Category: NYC

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

At first glance, In Transit seems a tad odd: an a cappella Broadway production with no orchestra  based inside a gritty New York City subway station. As the first a cappella show on Broadway, it’s hard  to know what to expect even with a book, music, and lyrics created by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen), Sara Wordsworth, James-Allen Ford, and Russ Kaplan. Yet as the lights dim and the titular “turn off your cell phone” a cappella jingle from the show’s creators begins, it becomes abundantly clear that the audience is in for a treat.

There’s something  simple yet beautiful about In Transit. Just under two hours, the show focuses on eleven individuals trying to live their lives in New York. Through a talented street artist, Boxman, the audience watches how these people’s lives intertwine and the struggles of balancing their hopes and dreams with the crushing sense of reality. Through his witty beats and charming personality, Boxman unfurls the lives and current struggles of the show’s characters frantically rushing to get on their train (or in some cases, begging for help to pass through the fickle Metrocard turnstiles).

The show features standout performers including Moya Angela (The Lion King, Dreamgirls National Tour, 30 Rock). Throughout the show, Angela effortlessly switches between three characters: a religious mother, a subway booth attendant, and a routine office manager. And in one part of the show, she saunters out in a dress completely comprised of New York City Transit Metrocards!

Another standout performance came from Chesney Snow as Boxman who could produce almost any sound with his mouth — including the sound of the Metrocard Machine again failing to accept the cash he inserted into it. Throughout the performance, it was clear he was energized for the role, as his vocals to immersed the audience in the eclectic cacophony of music and voices in the city.  

In Transit is a thrilling show that is relevant to almost everyone as it questions what it means to follow your dreams and how we deal with rejection and hardship. From start to finish, the show captures your attention and thrusts you right up to the bare, raw emotions of these eleven residents struggling to be themselves and overcome their inner demons. This show will resonate with almost every New Yorker who encounters the trials and tribulations of trying to achieve your dreams in the city that never sleeps. Oh, and the struggles of riding the subway…

Photo courtesy of Russ Kaplan

Photo courtesy of Russ Kaplan

To learn more about the show, we talked with Russ Kaplan, one of the show’s writers. Kaplan, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, majored in directing with a minor in jazz piano. During the interview he noted how he originallygot bit by the directing bug in high school. But it didn’t occur to me to start writing music for theatre until I was a grownup and started writing In Transit (at my co-authors’ encouragement).”

But how did the idea for making all a cappella musical come to be? According to Kaplan, “Well, we (the writers) were an a cappella group, so it just seemed sort of obvious at the time. It’s what we were already doing!”

What was the process like of making an a cappella musical? What challenges did you face?

The writing process is actually similar to “normal” musicals…you’re still following the same fundamental rules of dramatic storytelling and trying to write emotional and memorable melodies. The challenges emerge later with logistics and performance, and that list is so long it’ll make your head spin, but I’d say the main one is that all eleven cast members have to sing for a hundred minutes straight…so even a staged reading of In Transit requires exponentially more rehearsal than other shows.

What was the inspiration behind the story of In Transit?

Ourselves and the people we know!

What was the songwriting process like? How did you decide what each song would be about? Were any ideas or sources you drew inspiration from?

First, we’d decide as a group what new songs would be about and what the general sound should be like; then one lyricist and one composer would pair up to do a first draft; then that draft would come back to the group and we’d all tinker together until we had a final draft we were all happy with.  We tried to tap into as many musical genres as possible, especially those that you hear blasting on the subway regularly (which is to say all of them).

As a musician, what do you think music has the power to do for audiences?

Music pretty much gives my life meaning. It’s the thing that provides me with hope and gives the world its beauty.  It was like that for me well before I knew anything about music, and I suspect it’s true for most people, whether the music is “about” something or not. It’s pretty cheesy but I really do think it’s one of the few things that can truly bring people together.

But the biggest piece of advice Russ had for Columbia students? “Sing a cappella. It’s good for you.”

Tickets to In Transit can be purchased through the show’s website here. The show also offers a daily lottery for $39 tickets daily through the TodayTix app.

Photo by Em Watson, American Theater

The Lion met with Rachel Chavkin, a Columbia School of the Arts graduate, to discuss her direction of a new musical on Broadway: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. The show is based on a 70-page snipped of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and includes both period and modern stylistic setting.

The show itself is completely immersive as the cast performs all around you, or even right next to you! And in parts of the show, members of the audience are asked to help with everything from passing letters to providing background sounds for the musical numbers. In addition, the seating is unlike anything else on Broadway with the Imperial theater redesigned to feel like a Russian club. Several seats have been removed to make way for tables and lamps to create this atmosphere. Seats range from being in the standard orchestra and rear mezzanine sections of the theater to sitting right on the stage.

The show has an open run and is performed 8 times per week at the Imperial Theatre. The show offers both a mobile lottery and rush tickets for only $39, a great deal for people interested in seeing the show for less. This is one of the most immersive shows I have ever seen and it’s definitely something to check out! When we sat down with Rachel, we talked about her experience in theater and her journey in helping to develop productions such as The Great Comet.Continue Reading..

Welcome, welcome to theater! After going over our last guide to discounted Broadway tickets, we realized that there are even more resources out there for students to utilize to get cheaper tickets to both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.
Run by Columbia, the Arts Initiative provides students with discounted tickets, most of which can then be picked up at the TIC in Lerner. This is a great way to get tickets, but you have to be fast because they do sell out quite quickly.
If you’ve got luck and persistence, Broadway Direct has online lotteries for most performances of some of the biggest productions around, including The Lion King and Cats. Depending on the show, winners pay anywhere from $10-$55 for their seats, which is more than half off regular pricing.
Being a theater-goer and being a student at the same time isn’t always easy on the wallet, and the Roundabout Theatre Company understands that. So, if you’re between the ages of 18-35, you can be part of their low-price ticket program, HipTix, for free. By becoming a HipTix member, you can buy up to two $25 tickets to each Roundabout Theatre production. While these tickets may not be orchestra seats (unless you upgrade your membership to Gold or Platinum), you can’t beat the price.
General Broadway Lotteries:
Some productions choose to host lotteries for tickets on their own personally-tailored sites instead of using Broadway Direct or TodayTix. It can be hard to find these lotteries sometimes, or just plain annoying to google them everyday. So, here are all the ones with individual sites for your convenience:

 

Updated April 9, 2017

Photo courtesy of Joshua Burton, CC ’18

RESTAURANT INFORMATION:

Restaurant: The Handpulled Noodle

Location: Harlem/Hamilton Heights

Cuisine: Northwest Chinese Soul Food

Rating: 4.75/5Continue Reading..