Category: Column

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Nonken

Marilyn Nonken’s Fight for “New” Music

As two star-crossed lovers sang pleading lines of despair, I took a survey of the audience around me. Besides the gentleman fast-asleep on my right (he got started five minutes into Act I) and the three composition students I recognized from Music Theory III, there was a noticeable dearth in the Met Opera’s seats. Maybe it had something to do with it being a lethargic Wednesday night, or perhaps it was indicative of declining ticket sales. More likely, though, the timeliness of the opera was to blame: it – Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin – was written in 2000.

Contemporary music is thwarted by negative stereotypes. Concert-goers think of it as generally unpleasant and discordant – something to be avoided as much as possible. Concert programming confirms these negative beliefs. “Beethoven, Mozart, and ever more Beethoven!” ticket sales scream.

So, what is a contemporary performer to do? The pianist and musicologist Marilyn Nonken (GSAS 1999, Historical Musicology) believes acceptance problems can be solved through education.

Nonken’s recent book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age, challenges the “unmusical” claims about modern music.

“I think there are misconceptions about what contemporary music is, that newer music simply isn’t musical in the same way,” she explains with a tone that shows her passion for the music.

“I suppose why I talk so much historically about contemporary music relating to the past is to try to get away from that idea.”

Nonken presents challenging ideas in her work. She believes that musicians can look back at composers such as Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy and find “through-lines” to the present-day. Their music works through ideas similar to the ones electronic music composers are grappling with today; “New” Music is not as new as some may think.

Not many musicians see “New” Music the same way that Nonken does. Instead, most musicians prefer to play what she calls “great” music, i.e. the standard, traditional repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al. Nonken believes pedagogues are responsible for this trend.

“Within any music school there will be teachers who will tell their students don’t waste your time [playing contemporary music]. Don’t do that, it’s not worth it,” she tells me, sarcastically pantomiming the uneasiness of teachers telling their students not to touch “New” Music.  

“There’s this idea that if the player is really gifted and really talented that they should be playing ‘better,’ older music.”

What Nonken describes as the “business of piano” – to prepare for and win competitions – is the culprit for these teachers’ beliefs.

“You can’t play Feldman for the Van Cliburn,” Nonken jokingly gibes.

Pianists will not prepare programs including much music written post-1945, such as Feldman’s works, for the Van Cliburn competition because of the ideas on what “great” music is. They simply won’t win if they do.

As the Director of Piano Studies at NYU, Nonken fights against misconceptions about contemporary music. For instance, she requires graduate piano students to play a work written after 1945 for their auditions. One student, who did not have any music post-1945 in their repertoire, suggested “playing” an especially famous silent work.

“Someone wanted to bring in Cage’s 4’ 33” — I would take it!” Nonken enthusiastically yet with a hint of frustration exclaims.

“Bring that to your audition just to make that statement — if that’s the best you can do, play that! It’s the mindset, so I think that’s something always to fight.”

Nonken’s interest in championing new works began while she was at The Eastman School of Music. Unlike many of her peers, who were spending hours practicing “great” music, Nonken was giving life to the scores of her classmates — in practice rooms, dorm rooms, and cafes. She was excited by these collaborations.

“I actually found that this music was really interesting — this process of working with composers is interesting. You can actually make a difference, you could play a piece that’s never been played,” Nonken fondly recalls.

Without her, their music would have remained black dots and lines on a page. By realizing their works, Nonken gave her classmates the chance to develop their skills.

She even won competitions for her peers with her recordings. Nonken found value and meaning performing their works — an importance she says she would not have felt as “the nine-millionth person that year playing” famous, traditional repertoire.

Nonken has continued performing and premiering new works since her years at Eastman. When I walked into the lobby of her East Village studio, I was amazed by the number of CDs on display. Recordings of modern works by Morton Feldman, Tristan Murail, and Joshua Fineberg stared back at me – all physically representing Nonken’s support for modern music.

CDs on Shelf

Nonken’s recordings become the definitive versions of each new work. With that she sees a definite responsibility – a duty perhaps not as apparent in playing the standard repertoire.

