A few years back I was lucky enough to see the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero perform. She is a classical pianist. And she improvises.
The first thing she did was invite the audience to sit anywhere. Many joined her on stage. Some even sat under the piano. Then, she asked people to volunteer a start point – she asked them to sing, or hum, or whistle a short melody. Anything would do she said, even a ring tone from a phone. After a short pause, she would then launch herself into a piece of classical style music, with all the variation and complexity that implies. Some pieces lasted up to eight minutes (I timed it) – and it was all improvised.
Her playing was extraordinary of course, but just as interesting to me was the behaviour of the audience. People very quickly started suggesting songs they knew, by title. When they did, even if it was something really obvious (like ‘Happy Birthday’), she still insisted they sing a little of it.
This came to a head when someone suggested, by name, a specific section of a particular piece (by Rachmaninov). He even told her which bars he was interested in. Gabriela looked blank. The man, surprised and sounding like a bit of a smartass went on…
‘But you must know it’ he said. She still looked blank.
‘Can you play the piece?’ she asked in return.
He rather smugly replied that he could, so she asked him up on stage and he took her place at the piano stool. He lifted his hands to play, but before they even hit the keyboard she burst in with ‘oh, that one, yes of course’ and promptly shunted him off the piano stool and played the bars he had in mind.
I thought this was fascinating. I am convinced she didn’t do it to make fun of the man (though he probably deserved it if she had). I think it shows that during this kind of performance she is engaging her somatic, sensory self – she needs to hear the music or see the position of the hands. She is working in a non-intellectual plane, which is why she couldn’t work off the title of a song or a piece, even if she “knew” it.
Which is why Gabriela herself, or at least her cognitive, verbal self, can’t explain how she does it. She is charmingly open about this, saying that she really has no idea what she is doing, that the music just ‘comes’.
But at some level, in a way she cannot articulate, except perhaps through the music itself, she knows exactly what she is doing. It is just a kind of knowledge that is deeply mysterious and cannot be transmitted. The best kind, perhaps?