Nonken feels she's developing a new performance practice, working with students not only to refine technical and interpretive skills but also to better understand where music - new and old - and performers fit in today's culture.
"Like many children, I was given piano lessons as a formality," says Marilyn Nonken, who started playing the piano when she was five. She knew she was musical, and thought she was gifted, but didn't contemplate music seriously until she was 15. "That's when I was accepted into a master class with noted pianist Leon Fleischer and began to realize I could spend my life doing something I enjoyed so much."
A vibrant international career as a performer and teacher followed. In 2006, Nonken came to NYU. "I'm very drawn to New York and the music scene here, so when I saw a chance to teach - especially in a department that has a reputation for being such a cutting edge place - I was very excited."
Nonken's focus is on the work of living composers, and particularly contemporary French music. "I'm interested in following the tradition that began with Debussy, which has had a global influence on music. My research is not only about keeping this repertoire alive by performing it, but also educating people about the ideas within it, how composers think about sound and time and musical color and harmony, and how music of the past influences composers writing today."
When she works with students on 20th and 21st century music, Nonken feels she's developing a new performance practice, working with students not only to refine technical and interpretive skills but also to better understand where music - new and old - and performers fit in today's culture. "I'm also trying to encourage students to become teachers of this tradition. With Beethoven and Bach there are centuries of scholarship, but with a living music tradition - one that began in the 20th century - that's not the case."
As Director of Piano Studies, Nonken's duties include recruiting students who are a good fit with the teachers in the department. "Each teacher specializes in a different repertoire, and many times a different technical approach to performing. I make sure students are working with a teacher who is suited to them, and aware of what kind of music they want to play professionally." She finds a lot of camaraderie among the students who come to the department. "I think that's what makes it such a great learning environment."
Nonken also organizes special events, like the recent Schumann festival featuring undergraduate and graduate pianists, as well as artist faculty members, in performance. She's also working on a project with the composer Liza Lim. With a grant from the Ian Potter Foundation, Lim is creating a piece for Nonken inspired by Cy Twombly's painting The Four Seasons. Nonken and Lim will present the piece internationally at universities and museums with Twombly's art in their collections, as well as a series of performances and workshops at NYU. "The project aims to draw attention to Lim's creative process, the relationships among composers, performers, and listeners, and the interaction between visual and musical arts."
In spite of such a full schedule, Nonken continues to find time to perform internationally, at festivals including Messiaen 2008, Festival d'Automne, and Musica Nova Helskinki, and at renowned venues around the world. Recent releases include a portrait CD on the Tzadik label featuring music written for her by the Australian composer Chris Dench. She also recently premiered a new work written for her by Thomas L. Beyer, a part-time member of the department's composition faculty, at Steinhardt's Loewe Theatre.
"One of the things I've been very happy with at Steinhardt is that I've been able to combine my research, my love of teaching and what I do as a performer. After many years of traveling around and spending a day or two in many places, it's really nice to feel part of such a wonderful community."