sleeves and get inside! These works are ideal for learning different techniques for playing on the strings (like the harp), and for using simple tools (glasses, chains, thimbles) to create unearthly effects. For bowing inside the piano–which can be a little treacherous–C. Curtis-Smith’s Rhapsodies piece (1973) is a terrific way to learn this technique. Whenever I’ve had to learn new techniques, I’ve found it invaluable to reach out to other players and get their perspectives on what works, and what doesn’t work. Bowing in the piano is a great example, as the scores for the earliest bowed works required that the pianist create bows out of fishing line, which is a complete nightmare! Thankfully, today there are many good synthetic alternatives that achieve a better tone and adapt well to a range of instruments. Furthermore, there are many pieces that experiment with different ways to use the piano without actually playing on the keyboard. For example, Gerard Pesson’s La lumière n’a pas de bras pour nous porter is a piece I’ve enjoyed touring with this season, which is known for its ingenious use of the keyboard. Aaron Cassidy’s Ten Monophonic Miniatures and Helmut Lachenmann’s Guero similarly explore this world beyond pitch and harmony.
RANY: What is the gender ratio in new music field? Have you come across many notable female composers?
MN: I’ve been fortunate to work with some extremely talented women composers such as Kaija Saairaho, Liza Lim, Elizabeth Hoffman, Tania Leon, Julia Wolfe, Ursula Mamlok, Augusta Read Thomas, Yu-Hui Chang, Laurie San Martin, and there are more out there! I’ve always been inspired by Chaya Czernowin and Katharina Rosenberger (with whom I haven’t had the chance to work with…yet) :-). There is a very exciting generation of younger voices, and then there are striking historical examples, like Fanny Mendelssohn, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Ursula Mamlok — who was born in 1923 and is still writing music! Nonetheless, it has always been, and continues to be a difficult world for industrious women doing serious, challenging work. Unfortunately, this discourse is not limited to the field music. Women today are still in the minority; particularly those women who are trying to do something seismic or challenging. The notion of “female power” and its unconventional and unbridled expression can often be too much for some people to handle. Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho aptly stated in an interview with the Guardian in 2012 that femininity is “so apparent, so unavoidable” that it inevitably colors the way our work and our contributions are perceived.
RANY: You are a very accomplished musician! You have written a comprehensive book “The Spectral Piano”, performed worldwide in top concert halls, and have been named a Steinway Artist alongside musical greats like Bruce Hornsby, Billy Joel, Diana Krall and Rufus Wainwright. What is next for you?
MN: I would love to learn Hugues Dufourt’s complete Schubert cycle, a set of pieces written over a period of ten years at the turn of the new Millennium, which find their inspiration in Schubert’s settings of Goethe. I have already toured with and recorded one of these pieces; it’s something of a fantasy to do the whole cycle. I would like to revisit Tristan Murail’s Les travail et les jours, which he wrote for me and I recorded as well. I haven’t had the chance to play it for a few years, and I know I would have a very rich experience, spending more time with this work … it’s like a great book you want to re-read every few years! Furthermore, I would like to expose Murail’s piece to more audiences, as I think the world is ready for it. I am always curious to discover new works, and composers I don’t yet know – I enjoy looking for those mysterious bridges.
RANY: What do you have coming up this season, concert-wise?
MN: I have some exciting concerts coming up. On October 12th at (le) Poisson Rouge, I’m sharing a program with the British pianist Peter Hill. We will play the music of Olivier Messiaen, who died in 1992 and also with whom Peter was very close. The program will feature the fantastic two-piano Visions de l’Amen and the New York premiere of the recently discovered work La fauvette passinerette. These works are good examples of music that is not “new”: although Visions is from 1943 and La fauvette is from 1961, they will present themselves as “new” to many listeners. I’m playing a solo program in Montreal on October 16th, featuring a work written for me by Boston composer Joshua Fineberg and spectral pieces by Dominique Troncin, Tristan Murail, and Claude Vivier. In December, I’m especially happy to be returning to Spectrum in New York for a portrait of composer Drew Baker — something of a belated release party for Stress Position, our recording that is now out on New Focus.