Interview with Marilyn Nonken

MN_LTo mark the upcoming publication of her new book from Cambridge University Press, The Spectral Piano, I offer below an interview I conducted with my wife Marilyn Nonken several years ago.

Olivier Messiaen’s biographer Peter Hill has praised the book, saying: “Marilyn Nonken belongs to a generation of new music performers who bring subtlety, nuance and even humour to complex music … . A great value of Dr. Nonken’s study is that she sets the Spectral movement in a wide historical context, going back indeed to Liszt and Scriabin; another that she demonstrates the influence of Murail and Gérard Grisey (together with their teacher Messiaen) on composers beyond France, arguing convincingly for the far-reaching influence and implications of Spectral concerns. What is particularly welcome is that here is a scholar whose writing carries particular authority, based as it is on her experience of understanding and communicating the music as its performer.” You can read a preview of the book at the amazon.com page for The Spectral Piano.


In the theater, we sometimes forget that our experiences have parallels with practitioners of the other performing arts, particularly music and dance. In the case of more abstract, lyrical theater, a theater that tries to approach the condition of music more than narrative, contemporary performance offers a variety of parallels. During the recent centenary birthday celebrations for Samuel Beckett, I was listening to the work of the composer who may have been most influenced by Beckett’s work, Morton Feldman (1926-1987), and was particularly taken by a performance of Triadic Memories by Marilyn Nonken, a pianist who has dedicated her career to modern and contemporary chamber music. The New York Times has called her “a pianist from music’s leading edge,” and The Village Voice has said, “This pianist enthusiastically explores modern and other contemporary areas where a lot of pianists fear to hang out, and she packs enough artistry and technique for the journey.”

Feldman’s music, and the other music in which Marilyn specializes, requires a unique sensibility; it is abstract, often technically difficult work (much like Beckett’s drama), yet at its best is as sensual and evocative as music of the romantic era.

Her official bio:

Marilyn Nonken is one of the most celebrated champions of the modern repertoire of her generation, known for performances that explore transcendent virtuosity and extremes of musical expression. Upon her 1993 New York debut, she was heralded as “a determined protector of important music” (New York Times). Recognized as “one of the greatest interpreters of new music” (American Record Guide), she has been named “Best of the Year” by some of the nation’s leading critics. Marilyn Nonken’s performances have been presented at such venues as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Miller Theatre, the Guggenheim Museum, (Le) Poisson Rouge, IRCAM and the Théâtre Bouffe du Nord (Paris), the ABC (Melbourne), Instituto-Norteamericano (Santiago), the Music Gallery (Toronto), the Phillips Collection, and the Menil Collection, as well as conservatories and universities around the world. Highlights of recent seasons have included performances of Hugues Dufourt’s Erlkönig, Morton Feldman’sTriadic Memories,Tristan Murai’s complete piano music, and Olivier Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen with Sarah Rothenberg. Composers who have written for her include Milton Babbitt, Drew Baker, Pascal Dusapin, Jason Eckardt, Michael Finnissy, Joshua Fineberg, Liza Lim, and Tristan Murail.

A student of David Burge at the Eastman School, Marilyn Nonken received a PhD degree in musicology from Columbia University. Her writings on music have been published in Tempo, Perspectives of New Music, Contemporary Music Review, Agni, Current Musicology, Ecological Psychology, and the Journal of the Institute for Studies in American Music. She has contributed chapters to Perspectives on French Piano Music and Messiaen Perspectives 2: Techniques, Influence, and Reception (both, Ashgate) and is currently writing a monograph on spectral piano music for Cambridge University Press. Director of Piano Studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School, Marilyn Nonken is a Steinway Artist. A full discography of her work can be found here.

We were married on July 11, 2008.


On gender, the visual aspect of musical performance, and authority

In your research, you must have come across many studies about gender and audience in live performance. This is becoming an important issue in new drama and theater as well, especially in theoretical work, where gender issues drive quite a bit of discussion about performance theory. Though you could probably write a book about this, what are the specific challenges you face as a female performer, and how do they differ from what you know about the specific challenges of male performers, if any?

