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The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age (Music since 1900) Hardcover – April 28, 2014
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"Marilyn Nonken's new book on spectral music for the piano is a screaming success ... Few books can boast as much, and it is gratifying to encounter an international concert performer who can make so engaging a discourse around her core repertoire."
Bob Gilmore, Tempo
The most influential compositional movement of the past fifty years, spectralism was informed by digital technology but also extended the aesthetics of pianist-composers such as Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy. In The Spectral Piano, Marilyn Nonken explores these shared fascinations and the parallels between the movement's contemporary aesthetics and psychological research.
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THE SPECTRAL PIANO opens with an historical prologue, where Nonken notes how Liszt, Debussy and Messiaen were writing for the piano in a way that considered its mechanics and natural resonance, with the pianist having to "look behind the score" and make his or her own decisions for attack and pedaling depending on the particular piano used and the hall's acoustic. Following a discussion of these forebears, she then presents five spectralist composers and particular solo piano works that typify their approach: Tristan Murail ("Territoires de l'oubli", "Les Travaux et les Jours"), Hugues Dufourt ("Erlkönig"), Joshua Finberg ("Veils", "Tremors"), Edmund Campion ("A Complete Wealth of Time" and others) and Jonathan Harvey ("Tombeau de Messiaen"). The discussion of these pieces abounds with reproductions of the scores.
The book ends with a contribution from Hugues Dufourt entitled "Spectral music and its pianistic expression". This essay, originally conceived of as the preface to the book, offers a view of someone long involved in the spectralist scene (even if, as Nonken herself notes, he is arguably not a spectral composer himself).
For readers who already know a great deal about the spectralist approach in general, especially those who have read the 2000 Contemporary Music Review double issue on spectralism, at least half this book consists of things that one will already know. That is, Nonken repeats general issues of spectralism that aren't specifically about the piano. Furthermore, she repeats herself at times, and the book really does read like she was trying to dot every i and cross every t to please a team of reviewers, instead of like a smoothly flowing monograph. Still, as a fan of this kind of music, I found enough new material here to make this worthwhile, and THE SPECTRAL PIANO will introduce the still little-known Fineberg and Campion to listeners.
Nonken then takes us through three generations of spectral composers including Grisey and Murail, Hugues Dufuort, Joshua Fineberg, and Jonathan Harvey. In matters relating to these composers, Nonken is of course an authority: many of these composers she has known personally, and worked with on their own music. Many of her quotations also come from personal correspondence with the composers in question.
An additional significant concern of this book is its emphasis on an ecological understanding of music. (This was the subject of Dr. Nonken's dissertation.) Performer, listener, and composer in interaction with musical environment - as well as questions of center vs periphery and activity vs passivity in musical listening.
You will want listening to go along with this book: Nonken's own masterful recording of Murail's complete piano works is a good place to start. See also her recording Voix Voiles, which includes a number of the works discussed in the book (especially Dufourt's massive, agonistic Erlkönig). Also be sure to look up Grisey's Partiels and chamber/orchestral works of Murail.