“I don’t think that responsibility is there when you’re playing music of Chopin or Beethoven because there’s a million recordings out there,” she explains to me, recognizing that that may sound sacrilegious to many musicians.

“But if you go out there and play a piece that people might not have another chance to hear and don’t really do it well, in a way that’s representative – if you turn people off – you’ve blown that opportunity for that composer to make their case.”


Recent portents seem to indicate newfound acceptance. Despite Nonken’s quip, the 2017 Van Cliburn competition is commissioning Marc-André Hamelin to write a piece for the preliminary round. Miller Theatre is continuing their “Composer Portraits” series this season, which highlights the works of living composers. And the Met Opera, ever a bastion of “great” music, has staged works by contemporary composers, such as John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, and the aforementioned L’Amour de loin, in recent years.

Yet, these are exceptions. Musicians and audiences still maintain a preference for “great” music. They want it to be played as much as possible in concert halls, with “New” Music ousted as a distantly removed, unapproachable Other.

Nonken continues to crusade against the notion that “New” Music is not worthwhile to listen to – in her teachings, writings, recordings, and performances. Championing the music of today, Nonken is building the “great” repertoire of tomorrow.

She encourages you to hear her play music by Tristan Murail at Spectrum on February 11 at 7 PM. Come listen as she continues her fight against misconceptions about “New” Music.

“How Eye Hear It” runs alternate Sundays. To contact the writer or submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com

If you haven’t read my last column advocating social learning in large lecture courses, I recommend reading that first — that’s where I explain why I think this technique could be so successful in a lecture-based classroom. This article is for the nitty-gritty, actionable advice for both students and professors to incorporate social learning into their experiences.

For students:

1. Study groups are more than an excuse to hang out with your friends — they’re an excellent way to incorporate social learning into your study routine. Quiz each other, force full explanations by eliminating vague words, and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Social learning works best when you’re with a group you’re comfortable with. To prevent non-productive chit-chat, place your study group in an environment more conducive to studying, such as a reservable library room or a study lounge space.

2. If allowed, work with friends on problem sets. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to actually do the problem first – don’t just rely on a friend who’s already done the work to explain it to you. Mull over a tricky problem, try your best, and explain your reasoning to a friend; often, in the act of explaining you’ll find where you went wrong. You can adapt this strategy for reading-based courses too — try finding time once a week to meet up with a classmate and talk over difficult parts of the reading, or explain a sequence of events.

3. Frame things as a story and anthropomorphize the characters. Give those cellular processes motivation and give the movement of atoms a plot. Humanizing inanimate objects may feel silly, but in the long run you’ll find that they become easier to remember. This technique works best when ‘telling’ the story out loud to a group of friends also in the course.

4. Is your professor receptive to new ideas or open to suggestions in office hours? Try talking to them about the ease and benefits of incorporating social learning into their courses! Change often comes from within, and I choose to believe that most professors care about the quality of their teaching. If they seem receptive and want more information, the experience of Eric Mazur (a physics professor at Harvard who pioneered large lecture social learning techniques) might be a good place to start — try here for a casual article and here for a peer-reviewed report.

 

For professors:

1. You’ve read this far and clearly have an interest in improving the quality of your teaching, and that’s great! If going ‘all in’ and flipping the classroom seems like a lot of work, start small. Try breaking your lectures up into more meaningful chunks. Three to four usually work best. Separate those segments with productive socialization by asking your students open-ended questions, or telling them to discuss what you just explained. Giving students a break to talk to their neighbors might seem counterintuitive, but research shows that you’ll increase engagement and information retention this way.

2. Switch it up – one surefire way to lose a classroom is by throwing a lot of information uniformly at your students. I get that there’s often a lot to cover, but if none of it is retained, or worse, your students give up ten minutes in, a high throughput approach won’t work. Try emphasizing that all of the material won’t be covered in lectures, and instead focus on the difficult concepts. Trust that your students can learn the easier stuff on their own.

3. For Tip #2 to work, you have to have a pretty good sense of what’s actually difficult for your students. As a professor, what you think is difficult and what your students are confused by may be two very different things. Often times, students will feign knowledge of a previous topic to avoid embarrassment if the class has already moved on. The best way to get past this is to foster an open environment where it’s encouraged to discuss what problems they’re having with the material. Take the pulse of your course frequently, and take advantage of your TAs. Not only do they interact with students more frequently and more informally, they’re closer in both age and experience level to your students and likely will have a better sense of where the material is difficult.

