Contemporary music, piano and me

Since my sophomore year at Trenton State College (now College of New Jersey) I have had a fatal attraction to contemporary music against my parents’ wishes.  I often wonder if that was my way to escape to a place, where I could be myself without their interference, since they totally disapproved contemporary music.

During that year I heard for the first time a live performance of Olivier Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur with organist Albert Ludecke, who had a profound influence on developing my musical taste during college days.

No, I never played the organ, but thanks to him I became very interested in 20th Century French organ repertoire and composers such as Marcel Dupré, Charles Tournemire, Jehan Alain, Maurice Duruflé and many others.  That led to my research into the repertoire by those composers and into the discovery of a variety of their piano works.

I will never forget my excitement when I found and purchased a copy of the Préludes” of Olivier Messiaen, four of which I included on my college senior recital. As I recall, these pieces received the biggest applause at my recital.

Olivier Messiaen is almost a regular fixture on many recitals now, but years ago his music was not.

This led later to more discoveries of piano repertoire like the wonderful set of 12 “Préludespoèmes” by Charles Tournemire – something between the music of Debussy and Messiaen.  The interesting thing about this music was that some of it was written on 4 or more staves!

Through the years, I performed a number of these as well as the original piano version of Marcel Dupré popular organ workCortège and Litanie, Op. 19, No. 2” and of course, much Messiaen.

My master’s thesis at the Manhattan School of Music was of course, devoted to the music of one of the 20th century French organists and titled “A Seventy-Fifth Birthday Tribute to Maurice Durufle.” I still have 2 letters I treasure, written to me by the composer.

My fascination with obscure contemporary music continued when I discovered the music of Alan Hovhaness. This eventually led to the meeting and my friendship with the composer as well as to doctoral dissertation on a number of piano sonatas, and later 2 recordings of his piano music. I am planning in the near future to go more deeply into the subject of Hovhaness and my feeling about the very disappointing centennial year tributes.

From the time I turned my world upside down by researching piano music by French composers, I have that strange feeling, similar to hunger, that forces me to look for obscure music, almost to the point of obsession (at least my wife thinks so). When I see an exciting première recording coming out I almost get the shakes from all the excitement.

I do not know if I would be who I am without good music education and inspiring teachers. My interest in music has expanded in many different directions, and I do know that some of my interests have changed over the years. I might not care much now about music I loved before and vice versa.  Sometimes I must listen to a new work a few times before I like it, and I almost never reject anything permanently.  I am also evolving and a few years later I might change my opinion.

We should always try to remember that some of the musical warhorses of today were given poor reviews when they were first presented.

Regardless of what I am teaching, I always remember my teachers, what they did for me, and what I liked about them.  I might be the first to open the door of knowledge and encourage young students to discover the world of new music, the world I am so passionate about.

My students must learn repertoire from all periods, but I rarely see excitement when I hand them a new piece of Mozart or Schubert.  I know that eventually they may possibility learn to love this music, but for now I let them love the music of today such as that by Jennifer Castellano, René Eespere, Ludovico Einaudi, Philip Glass, Jaan Rääts, Yoichi Togawa, and the works of other living composers.

One of my young students confessed to me that after learning a piano work by Einaudi, he downloaded 20 different tracks of his music to his IPod. Not Lady Gaga but Einaudi? I was very excited to see this.

I enjoy seeing young faces when they shake the hand of a young composer (someone they can relate to) who wrote a work they just played.  I do remember how my student reacted after finding out the year a composer wrote a work she was playing. “Wow, I was 8 years old when this work was written.”

This is why new repertoire must be introduced to young students if we want them to step into 21st Century.

Whether I present, my Classical Discoveries program, a lecture or a piano recital, people are always asking me why we do not hear more music of our time. I know that only through exposure  you can change a person’s general opinion, but I also know that this is a rather complicated issue. Sometimes I do not know what to say to people without hurting their feelings.

The hardest thing for me is to understand why some people are so inflexible and closed-minded and are not willing to open their mind and ears, and accept the fact that there is much more to music than Mozart and Schubert. The answer may simply be is that people are comfortable only with the familiar.

These are typical comments I hear when strangers find out what I am doing:

  •      A.   I hate new music!
  •      Q.    When was the last time you heard music you hated?
  •      AO! In the seventies or eighties and now I never go to any new music concerts.
  •      Q.  That was many years ago. If you never heard any recently how do you know if you will still hate it?
  •      A.   No one can be better than Beethoven, Mozart or Tchaikovsky.
  •      Q.   Do you ever listen to recordings of new music?
  •      A.   No, I would not give this crap a chance, and all new music is crap!!!
  •      Q.    If you try just a little, you may change your opinion and like it.
  •      A .  No way.

It sounds like talking to the wall, but what is interesting, is that some of those non-believers have actually changed their mind. There was a commercial many years ago which included the phrase “Try it, you’ll like it.”  Maybe this should be the phrase to try to encourage listeners to give new music a chance?

A few weeks ago I presented a workshop “21st Century Piano Literature’ for the “Piano Teachers Forum” in Central New Jersey.  I performed and discussed new works from all over the world for all levels of piano students.

