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?