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Caught in the Act of Creation – Gabriela Montero, Nikki Yeoh and Zoe Rahman

Interview

Nothing can capture the excitement of an artist in full flight. Sebastian Scotney talks to three masters of improvisation: classical pianist Gabriela Montero and jazz pianists Nikki Yeoh and Zoe Rahman.

 

At a recital by Zoe Rahman at the recent Women in the Arts Festival, I was struck by how privileged we were to be able to witness new things being created, there in the room, just for us. Rahman’s frequent smiles of joyous discovery in mid-flow conveyed a palpable sense of fulfilment.

For jazz pianists such as Rahman, and for Nikki Yeoh, with whom she will be performing as a duet in Venus Unwrapped, and for the world’s leading classical piano improviser Gabriela Montero, that point of completeness clearly doesn’t just happen. Each of these three remarkable women has turned the career of improvising pianist into a reality through force of talent and sustained dedication.

For Gabriela Montero, one late-night encounter in Montreal in 2001 changed everything. The Venezuelan pianist had been a child sensation, playing her first public concert at eight, and winning the third prize at the International Chopin Competition in 1995. But as a young mother she was having doubts, actively considering other careers. She knew Martha Argerich, and when the great Argentinian pianist was in town, she went and asked for advice. ‘Sorry, I don’t have any answers for you,’ Argerich said. ‘But do you want to play for me?’ ‘I hadn’t played for a few months,’ Montero remembers, ‘but I kind of forced myself to play for her the next evening. She heard me improvise and said to me: “This is a unique gift. And you need to share it with the world.”

Montero hadn’t improvised in front of an audience for several years but the approval from Argerich was the nudge she needed: ‘Martha somehow brought a focus into my life that I had never had. If I was going to be a concert pianist again, I had to improvise.’

Since then, Montero’s international career has flourished. And as her public profile has risen, so has her determination to use that visibility for a clear purpose – drawing attention to human rights abuses in her native country. Within the classical domain, she makes no secret of her desire to exert a subversive influence. ‘I am trying to shake up the classical music world into action,’ she says. ‘I feel that all other art forms have been very involved in social issues and very vocal when it comes to injustice. In the classical world, there is a silence.

‘We’re different but I’ve always got on with her and I love the way she plays’

Nikki Yeoh on Zoe Rahman

Since then, Montero’s international career has flourished. And as her public profile has risen, so has her determination to use that visibility for a clear purpose – drawing attention to human rights abuses in her native country. Within the classical domain, she makes no secret of her desire to exert a subversive influence.

‘I am trying to shake up the classical music world into action,’ she says. ‘I feel that all other art forms have been very involved in social issues and very vocal when it comes to injustice. In the classical world, there is a silence. As citizens of the world, we need to make an effort to help situations change. I wanted to write a piece that spoke to these experiences. Babel – to be performed at Kings Place – is my way of expressing what it feels like to speak to the world and find everyone’s speaking in different tongues.’

As a jazz pianist starting out in the 1990s, Zoe Rahman remembers how hard it was to become known, and above all ‘to be taken seriously as an artist’. As a woman, Rahman was increasingly aware of what she calls ‘unconscious barriers’ as her career progressed. ‘Nikki Yeoh was a huge inspiration for me when I was starting out,’ says Rahman. ‘A role model. An amazing composer. As a leader she’s vibrant and engaging on stage. She was also the first woman instrumentalist I ever saw on the front cover of a jazz magazine.’


© Nick White

Their collaboration resulted from an invitation Yeoh received to choose another pianist as her duet partner for a two-piano festival. ‘I thought it would be great to play with Zoe,’ says Yeoh. ‘We’re different but I’ve always got on with her and I love the way she plays.’

Yeoh has been an inspiration to countless students at the Camden Saturday Music Centre, where she has led the jazz activity since the early 1990s. She has always set a tone of openness: ‘I welcome everybody, there is no audition process. There are a lot of people out there who are great creators who are not necessarily good at exams,’ says Yeoh.

From those classes have emerged musicians as different as star saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Pete Fraser of The Pogues. Yeoh had role models of her own:‘The life experiences of Joanne Brackeen and Geri Allen were poignant because they showed me how you can have a family and still be a jazz musician.’

Are things improving for innovative women pianists? Zoe Rahman definitely sees progress: ‘The younger generation of women coming through is much better networked, there are far more of them, and the internet has really opened things up.’ There is an irreversible change for the good happening – one in which all these pianists will have played their part.

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