4. Use exams better. Too often, students will cram information a day or two before the exam, knowing that they’ll never need to access it ever again. Try to reward long-term learning by giving students an opportunity to get some credit for revising exams and spend time going over concepts where many students were incorrect. Administer low-stress and high-frequency mini-quizzes to both get an easy straw poll of where the class is and to lower overall test anxiety. Strive to ensure that all quizzes and exams are testing content and not process. While students are familiar with memorizing steps to solving a problem, many of them will not comprehend the underlying logic that you’re ultimately trying to test. Check out Eric Mazur’s physics concept inventory for an idea of what this sort of exam might look like.

5. Feeling good about the changes to your class so far? Think about diving into a full flipped classroom model for your next round of teaching. It’s more work up front than a traditional lecture, but the resulting increase in student engagement and exam scores should speak for itself. Review and edit the structure and organization of your lectures for digital format, and then pre-record shorter lecture-like segments explaining each topic to be assigned before in-class time. Make attending class required, but also make in-class time useful. Provide spaces for your students to work in structured small groups on practical assignments, and use both yourself and your TAs as roaming sources of assistance.  

This is only a short list of some easily-implementable ramifications of social learning – there are dozens more which I don’t have the room for in this column. To summarize all of the above into one comment it is this: socialization is a natural impulse and should be taken advantage of in the classroom accordingly.

Photo courtesy of James Xue (SEAS ’17)

This past week, my younger sister created a blog documenting her trek through Christianity. Being that I greatly appreciate stark contrasts, my first column of 2017 is just straight up about sex.

In short, I have come to believe that international agreements and sex are basically the same thing: the more complicated, the kinkier.

Alright, to begin, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “what the hell does she mean by international agreements?” Instead of dumping a long, wordy, and quite frankly boring definition (that is likely to be contested anyway) on you all, I am just going to use a type of “realist logic” to provide a basic glimpse of the subject.

From what I have gathered so far in my Rising Great Powers class, state-on-state interactions are mainly concerned with balancing power. When a state begins to enter into dialogue with another state, they are mainly concerned about their own survival and survival of their interests. Therefore, in order to not be threatened by another state, states must explicitly lay out what they want and what they are willing to do in order to achieve this. As more and more states begin doing this, compromises, treaties, laws, etc., begin flowing readily with a wide range of complexity. All in all, at a very basic level, these agreements are just simple declarations of trust and limitations.

I am going to use that last statement to gracefully segue into talking about sex, the real reason you’re probably reading this piece. If you have seen the new trailer for the Fifty Shades of Gray movie, or even watched desperate sophomores at 1020 hit on women, you know exactly what I am talking about. Sex, at its very basic level is a power play. Each player establishes what he or she wants through initial dialogue and subtle actions. A hair flip here, a risky statement there, and BAM you have begun your journey down the path that ultimately culminates in copulation. Be it a quick, drunk, hookup twenty minutes after meeting or a more meaningful act of “making love” after the pre-established three dates rule, sex is dependent on trust. Trust that the other player will adhere to what you want, and even more importantly respect what you don’t want.

This is pretty doable in what millennials are nowadays calling “vanilla sex”, or a relatively uncomplicated sex session. Vanilla sex is representative of Canada-U.S. agreements (pre-Trump…) on the international spectrum, if you will; simple, rather uncomplicated, but still dependent on a basic trust between the two. More is put at stake when more uh, “goods”, if you will, get involved. Like the JCPOA (or the Iran Deal), with BDSM or just good ol’ kinky sex, more is at stake, becoming a more serious game of trust.

Like sex, sometimes international agreements can be bad, culminating in war and breakups, but are still necessity in this wild world of ours. No matter the type, both agreements and sex, teach us about coexisting, and when done correctly, make life just more enjoyable.

Photo Courtesy of CNN Money

I was born to love film.