This is briefly what I wrote in my introduction to the list of recommended works for piano students:

I have been disturbed by the general lack of interest in the music of our time, for not only the piano, but for other instruments and ensembles as well.  Over the years, after speaking to some of my colleagues, I realized that it was not a lack of interest, but rather a lack of exposure. I have acquired many interesting recordings from all over the world for my radio program and have also received from composers some of their piano works for my personal use, due to my interest in contemporary piano literature. I am very happy to share some of that music with you.  In earlier centuries new music was greatly supported and I hope that this trend will eventually return.  I know that my students are very excited about playing music composed during their lifetime.

Based on the reaction during and after the presentation, as well as e-mails I received, the participating teachers were very excited about this workshop. Hopefully, some of the attending teachers will share this excitement about new music with their students. It is important for musicians and teachers to support the music of living composers.

I will be presenting 2 more workshops featuring 21st Century Piano Repertoire in the beginning of February. This time they will be with this year’s commissioned composer for “New Jersey Music Teachers Association (NJMTA), Jennifer Castellano. Jennifer will perform her own compositions and discuss her challenges as a visually and hearing-impaired musician. Jennifer (the second half of the Rosen – Castellano Duo) and I will be recording a CD of contemporary works for piano four-hands during the summer and will be presenting a few of these works during the upcoming workshops. The workshops will also include my performances of new piano repertoire as well, that I also intend to record soon.

If you are in the neighborhood of Princeton or Willow Grove and wish to attend as a guest either of those workshops please contact me at:

Music and copyright by Jennifer Castellano

Music and copyright by Jennifer Castellano

René Eespere:

Ludus Tactus (2008)

Yuko Yoshioka, Piano

Music: Yoichi Togawa
“Kaze no ha”for Piano
Piano: Yoshiko Takase


About marvinrosen
Music is my middle name

6 Responses to Contemporary music, piano and me

  1. Hey Marvin- Really nice post.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Hey Marv, really great post and learned some new things regarding your early years in contemporary music. Love the picture of you at the piano. Who took that? It is really a nice shot:-)

  3. Irene V says:

    Dear Marvin, as you know by my emails, your workshop on 21st century music more than excited me. I immediately found numerous sites where I could listen to Einaudi’s music, bought his Islands cd, and piano music as well. I sent links to several of my teen students, hoping to entice them to think outside the box of classical, baroque, romantic music, just as you did in your workshop. I am so indebted to you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to share this music with us. It is always so wonderful to be exposed to fresh music!

    • marvinrosen says:

      Thanks so much Irene! I really enjoy sharing new music because I feel that there is so much exciting stuff out there. I am so glad you enjoyed the workshop which I had so much fun preparing.

  4. Joe Barron says:

    My problem is just the opposite from that of the hypothetical listener you quote: I love the postwar avant-garde. It’s the new, so-called “audience friendly” stuff that leaves me cold. It strikes me that so much of it is trying to be ingratiating that it forgets to be exciting. You said something during our interview that disturbed me, but we were having a friendly chat, and I didn’t challenge you on it: that some music being written today could have been written 300 years ago. I’ve often thought the same thing, and I don;t view it as a positive development. To me, it suggests that young composers are fresh out of ideas. The essence of postmodernism is a mining of the past – with reverence or irony, it makes no difference. But why listen to an imitation of Bach when you can listen to Bach?

  5. marvinrosen says:

    I am very interested in the postwar avant-garde also but find that we need to change the preconceived notion that many people have regarding contemporary music. We are living at a time when composers are writing in different styles. Some works of course are more audience friendly than others. The audience friendly works of today will hopefully inspire listeners to have an open mind in general about the music of our time and at least give much of it a chance with open ears.

    I think we are living in a very exciting time because musically any style is appropriate. Sure, some of it may be greatly inspired by earlier periods of music. However, we have a larger variety of instruments being used now, not to mention electronics. Some of the composers of the Baltic region, for example, have been inspired by the music of earlier periods however their music always has a different twist, whether it be instrumentally, harmonically or melodically, etc. I actually find it very exciting to hear new music greatly inspired by the old. Some of it may be very much like what we have heard earlier but there are always differences of some type. I actually don’t have any problem with composers being greatly inspired by earlier periods if the music is well-written and communicates something.

    When I teach I will often be asked “why do we do music of mainly just dead composers?” Once you show students that there is enjoyable, more friendly music written now their eyes open up. Why? They get excited because it was written during their time, a time that is relevant to them. Many works of today were inspired by elements of rock music and this is very exciting to students! I always begin my contemporary music classes by asking students to mention one word that describes contemporary music. The words I always get are words like dissonant, unpleasant, etc. which of course we all know is not true.

    I have always said that there is something for everyone in today’s music. They just need to be exposed.

    Just get listeners interested in contemporary music in any way and they will at least eventually give other works a chance. Not all music is great in any musical period however we need to change the preconceived notion about contemporary music for us to go on. An open mind will hopefully eventually encourage listeners to at least give the more progressive works a chance. All of our living composers deserve a chance to be heard during their lifetime as was the case in earlier centuries.

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