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‘I started composing music at seven months old’

Gabriela Montero, the US-based Venezuelan pianist, refers to her gift as ‘a neurological glitch’. In a video interview with me for Sinfini Music, Montero describes how she started playing the piano before she could crawl. She then gives an object-lesson demonstration in how she composes spontaneously by means of improvisation.

I sang her the opening notes of Mahler’s fifth symphony. She then went off on a riff.

You can watch the demonstration here. The full-length audio interview about her turbulent life is here. And there’s another Brahms improv here.

And we’re keeping a little Christmas beauty up our sleeve.

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And if the Sinfini link does not work in your territory, try this on Youtube:

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  1. That improvisation was serious music; not a out-of-place note or phrase. I could happily listen to it again and again.

  2. The line between improvisation and composition is of course a blurred one.

    Also I’m curious as to how one reaches sufficiently giddy heights in the classical music profession as to be interviewed by Mr Lebrecht, and yet never hear the opening of Mahler 5! How about the opening of Beethoven 5 which is not dissimilar? Is in fact the former a “riff” on the latter, I wonder… :-)

  3. It is paradoxical that the most profound music always has a quality that transcends the sense of passing time. She is without a doubt one of the most phenomenal musical talents alive. Here is a video of her improvising in a baroque style on the theme of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. She begins playing at about 1:35:

    There are several videos of her remarkable improvisations on the web. Another astounding one is her improv on a theme from Harry Potter that an audience member sings to her. Her touch and expression are also incredibly refined and beautiful. She is at one with music. One can only wonder how such talents are created.

  4. It’s heartening to see someone in the classical music world embrace improvisation. Not to take anything away from Ms. Montero, but over here in the jazz world this kind of thing is our bread and butter. I have a dozen people in my address book who can sit down and conjure a similar piece of insta-Chopin (and they’re all working for $50 a night in tips).

    • You’ll find that there are plenty in the “classical” world who already embrace improvisation… leaving aside for a moment the currently very trendy strand of improv avant garde (which to be fair shares a lot of territory with jazz), any organist worth his salt can improvise on any theme, for any length of time, to suit any occasion. Consider also the early music brigade… I went to see Monteverdi’s Ulisse the other night and much of the 3 hours of wonderful music was very skillfully and stylishly improvised! Now how about all those who improvise their own cadenzas… I think you’ll find that improvisation is alive and very well in the classical world!

      • Speaking of players improvising cadenzas (which is what they should do), often the most agonizing ones are those inserted into Mozart concerti, which seem to have everything to do with displaying the chops of the performer and little if anything to do with the classical style in which Mozart composed, nor the themes or motifs of the piece itself. Guess there is a downside to everything…

  5. Composing and improvising are often different activities. Stopping an improvisation to write something down often kills the train of thought and the freedom to slip away and return. Her improvisation is indeed very fine, she has an excellent ear, and she has a lovely relationship with the piano, but I don’t find it all unusual that someone would improvise in a non-jazz idiom. The musical vocabulary she uses is of the later 19th century variety, so perhaps people regard it as something more complicated than an improvisation based on jazz harmonies.

    Most musicians spend time improvising, and I imagine that’s the way most composers come up with the material that they will painstakingly piece together in meaningful ways in order to make their compositions (at least that’s the way I do it). Things always seem to sound better at first utterance, but, like with any kind of writing, it is in the manipulation of material and the translation of thought that our spontaneous ideas turn into meaningful statements. My goal is, and I know I have a lot of company, to capture the spirit of the improvisation, but to make the composition better and more succinct. The process is, often, a mixture of the spontaneous musical act and the evaluated and calculated act of trying to put the best notes in the most appropriate and useful places.

    In that way what a composer does is much more like writing poetry, where every word counts; and what an improvising musician does is more like writing a letter, where the spirit moves the hands without the need to worry which word carries more weight in relation to the ones around it in order to make a point.

    Sometimes in letters we find stuff that reads like poetry.

    • Elaine – Interesting stuff. Appreciate the explanations.

    • Elaine, I compose as you do. I have the same difficulty if I interrupt the flow of ‘inspired’ improvisation to write the music down. That is the difficulty of returning to the inspired feeling. I often continue, convinced, this time, that I will remember what I have just improvised only to find, later, that I can’t for the life of me remember it.

      What you wrote in your post is a description of the methods and goals most likely to produce a composition of worth.

  6. . . . And another thing: making music that is original and not accidentally too derivative is something that composers always have to watch out for. In an improvisation it doesn’t matter.

    • I think many improvisers would disagree with the idea its acceptable for them to be derivative — or more derivative than composers. (|There’s now quite a bit of postmodern literature about the hierarchies placed between composers and improvisers and their implications.) I find it interesting in many of Montero’s improvisations how she can work within a given stylistic period but bring strangely unique twists to it while still remaining relatively true to the style. Some of the most interesting turns she makes are quite subtle and probably pass by most listeners. In any case, whatever one might think of the content, you have to give her astounding technique due recognition.

  7. It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

    Interesting. Music is of course (like mathematics) a language, and the earlier one is exposed to it, the sooner the brain wires itself to think musically. This is especially true during formative years when neurogenesis is exponential.

    Gabriela’s description brought to mind Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow”. Now I last reviewed (extensively) literature on this around 1991, so I’m rusty, but I remember the concept well. I wonder if it would help elucidate Gabriela’s experience.

    I see a video of Csikszentmihalyi giving a talk on this. This is the first time I’ve checked him or his work out on YouTube, so it’s educational for me. He presents himself and his ideas well.

    Note that at 13:58, he lists a number of commonalities from various descriptions of flow. Number 6 is “Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes”.

    Flow appears to be ubiquitous. Probably most people – with the unfortunate exception of some – experience it some time in their lives: it is to be found in any of the activities that humans indulge in (including religious activities) to either make life more meaningful, or make it bearable. This is the first time I’ve given the topic some serious thought for years. I shied away a bit once it entered into popular culture, and especially the business world – because once something enters that world, scientific honesty tends to go out the window in deference to ideology. But I dunno: I think I’ll look at this one again.

  8. To a certain extent I agree with Scott, many jazz musicians are able to create music in the moment with the same complexity as shown in the video (just in another context), Still i’m very impressed by the talent of GM. I have doubts if musicians like Miles Davis or Keith Jarrett would have been able to do things like her naturally at the age of seven month if they´ve had their instrument in the crib.

  9. My apologies. Here is the correct link:

    It is exactly the odd synthesis of a romantic theme put into baroque forms that I find interesting. Same story with her improv on Mahler’s Fifth in the video above. The theme is distinictly unpianistic, but she pulls it off wonderfully. I’ve tried to do these sorts of sytlistic studies myself and I am miserable at it. Perhaps this leaves me even more inclined to marvel at her abilities.

    BTW, I love your pseudonym.

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