I was raised by a family who lived and breathed entertainment. My uncle is a movie producer, my cousin a stage manager on Broadway. My grandfather, a seventy-five year old man, has overflowing DVD piles of every Disney film, Oscar-winning movie, musical, and Olympic-record-setting video that ever aired on TV. My mother stays up until 2am every night watching her TV shows (she can compete with any binge-driven college student). The entertainment industry is an unspoken staple of my family.

So, naturally, television has always been a huge part of my life. As much as my father tried to enforce TV limits, I knew from a young age that “one hour of teletubbies” meant at least two when Mom was home. Some people blast me for watching so much television, but I know I always have my family on my side, and nothing is as stimulating nor as intellectually thrilling to me.

As I grew up, I slowly became the Roger Ebert of my friend group. I (whether asked or not) would tell my friends which movies to see, which actors deserved the Oscar, which television show was an overly dramatic waste of time. My past and current boyfriends have all gone through a “movie-education,” and I have never missed an awards ceremony (even when I was on the other side of the world and had to wake up at 2am and surf the web for hours before I found a live stream). I’m pretty darn serious about this stuff.

But enough about me. All of this was an introduction of sorts, a drawn out way for me to prove to you that I am indeed qualified to write this column. Sure, I’m a religion major who has yet to write that breakthrough screenplay that earns me a seat at the Golden Globes, but I’m opinionated, nonetheless, and born to movie-educate the masses. So, on that note, let’s dive right in.

It would be amiss not to begin this bi-weekly column with a post that addresses the insanity currently sweeping over Hollywood. This week’s SAG awards were filled with emotions– from numerous actors speaking out against President Trump’s executive order on immigration to Denzel Washington upsetting Casey Affleck and Ryan Gosling for best actor. (Who saw THAT one coming??) The Oscar nominees have been announced, snubbing Taraji P. Henson for her role in Hidden Figures and controversially allowing disgraced anti-semite Mel Gibson in the running. Questions surround the fate of Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian nominated director who may not be able to attend the February 26th ceremony due to Trump’s ban, and NBC’s Dick Wolf is trying to squeeze out more money by making yet another Chicago show.

You’ll notice that most of these have to do with politics. 2016 (and so far 2017) has been a banner year for the Hollywood-Washington crossover, with celebrities becoming more involved in a presidential election than perhaps ever before. Aside from the usual backing of presidential nominees, Hollywood stars have not missed an opportunity to share their feelings about the new president. John Oliver made it his life’s mission this season to convince viewers to vote for Clinton. Meryl Streep (who’s NOT overrated, Mr. President) called Trump out during her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of perhaps the most overtly political show on Broadway– though also the most amazing) has been incredibly vocal about his hatred for the new president, and Lorne Michaels was awarded one of President Obama’s medals of freedom, arguably because of the recent politically-driven season of Saturday Night Live. On the flip side, celebrities like Kanye West and John Voight have come out in support of President Trump, though they are in the minority of Hollywood stars. In fact, political opinion in Hollywood has become such an expectancy this past year that celebrities who didn’t pipe in about the election (like my main gal, TSwift) have been getting a lot of flack.

Now, this column isn’t about politics. This column isn’t about the 2016 election, the current president or his policies, and this column definitely isn’t about my own political views. This is a column about Hollywood and the entertainment industry, but the two have become so mixed recently that I find myself wondering– is there a separation?

I truly believe that artists have a valuable and irreplaceable role in society. At times, I’ve found answers in film and television to questions so deep and personal that I didn’t even know I struggled with them until an actor or a writer put them in front of me– and the film industry could not do this without delving into the thick of things, attacking the personal and the relevant when no one else dares to. But, as I watched the nastiness of this past year’s election grow, I wondered if recognizing limitations was something Hollywood has yet to learn.

As much as intellectuals might deny it, celebrities have an enormous amount of influence in modern society. We may not realize it, but we look toward Hollywood as an escape. We see celebrities through our rose-colored glasses; when we hear about their lives and opinions, we hear them the way we hear lines on a screen or words on a page. We don’t know it, but we instinctively give them a reverence we don’t give the guy who lives next door, or even the news anchor who brings in an expert we’ve don’t recognize to talk about the election. And when we give them this level of reverence, we give them power. So much power that, when they tell us their opinions, we cloak them in veils of absolute truth. And, so, the question is: Is Hollywood sticking its nose into the political arena making the political climate better or worse? When do they step up and use their public platform for good, and when is it just a bully pulpit? Are actors’ opinions something we need to hear just because they have a mike and a camera beaming out to millions of people?

