North Texas Objectivist Society (NTOS) Message Board › In Praise of Gabriela Montero

In Praise of Gabriela Montero

A former member
Post #: 168
Recently I had the fortune to engage in some not so stimulating discussion regarding music in general and improvisation in particular. :) You know who you are...and woe be unto you. :) Fortunately for you I am here to fill the blank spots in your education. Count yourself among the blessed. :)

About a year ago I came upon an artist whom I did not know and her name is Gabriela Montero. Her speciality is free improvization upon well known tunes from the baroque period. Free improvization is a technique well known in jazz but rarely employed in classical music. It consists of the musican taking an existing melody and creating a new piece of music on the spot. It's not easy and the results aren't always perfect, but it does lend a certain...dash...to a performance. In some ways it helps if you are familiar with the source material, but it's not necessary. Her latest CD "Gabriela Montero - Baroque" is a wonderful representation of what she does. (Plus I love the name Gabriela...ahhhh...the Italians do know love.) Anyway if you have an interest in improvisation or classical music this is a wonderful introduction to both.

Also, according to the CD jacket, she is doing a series of FREE web broadcasts! They started in October 2007, and I don't know if they are still going on, but you can find out for yourself at www.gabrielamontero.com. There are also several free podcasts available.

Listen. Learn. Enjoy!

Pytheus
Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 704
Recently I had the fortune to engage in some not so stimulating discussion regarding music in general and improvisation in particular. :) You know who you are...and woe be unto you. :) Fortunately for you I am here to fill the blank spots in your education. Count yourself among the blessed. :)


I will.

I confess I am ignorant about the entire field of music. For what little my opinion regarding such matters is worth, I do like her music. Thank you for exposing me to it.


Gabriela Montero writes:

... It has taken a few years for people to understand and believe the inexplicable mystery of free improvisation ....

They [the pieces on her record] are all improvisations because they arose out of the same white void that I inhabit when I do this, and I cannot stress enough how the process that these improvisations go through (and myself!) are as much a puzzle to me as they are to everyone who asks me, "How do you do it?".

The value in this music is that it is created without thought ...

http://gabrielamonter...­


I confess I remain mystified.

Jeff wrote: "It's not easy and the results aren't always perfect." I grant that it is not easy -- I certainly can't even imagine doing it. But I wonder about "the results aren't always perfect" -- not that I presume to judge. Deferring to Jeff's judgment that the results aren't always perfect, I continue to ask why she would not improve her improvisions with studied revision? And why would a more knowledgeable audience not prefer that?

Whatever "dash" that Jeff mentioned may be created in the improvision performance, could it not be preserved in writing it down and improved with revision? This assumes the "improvisation" is in the nature of "inspiration."

Or is this "dash" the skill required in "on-the-spot" creation and performance, plus the surprise of the unexpected?

I have watched actors improvise, too, and do improvision well, as such and for what it is. As such, I enjoy the on-the-spot skill, the speed of their reaction, plus the surprises of the unexpected (and the actors' good-natured discomfiture in trying to cope with it). But to me (ignorant as I am), improvisation is not the highest or most enjoyable acting art form. It seems to me that those same actors could perform objectively better with a script according to acting standards, except for that fact that it would then not be judged according to the standard of improvisation.

Perhaps that is the key. It is good as improvision.

But to me, it would seem that in principle improvision is not the highest of the art form, whether it be on a piano with a Baroque theme but no sheet music, a saxophone with a Jazz theme but no sheet music, or on an acting stage with a situational theme but no script. Maybe this is my error.

I am probably a lost cause regarding music appreciation, so there is no need to spend much time on my account.

Thank you again for the link.
Karen Gainey
skgainey
Sulphur, OK
Post #: 22
*laughs heartily*

I have to agree with Todd. Although I appreciate someone with a quick wit, generally what I have seen as improv could be improved (hmm - a base Latin root?) upon. As I do not know music - my hearing is so bad most of it is just noise - I can only comment on comedy, whether stand up or acting. And maybe I get a different slant on it because I read it in subtitles rather than the instantaneous reaction of the second. I have always enjoyed Carol Burnett, but the joy in it was mostly in watching the fun the actors themselves were having rather than the comedy. I know my brother says he tries out his quips and half written routines on his friends and family before trying them on stage, and maybe many comedians do this as well. To me, improvisation is 'hit or miss', and as a viewer I prefer receiving entertainment for my money/time. But I don't usually watch movies that have not been previewed either. I dislike wasting two hours with a medium that is not my favorite, so I use the 'previewed' method. If Stanley thinks they are worth watching a second time (and are not horror or filmed in a dark setting like Aliens) then I will watch them. Books I go through quickly, so I am less discriminate with them, and basically preview them for him.