In terms of relating to the audience, I think it’s true that female performers face certain challenges. I’ve always been most conscious of the concept of authority and how authority “looks” in our culture. Most often it looks like a man in a suit. There’s an untouchability to that image, an invincibility and a dominance, to which women don’t have access. So I’m interested in finding different ways of conveying authority on stage. But conveying authority doesn’t mean projecting a boot-in-the-face attitude. Instead, I’m seeking a means to convince the listener that I merit their trust. Obviously, this goes above and beyond choosing compelling repertoire, programming it in a meaningful way, and performing it at the highest possible level. These things mean nothing if the listener doesn’t have faith in the performer.

One of the advantages a woman performer has, I feel, is that it is more acceptable within our culture for women to be expressive. In some ways, I can go further than a male performer – primarily, using my physical presence to enhance the music – because I’m not confined “by the suit” and the associations that go with it.

How does that expressiveness operate in a piece like Drew Baker’s Gaeta, in which there’s a strong element of visual performance, as well as multiple performers?

Gaeta, a work for two pianists and two percussionists, is a very tactile piece. All the players play both the pianos (almost entirely on the insides) and water percussion, which involves gongs and bells struck with mallets while being raised and lowered into basins of water. While Gaeta requires a lot of movement around the stage, it is choreographed only to the extent that the players need to be in certain places at specific times. What fascinates me about this piece is the fabulous contradiction, that very big gestures go into producing extremely quiet, fragile sounds.

This inverse relationship between gesture and sound made me want to eliminate all smaller, extraneous gestures, as if they would somehow result in a kind of interference, or background static. I became obsessed with the idea of large, silent gestures. I decided to go barefoot, which both rooted me to the stage and also freed me to move quickly and aggressively, making it possible to stride around absolutely silently. There is also a crucial passage in which I raised and lowered a large bell into the water while it was being played by the percussionist John Ferrari. This was not the easiest thing to do! In early rehearsals, it felt horribly awkward. I felt my physical discomfort just “assuming the position” was a potentially distracting factor. In some situations, the audience wants to see that effort, but I felt here it was a negative force. So, in the dress rehearsal, I just decided to kneel down. It was a very instinctive move. The motivating factor, obviously, was to eliminate the awkwardness, which it did: it made the whole act much more fluid and relaxed for both John and myself.

But, then, kneeling is also a loaded gesture. Everyone has their own associations with kneeling, whether it’s prayer or sex or what have you. Regardless, a woman kneeling before a man is a gold-mine gesture. It’s perhaps even more powerful for being so rare in the context of classical music performance. So I felt this brought a positive dramatic element to the piece. I never discussed it with John, although I did feel it was a controversial enough interpretive decision that it should be cleared with the composer. And then we made it part of the performance. But in my work, I don’t see myself as “the barefoot pianist” or that pianist “on her knees.” To me, decisions about how to bring the realness of the body into play absolutely must be tied to the demands of the work.

You mentioned the idea of the performer’s “authority” a few moments ago. How does your gender affect your expression, your grasp of authority as a performer? How much attention do you pay to your own movements and visual appearance in performing a work? Does this inform your attempt to project this authority?

It’s a delicate balance, because the expressivity of women in our culture comes pretty cheap. The public is so accustomed to images of women being hysterical or confessional – and hysterical, confessional women are generally not our choices for “authority figures.” A woman crying, for example, is such a common image, it sometimes ceases to move us. When a man cries, however, it’s a much stronger statement: it’s seen as more of a revelation. It’s similar with nudity. The female form is so overexposed, it’s virtually decoration. And yet full frontal male nudity is still at a premium. So I think a great deal about the gestures I choose, or how I dress. Again, it comes down to establishing this authority, and earning and sustaining the listener’s respect and trust.


On self-consciousness, aesthetic and everyday perception, repertoire and risk

How do you negotiate the inevitable self-consciousness that’s involved as the center, spotlit presence and interpreter of a piece of music? Is there a sense in which the composer and the music are operating through you, that you shape this in some way as part of your own individual expression as you perform this often sensuous and emotional work?

What I do is strange enough, it’s impossible not to be self-conscious to a certain degree. It helps me to understand how others see what I do. And a certain degree of awareness is absolutely crucial to expert performance. I see far too many players just oblivious onstage, “lost” in the music – this may seem romantic, but I strongly believe that performers who are all wrapped up in themselves and their own processes are not going to be able to give listeners the performances they deserve.

