Mixing up the Classics

On my way home today, I heard an interesting piece on All Things Considered about Gabriela Montero, a Venezuelan classical pianist who just released a new CD Piano Miniatures (sorry, can’t find it at Amazon, yet).

(Before I go much further I should say that beyond my four or five years of piano lessons as a child and teenager, I have no expertise whatsoever when it comes to classical music — other than the fact that I like to listen to it. )

What’s interesting about Monetero, and what most of the ATC piece discussed, was that she improvises. She doesn’t just improvise in the sense of “making up” stuff from scratch — she improvises upon the masters. So she plays Chopin, but she plays it her way. The pieces I heard on ATC sounded familiar, but they were distinctly different. Some of her improvisations, for example, have a distinctly jazzy flavor. Gabriela Montero is ripping, mixing, and feeding me something new in classical music.

What was also interesting was the commentary by the reviewers. Apparently, this approach to classical music isn’t so revolutionary. Apparently, until about 100 years ago, improvising upon the classical masters was actually the norm. It was only around the turn of the 20th century that the notion that musicians were supposed to strictly interpret and re-present the classics became commonplace.

This struck a chord (sorry) with me and it took me a few minutes to figure out why. Then I realized that this was making me think of Wikipedia. This piece was making me think of modern notions of authority and ownership of work. I’ve heard before that our current idea of copyright and ownership is a modern notion, but this review really hit it home for me.

I love the idea that musicians are not supposed to just play the masters, but make the masters their own. I love what this says about authorship and reader(player)ship. I love what this says about communities of speech/performance.

Why did we get away from this idea that the job of an artist is not to either create something entirely new (a visual arts persepctive?) or exactly represent the intentions of an originator (the performing arts perspective?)? What happened, in particular, in the world of music that pushed musicians into this very different role?

2 thoughts on “Mixing up the Classics”

  1. Martha and I just talked tonight….thanks Martha!

    Recently our orchestra (the Virginia Symphony, based in Norfolk) performed with the violinist Lara St. John ( http://www.larastjohn.com ) who is known for her unusual interpretations of various pieces. She played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and she changed a lot of the notes that were written to (I thought) further reflect the character of the various seasons. For instance, during Fall, the movement which is supposed to reflect the drunken revelries of the harvest, she swooned around the stage, bending many of the notes out of tune and completely out of tempo. She even plucked notes when they were “supposed” to be played with the bow.

    Personally, I thought the performance was great, and she got a standing ovation (though this is rather commonplace nowadays), but interestingly- my violinist colleagues were starkly split in their opinions about Ms. St. John. Over drinks after the concert, some of them railed against her interpretation for HOURS- and these were some of the most mild mannered people I know.

    At the crux of the issue, to me, is the relationship of Composer to Performer to Audience- the triumverate of music making, and indeed, perhaps of all art forms.
    My colleagues who were so outraged firmly believe that the role of the Performer should be minimal; indeed, entirely subservient to the Composer- faithfully rendering all of the markings in the music and transmitting them to the audience as exactly as possible.

    I have always taken issue with this idea. First of all, especially during the Baroque Era, performers were EXPECTED to write their own cadenzas, as well as improvise freely. Quite often the performers WERE the composers- much like some pop artists today. So they changed things at will.

    Second of all, I believe the relegating the Performer to a second-class role in the triangle has the consequence of bringing all innovation and progress to a halt. While tradition certainly has a place in Classical music (and is much appreciated- hence the success of several Period Instrument ensembles),,the world is ever changing. Our collective experience evolves and integrates those changes. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations- one of the undisputed treasures of classical recordings- were performed on the piano, of course; not the Clavier for which they were orginally written. And yet, as one listens to the first theme, who could argue that Gould doesn’t communicate Bach’s ideas faithfully?

    Most importantly, I believe that Performers serve a dual purpose: first, to communicate the ideas put forth by the composer, and second, to INVOLVE the Audience (equally important!) in the process of transmitting those ideas. The purpose of music is to reflect, explore and share in the human experience. To subjugate the Performer to a mere copyist is to render him almost inhuman- thereby tragically and inexaorably interrupting the process of communication that the Composer has labored so long to produce. What could be LESS faithful to the Composer’s intent than this tragic consequence?

    My $.02


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.