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For 20 years, pianist Marilyn Nonken has championed innovative composers from Feldman to Finnissy. A longstanding fascination with spectral music led her to record works by its founding fathers Tristan Murail and Hugues Dufourt, and now she’s written The Spectral Piano, a slim academic study to which Dufourt has contributed a chapter. Nonken suggests ‘the spectral attitude’ comprises ‘four related preoccupations’ – timbre, process, time, perception – and results in a music that privileges continuous timbral transformation rather than predetermined form or meaning. She traces this attitude’s evolution through a lineage of pianistic ‘protospectralists’ – Liszt, Scriabin, Debussy, Messiaen – and explains how the arrival of computer technology, specifically spectral analysis and digital synthesis, finally made spectral composition possible. Her ‘biased history’ (her phrase) then focuses on the composers with whom she’s worked and whose music she performs. This allows her to write with authority and insight about a handful of spectral piano pieces (by Murail, Dufourt, Joshua Fineberg, Edmund Campion and Jonathan Harvey), and her vivid accounts of how their specific challenges changed both her technique and her understanding of the piano’s sonic capabilities provide the book’s most enthralling pages. However, this personal perspective means she overlooks many other spectral piano works and composers. Her extravagant claims about spectralism’s impact also reveal a different bias, overlooking the point that many vernacular musics, such as jazz and pop, already used and valued timbre very differently from the classical tradition.

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