A performer needs to be more selfless and giving onstage. Yet as selfless and giving as I try to be in performance, in the case of a very virtuosic piece like Eckardt’s Trespass, there’s always a moment when I realize that I’m something of a spectacle myself, like a tightrope walker or carnival contortionist. It’s like seeing oneself in the mirror and stopping to look. I suppose it’s getting a glimpse of what the audience sees, and while there is something fascinating about that, it’s also very distracting. So I try to get away from that, and back to the music.

It’s definitely an ongoing struggle, if that’s the right word, to balance my awareness of myself (which is necessary to performing well) with a desire to simply be a pure vessel through which the music passes. In the best of my performances, I can sense the composer and the music operating through me; and this focus enables me to put my own head aside and get to a higher level of “selfless” performance.

Do you perceive any kind of throughline here as to what role aesthetic perception plays in your experience of the world? Can it carry through to other parts of your life, and do you integrate your experience of your personal life into your art?

In my own life and work, I don’t see a useful disconnect between aesthetic perception and “everyday perception” in general. In this way, my thoughts have been influenced by James J. Gibson, who in the 1960s and 1970s wrote about human psychology and developed what he called an “ecological realist” model of perception.

There is an innate human urge to understand the world and our relation to it. Gibson maintained that we are always seeking to orient ourselves to our environment and determine, within that context, what is useful, or harmful, or pleasing to us – and that we use the same sophisticated perceptual systems and strategies to orient ourselves to whatever environment in which we find ourselves. For example, certain skills come into play in making our way across a crowded Manhattan intersection. We rely on learned knowledge and also what we might refer to as “intuition.” Other skills may come into play in making our way through a cathedral, or through a piece of music, or through a bottle of wine.

Each situation offers unique affordances for sensation and understanding. Each offers us different rewards. Yet, from an ecological realist perspective, the processes motivating our interaction with the environment remain the same. Thus, to me, the concept of aesthetic experience being somehow more abstract, or highly imaginary, is somewhat offensive. Our experiences of music are no less real, or vivid, that our experiences of city streets. Art engages our bodies and minds in a very real, conscious way. The power of art lies in its reality, not its fantasy.

As a performer, I see myself onstage – through the musical work I am playing – as creating a particular musical environment for the listener to explore.

How does your repertoire reflect your own personal aesthetic preferences?

While I try to play a variety of music, the works in my repertoire fall neatly into two distinct groups, which have nothing to do with “style.”

One group includes works that examine the physical, or acoustic, nature of sound. Composers such as Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier, and Tristan Murail fall into this group, as their music is really about the sound itself. It may seem strange to say “this music is about sound,” but there is a great deal of music that is about something else. Much music involves narrative, or representation, or the manifestation of archaic “forms.” A great deal of music uses melodies, rhythms, and harmonies to refer to other things. But this music, to paraphrase Feldman, takes us to a place without metaphor.

The other category includes works that examine the physical act of playing, the bodily aspect of performance. In this category, I place composers whose work necessitates extreme virtuosity, such as Michael Finnissy, Chris Dench, James Dillon, and Jason Eckardt. Their music pushes the performer to the edge, and, in doing so, produces a performance I find rawer and purer, and a relationship with the audience that is at its most honest.

A great deal of performance today is about disguise, superficiality, and artifice. There is also an obsession with correct “performance practice” that imbues and poisons a great deal of what we see and hear, in not only the classical music world but popular music and jazz as well. Yet, when the performer is being pushed to her absolute limits, in a work like Eckardt’s Trespass which has extended passages of barely controlled frenzy, notions of the “appropriate” and “historically correct” become irrelevant. What becomes paramount is trespassing the boundary between the possible and the impossible. This boundary is a real, tangible thing. I think of it as a place – and the most thrilling place music, or anything, can take us.

Sometimes, these two groups overlap. Feldman’s Triadic Memories, which is about 90 minutes of continuous music, played very quietly, requires extreme mental concentration, physical stamina, and control. Murail’s Territoires de l’Oubli (Lands of the Unknown), in which the player generates and maintains specific timbral transformations and resonance patterns over time, demands a rapport with the instrument. These two works are similar in that the awareness of the attendant virtuosity is absolutely integral to my experience as a performer, and the listener’s experience as well. For a work to be most compelling to me, it must bring into play essentially physical elements: the nature of the sound, the potential of the instrument, and the capacity of the body.

How do these tastes reflect themselves in your tastes for other kinds of art (the plastic arts, theater, dance, film, literature)?