I did ask Stanley to listen to her works (he is very much into music) and his comment was that he was not impressed. He feels the original authors of the songs would not be impressed either. He enjoyed what she wrote herself but felt the improvisations to be a slight to the original pieces. He equated it with someone using one line of a Bill Cosby monologue in their routine (for example, just using the breathing from his Childbirth routine) and calling it Bill Cosby's natural childbirth routine. Stanley's comments included the word butchered. For a more detailed analysis you will have to ask Stanley :-)

She is a pretty girl.
A former member
Post #: 169
Well...interesting responses.

Historically speaking improvization has a long lineage. After the fall of Rome, there simply was NO WRITTEN MUSIC as all the people who understood musical notation had died (or been butchered). Therefore the only method to learn music was memorization or...improvization. In fact, improvization was primarliy they providence of....SECULAR musicians which grew into the troubador tradition. It was the Church, realizing their error to late, that wanted all music to stand still...literally. NO CHANGE. It was the secular musicians, the singers of bawdy songs, that made up tunes on the spot (improvization) that helped fuel the Renassiance.

As far as written music being "objectively" better, I don't know how you measure such a thing. I would agree it's repeatable, but that doesn't make it better.

"He feels the original authors of the songs would not be impressed either." - Upon what evidence is this conclusion, or feeling, based? Bach was well known as a master of improvization. Composers/musicians of the Baroque and Classical periods often improvized on their own works and those of others.

Butchered? Why? What about her improvization "butchered" Bach or Vivaldi? She didn't attempt to recreate the work as composed, but to take a small peice and use it to create something entirely new. If you want to hear butchering check out "Opera Babes"...a big hit in the UK.

I do not agree that free improvization lacks musical standards or rigour. I have read Ms. Montero's comments as well and like most musicians, or other special artists, they have difficulty explaining what they do to outsiders. As an example there was a famous experiment involving worldclass tennis players who were asked HOW they hit a certain stroke. But when filmed and their action analyized, they weren't doing anything close to what they thought they were doing.

Much of this has to do with how artists or others learn their skill. There is a old saying about learning a piece of music so you can forget it. This isn't mystical! This means internalizing the conscious note-by-note playing so the musician can concentrate on higher order concerns, like phrasing, etc...

Personally I think Bach would be over-joyed that over 250 years after his death people are still finding fresh ways to approach his music and make something new.

Pytheus
Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 706
Hi Pytheus,

By "writing down" and "preserving," I was not speaking to repeatability or teaching to others, but the opportunity for the author himself to study and revise, as a draft work, before making a public performance.

The word "improvisation" should be more clearly defined. We have now several different contexts before us: learning music, "making do" without writings, or making a public performance in a modern context.

For example, regarding trying to learn in science or engineering without having any teacher, I would use terms such as "experimentation" or "trial and error," not "improvisation." In the art of painting, the artist will sometimes paint one or more "studies" as part of a learning or preparation process before attempting to make the final work, but I don't think these are understood as "improvisations." To my understanding, such efforts to learn are usually not intended for public performance at the Bass Performance Hall (except perhaps for student exhibitions, where the auidence is mostly made up of their supportive families and friends).

For "making do" without written music in the dark ages or on a desert island, I would use the term, but that is not the context of my question, either.

My question regarded "improvisation" in the sense of a public performance without specific preparation of the work to be performed. I was asking about the artist himself having the opportunity to improve the work before choosing to make a public performance of the work.

If you mean "improvisation" in the sense of "inspiration," it still seems to me that the initial "idea" of the inspiration is sometimes going to be "good" -- by the author's own standard -- but that the artist could improve and refine the idea by recording the initial inspiration (by writing, tape recording, or whatever means) and making a studied revision.

If you mean that the audience can enjoy watching an "improvisation" as such, for observing the skill of a master making a work without preparation, I can understand that to a limited extent, but I still struggle with it being "as good as" a prepared performance -- even if the artist himself were the judge of the work. By analogy to something I can get my own arms around, although probably not a good analogy to music, I certainly prefer to edit my own technical and legal writings before publication.
A former member
Post #: 171
Granted!

The ability to "improve" a work is generally not possible if the composer doesn't "write it down" or use some medium to record what he did.

But...you said "objectively better", and that's different. There is no reason to suppose that the improvized composition can be improved. Mozart, for example, rarely made any changes to his work once he wrote it down, it was perfect as it was. Beethoven on the other hand, made frequent and copious revisions. Was Mozart inferior because he didn't labor for years revising his composition? NO! But he did make it repeatable. If you'd like to prove how he made it better I'm all ears? :)

The "dash" or thrill of listening to a skilled improvization is hearing wheither or not the musician can make something...interesting...and worth having heard. I've head many that were flat and actually bad. But sometimes...magic happens.

I had this type of conversation often with my composition teacher, Luigi Zannanelli. He understood the fact that when you are impriovizing you often hit on something great, but...if you aren't recording it you can lose it. If you stop to write it down...you can lose it. So it just a struggle the composer has to go through.