It doesn’t matter whether I (or anyone else) agree with the stand certain celebrities took and continue to take about the current President and his policies. The point is this: there are people who voted a certain way because John Oliver or Kanye West told them to, and that is freakin’ terrifying.

And so, Hollywood, as one of your most devoted fans, I make a plea: I ask that you recognize your influence, but also acknowledge your limitations. See where you can inspire, but also understand where you can hurt. Trust your audience to engage, but also trust them to be individuals. Remind us of the magic of the movies, but never try to rob us of our own thoughts. I think it’s time Hollywood began anew, forgot about politics for a little bit and focused on creating art on a more personal and nuanced level. And maybe then, the political climate (and also the comedy late shows) will begin to improve.

Keep on watching,

Yael
P.S. Stay tuned for my first pick on your Must See Binge list!

A year is long enough for surprises to happen, especially this past year. People suddenly found out that the world they live in has gone through a course that no one could ever have predicted. One year ago, hardly anyone foresaw the European Union losing its most important player and perhaps in the future losing a second one; hardly anyone could say affirmatively that a billionaire without any political experience could become the president of US. People are shocked, fearful, and puzzled by these facts. We call this series of events a wave of anti-establishment—not only anti-establishing the social system that we have relied on so much, but, more importantly, challenging the ways we look at and interpret the world.

While people are asking, “What is wrong with our world?” it is equally important to be introspective and ask what is “Wrong with my own thinking that causes so much disillusionment with what really happened?” It is not an easy question, and people can have diverse answers for it, but besides the debates of ideology, social norms and political correctness, maybe we can focus on something that is less paid attention to, something that seems to be irrelevant to politics: math.

Throughout human civilization, people have used reason to understand the world, and after thousands of years of development, almost every field of study has become dependent on the use of rationality. Usually, we tend to call such rational tool “model.” People use models to capture the factors of the issue being studied and use logical representations to depict the fundamental laws that govern the behavior of these factors. The most widely used model among people is the mathematical model, where the logical representations are necessarily mathematical expressions. Such a use of math has been adapted in economics, political science, sociology, and even psychology. Investors use math to make investment strategy, economists use math to understand the behavior of economics, politicians use math to predict the patterns of voters, and policymakers use math to structure the best policy for the country.

For a long time, math has successfully captured the behavior of the world and did a pretty good job in assisting people with their applications in the real world, and people have been more and more dependent on math to solve the complex situations they face. But because of these successes, people also ignore the shortcomings of mathematical models in social sciences, and such ignorance could cause problems.

One weakness of math models is that in order to achieve more accurate depiction of the scenario, comprehensiveness is sacrificed. The first thing to do when constructing a math model is to make assumptions and simplify the situation to a bunch of factors that are representable by math expressions. But in this simplification some important factors are tossed away because they cannot be clearly quantitated. One clear example is people’s sentiment, which in some cases dictates the situation, but because it is too hard to be modeled, it is usually left out or excessively simplified. With an absence of sentimental factors, the model can sometimes interpret facts incorrectly.

Another shortcoming of math is not a shortcoming in nature, but could hurt people when they are too dependent on a math model. The nature of math assumes a deterministic model. That is to say, with given conditions and given principles, the outcome can be well defined. Usually the models taught in economic classes and political science classes don’t assume any stochastic scenarios, and they don’t talk about things that are not solvable (otherwise what is the point of studying it?) But neither of the preconditions are always true. Sometimes we cannot grasp the condition correctly due to our limited ability to observe the complete picture, and sometimes we just simply don’t have the correct principles on which this world functions. In either case, model thinking could fail.

The use of math modeling in our daily life is not essentially problematic. It is the overdependence on it that causes some misleading in perceiving the world and interpreting it. If we don’t fully grasp the pros and cons of using mathematical reasoning in social science fields, we will constantly encounter conflicts between our assumptive beliefs and real facts.