This Saturday, September 6, 2014 at 7PM at Chicago's Constellation, Marilyn Nonken will present an intense exploration of the piano's many sonic identities. In addition to three of my works, the program will include pieces by Paul Clift, Joshua Fineberg, Gerard Pesson, Dominique Troncin, and Claude Vivier. Tickets are only $10 and can be purchased online at Ticketfly.com or at the door.
Below is the complete program as well as a brief interview with Marilyn. Her historical, philosophical, and technical insights provide an engaging preview of Saturday night's concert. Hope to see you there!
Dominique Troncin: Ciel ouvert
Gerard Pesson: La Lumière n'a pas de bras pour nous porter
Joshua Fineberg: Grisaille
Drew Baker: Asa Nisi Masa
Drew Baker: National Anthem
Paul Clift: Action painting -- dark blue, green
Drew Baker: Gray
Claude Vivier: Shiraz
DB: In your book, The Spectral Piano, you talk about “the spectral attitude” and define it as “an approach to music composition and performance supported by four related preoccupations: timbre (tone color), process (transformation), time (temporality), and perception.” While the program you will play in Chicago is not exclusively comprised of spectral composers, these preoccupations seem nonetheless applicable. Is this spectral attitude an appropriate filter through which to view the concert?
MN: I think it's a great way to listen to these pieces—it does provide that through line, and those four preoccupations are affinities all of these composers share.
Of course, many of the pieces on the program are directly connected with the spectral composers. Paul Clift's piece doesn't "sound" spectral, in terms of its use of the instrument, but he worked George Benjamin and Tristan Murail, and he shares their sensitivities to color and process. Troncin and Fineberg both worked with Murail, and in their pieces we hear something really tied to the spectral tradition: a fascination with resonances and building resonances in ways only the piano can, through use of highly specific kinds of articulations and pedaling. It's all very tactile, physical, sensual music. There is a drama to the sound that supersedes any kind of typical narrative or traditional musical form.
One thing to keep in mind is that the spectral composers' interest in timbre and color was closely tied to developments in computer and electronic music, and many of these composers were also taught by Ivo Malec at the Paris Conservatoire, who was a kind of disciple of Pierre Schaeffer. Many share an interest in electronic music, and have been influenced by those revolutions in how we hear and make sound, which have taken place in the past thirty years. Pesson's piece, which hardly uses pitched elements, still explores a continuum of tone colors, resulting from barely attacked tones on the keyboard to the various sounds of skin and nail on the keyboard, and the attack of the foot on the pedal as well. So there is this extraordinary attention to the sound itself, as the basis of the drama of the work.
In your own pieces, too, there is this fascination with transforming harmonies and layered resonances. I always think of your work as being intimately connected to Feldman, and although he wasn't in any way a "spectral" composer, he had that affinity for sound. Feldman also studied piano with a student of Scriabin, whom I consider a primary proto-spectralist.
DB: You will open the program with Ciel overt by Dominique Troncin (1961-1994), a composer whose works are seldom performed in the United States. When did you first discover this piece and how would you compare Troncin's treatment of the piano to that of his teacher, Tristan Murail?
MN: I’m not sure when I first heard his music, but before performing this piece for the first time last spring, I had wanted to learn it for years. I'm sure I heard it from Dominique My's recording. Troncin died of AIDS in 1994, only 33 years old, but he was an inspiring teacher and composer. I've come across so many composers and performers who crossed his path, who describe a wonderfully generous and inventive man. There's a fabulous CD of works written in his memory by the major composers of the time, many his colleagues in Paris, and both the Pesson work (La Lumière n'a pas de bras pour nous porter) and Joshua Fineberg's Til Human Voices Wake Us (a work I also play, but not on Saturday's program) were written in his memory.
Troncin's piece resembles Murail's music, but is also highly individual. There are great swaths that Murail would never have written! Texturally it is very much his own, and dramatically it is sometimes very weird. Troncin's piece doesn't have the same "organic" feel as many spectral works, which can be intensely-process-driven. He is able to find these moments of rupture, that are very shocking, particularly because the piece begins in such a beautiful, delicate fashion.
DB: The sheer physicality of Vivier’s Shiraz stands out as a unique challenge. Yet it seems that this program requires an impressive technical range that goes beyond the more obvious virtuosic demands. What are some of the technical concerns you've encountered in preparing this concert?
MN: Shiraz is certainly one of the hardest pieces physically in the repertoire, in terms of sheer stamina and power. Vivier requires that the pianist play extremely athletically, for what seem like impossibly long passages, and then immediately afterwards play graceful passagework with sensitivity and delicacy. One needs to play with certain abandon, but retain the control or reserve to bring nuance to the material as well. In Pesson's piece, of course, there is a different kind of control and skill required—no actual "notes" are played, so the pianist needs to recalibrate her relation to the keyboard. Many, many levels of articulation and dynamic are required—but the keys must never hit the key bed.
There is a fantastic center-section in Joshua Fineberg's piece which borders on the difficulty of the "new complexity," and perhaps transcends it: requiring that the pianist play polyphonically, physically being almost phantom-like, in two or four or six places at once. I really enjoy practicing this material, and ultimately I think the pianist is able to create a compelling illusion of what's on the page. As a pianist, I think that "compelling illusion" is often what I'm after.
Technically, I am always interested in the variety of color and nuance, and this is always directly tied to the instrument and space in the live performance. So in all the pieces, traditionally "virtuosic" or not, a real challenge to me is developing these conceptions of each piece and its individual sound world, and then creating these sound worlds Saturday night on a new instrument (to me), in a new space. So there is a high level of anticipation, uncertainty, and chance involved with each one—that's a big technical concern which I don't really address until the night of the concert itself.
NOTE: Below are YouTube videos featuring some of the pieces that Marilyn will perform on Saturday night. With the exception of National Anthem, all performances below are by other pianists.