However from a practical standpoint, if people like it, and it gets them interested in classical music, then it's a good thing.
Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 710
Hi Pytheus,

I think that our discussion had assumed competent to exceptional artists, not the average, run-of-the-mill super artistic genius who comes along once in a thousand years. My mistake. From what you describe, however, even Beethoven's improvisations would have been inferior, by Beethoven's own standards, without his making copious revisions.



The "dash" or thrill of listening to a skilled improvization is hearing wheither or not the musician can make something...interesting...and worth having heard. I've head many that were flat and actually bad. But sometimes...magic happens.

To Karen's point though, it would seem we could have that something interesting without spending time watching all the flat and even bad involved from attempt, inspiration, and revision before the work is "ready" for public performance. I guess if the artist is good enough, though, even his bad is pretty good.




However from a practical standpoint, if people like it, and it gets them interested in classical music, then it's a good thing.

Yes, I can certainly agree with this. Gabriela Montero's music was good to my musically illiterate ear and at least to my liking. Without being told, I wouldn't know the difference if she was improvising or not, and I like her music.

I guess where I come out right now (for what it's worth, musically ignorant as I am), is that an "improvisation" is good if one enjoys observing a master in the process of creation and for how good it can be without specific preparation. But it still seems to me that most artists, even most artistic masters, should be able to make better works, at least according to their own standards, by taking time for revision between creation and public performance.

If the work of a composer's improvistion cannot be compared to his revised work and judged "objectively better," then I wonder about what objective standard is being applied or if any objective standard is being applied.
Tom
TAA1
McKinney, TX
Post #: 68
Hello Pytheus,

I think Jeff has made a very good point. I think the biggest problem we are having is semantics. Her poor choice of words on how she creates her work is akin to a basketball player--who pratices seven days a week and six hours a day--giving god the credit for his ability.

However, I believe the best environment for improvisation is in a live performance. It is also the way many musicians create new works.

But I don't think improve can ever be better than a finished product--by this I mean the honing the ideas that came out of the improvisation and presenting them in as complete a form as possible.

Then again, I would be willing to bet that most composers never really feel as if a composition is ever really finished.
Karen Gainey
skgainey
Sulphur, OK
Post #: 25
"He feels the original authors of the songs would not be impressed either." - Upon what evidence is this conclusion, or feeling, based? Bach was well known as a master of improvization. Composers/musicians of the Baroque and Classical periods often improvized on their own works and those of others.

In writing, taking someone else's works and restating it into your own words would equate to paraphrasing. If I were to paraphrase even one sentence of Ayn Rand's work, and title it as her work, I have more than a 'feeling' she would not be impressed. Even when authors make a claim it was '(loosely) based on', how do we know the original author felt it was an improvement? Or even a compliment?

Butchered? Why? What about her improvization "butchered" Bach or Vivaldi? She didn't attempt to recreate the work as composed, but to take a small peice and use it to create something entirely new. If you want to hear butchering check out "Opera Babes"...a big hit in the UK.

I guess I do not understand improvisation. To improvise is "to invent, compose or recite without preparation... offhand" (American Heritage Dictionary). But what right does the person 'improvising' have to call it by the name of the original composer's piece? To call a ham 'turkey' just because both shared the distinction of being baked in the same oven makes no sense, and would be offensive to anyone biting into it to think the ham was really turkey. Some would be morally outraged and feel defiled to have placed ham in their mouth if they felt ham was in some way unclean or offensive.

Personally I think Bach would be over-joyed that over 250 years after his death people are still finding fresh ways to approach his music and make something new.

I am sure many would be pleased to know they were someone's inspiration. And I think Stanley liked her work for what it was - Her work. But to use the name 'Jingle Bells' for what he listened to he felt was akin to lying - or using the name of something known to get recognition. To say 'inspired by' might be more appropriate, but even that can be used irresponsibly.

Many people in writing seem to use disclaimers to either gain name recognition, or cover themselves legally against plagiarism, or both. I remember a movie Steve Martin remade - the original was Silas Mariner - and basically it was the identical story updated in time. He called it his own writing, gave it a new name, and I think, if you watched the credits long enough, gave an 'inspired by' notation at the end. I would class this as bordering on plagiarism. But this is not what she did. She used a few notes from the original and called it the same name as the original. I would say that qualifies as 'butchering' the original piece.
Old Toad
OldToad
Group Organizer
Dallas, TX
Post #: 711
Hi Tom,

... Her poor choice of words on how she creates her work is akin to a basketball player--who pratices seven days a week and six hours a day--giving god the credit for his ability.


I think this is a good point, too. I was just trying to drill down on the meaning of "improvisation," and her explanation was that it is "a mystery," which was of no help to me.


I think the biggest problem we are having is semantics.


I agree that often this is the case. The importance of semantics is to make sure we precisely understand the commonly-accepted definitions of the words we are using. On top of it all, there are often multiple senses to the same word, which can cause confusion.
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