In terms of other art forms, I find myself drawn to artists whose work similarly focuses on the corporeal. In visual arts, I think of Egon Schiele, Lucien Freud, Gregory Gillespie, even John Coplans. In literature, there are parallels to Michel Houllebecq (The Elementary Particles) and Jim Crace (Being Dead). In film, the directors associated with the DOGME movement, such as Lars von Trier and Thomas Winterberg, pursue similar themes. All of these artists share a microscopic fascination with the body, with decay and imperfection and what I conceive as a kind of “flawed beauty.” Yet the body isn’t the end of the experience, but the beginning. The body is the gateway to the emotions and the intellect. Often, we have the urge to escape the world of reality, and there are many obvious ways to do that. Through the works of these artists, however – and, I would venture to suggest, the music of the composers I play – we find pleasure, revelation, enlightenment through the contemplation of the physical.

The metaphorical reality of a theatrical performance – fictive identities, characters – is of a different nature than the more formal reality of solo or chamber musical performance. Is there any sort of personal “risk-taking” involved for you in exploring a new work as there might be for an actor or actress as they explore a dramatic role? And how do you think of your audiences, many of whom are of course unknowable to you?

It can be risky to view musical performance as heightened reality, rather than an alternative to reality, or an illusion. Onstage, I am a real person, not a “persona.” The people for whom I play are just that: individuals, not a faceless or generic “audience.” We bring to our experience together preferences, histories, and expectations, and this is a volatile combination. This kind of immediate, intimate encounter is as far as one gets from an abstract cultural construct. And personal encounters, as everyone knows, are the riskiest kind.


On Morton Feldman and Triadic Memories

You’ve spent several years now both recording Triadic Memories and performing it as a stand-alone work for live audiences. What about the piece initially attracted you to it?

When I came to Feldman’s Triadic Memories, I was coming off a fabulous experience playing his last work, Piano Violin Viola Cello, with Ensemble 21. That’s an 80-minute quartet, and it’s hard to convey how rewarding it was to perform. Like no other music, Feldman’s creates this special bond among its players, and, at the same time, among its players and their listeners. It’s incredibly intense, and this was one of the most gratifying chamber music experiences I’d had up to that point. Coming off that high, I think I very selfishly wanted to also have that kind of experience to myself, to create my own Feldmanesque environment and invite people in to share it. From the start, I wanted to find a piece that in itself would be a full recital program (Triadic Memories is 90 minutes), tour with it, and then commit it to disc.

In determining the tempi for the various portions of the work you hit upon using the human heartbeat as a controlling rhythmic paradigm, which I assume took some considerable thought. How did you first approach this work – for that matter, how do you first approach any new work?

Learning any piece is very private activity. The earliest, soft stage of training the body and the mind, is horribly unsexy and not altogether pleasant. I spent a lot of time with Triadic Memories working with a metronome, developing a physical memory and stamina, and working to be able to maintain a consistent sense of rhythm and dynamic. I felt it was incredibly important to prepare to combat the inevitable fatigue, and the less reliable perceptions that come with it. I can compare this stage to something like a deepsea diver, practicing spending progressively longer periods of time under water.

Bringing the piece to the public is when it came alive for me. Performing in real time, there is always a thrill that comes from knowing that everything matters that much more. I can’t help but be more self-aware. But playing Feldman’s music, I also find myself that much more aware of my listeners. When I play Triadic Memories for Feldman fans, the intensity of our shared focus is just wild. I sense us all united within the space, to the point we’re almost breathing at the same rate. Other times, when I perform Triadic Memories for audiences less comfortable with Feldman’s music, I can sense their dissatisfaction and anxiety. Whatever the reaction, this music creates such a delicate atmosphere, and the energy from the audience feeds into it as well. In the sense of John Cage, the drama with this piece is not just what’s going on onstage. It’s what going on in the hall.

You performed the work live first; when it came time to commit it to disc, without an audience present, how did you approach this different medium?

This communal experience can’t be captured at all on a recording, so I sought to make my recorded version much more personal. Essentially, I sought to create on the CD a replica of what I hear from the keyboard. On the recording, using close-miking, we were able to capture these wonderful sonic phenomena, the most gorgeous resonances that are so much a part of my experience of the piece that never make it past the first row. It’s a version of Triadic Memories that no one will ever hear in a concert hall, but, ideally, it is close to what Feldman heard, at his piano and in his head, when he was writing the piece.