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“You Can’t Play Feldman for the Van Cliburn”

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

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