»Silence is not an option«

On march 18, 2018, Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero has been awarded the 2018 music award of »Heidelberger Frühling«. For Montero, music-making without a functional ethical compass is pointless. As an artist, she uses her status as one of the most coveted pianists of the day to point the finger at grievances and injustice, for example in Venezuela. As a human being, she employs the – musical – resources at her command to make the world a better place.
The laudation was held by Igor Levit.

Laudation – by Igor Levit

Dearest Gaby,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

»Anybody can play.
The note is only 20 percent.
The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent.«
Miles Davis

It’s a rare fortune to know an artist to whom this Miles Davis quote applies as much as it does to Gabriela Montero. Her work, her playing, her existence as a musician, her irrepressible dedication—they all demonstrate the truth of these words. She lives by these words. And for this I am, and indeed we all should be, grateful.

There are some experiences that you’ll never forget. You can’t forget them because they touch you profoundly, they make you think and feel, and they change you suddenly and permanently. I must tell you about one such moment, because it’s too precious to only resonate with me.

Gabriela Montero guested in the Komische Oper Berlin last year. That was the first time I saw Gabriela perform live, and I was unusually excited. I sat down and waited, expecting the fanciful, emotional, and penetrating prelude to what is probably the most famous piano concerto of all time: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. But, rather than the prelude, what I heard was even bigger, more significant, more unique. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla raised her baton and the orchestra began to play. But it was interrupted.

Two very young people, a woman and a man in the front row, sprang out of their seats. Draped in a yellow, blue, and red flag, they began to sing. It was the Venezuelan flag and they sang “Gloria al bravo pueblo”, the national anthem. I didn’t know the anthem. The lyrics are by Vicente Salias and the music by Juan José Landaeta. Both were executed in 1814, four years after composing the national anthem. They were insurgents.

This music, this song sung by these two young people, changed everything that day—it changed the audience attending this concert, it changed me. The temperature in the room rose immensely, or so it felt, and my heart began to race. The two sang and sang and sang for what seemed like an eternity. Gabriela turned in her seat to face the two and listened, enraptured, as if she were the audience. It was like an intimate conversation between three people, which all of us in the room were gifted with listening to. Better still, we were permitted to participate in and experience this intimate moment. I can’t get this moment out of my head.

You can imagine how my mind was all over the place. I thought: how confident in Gabriela the two must be to have the strength to create this moment for her, with her, and for all of us; how strong they must be to break all conventions and to open their hearts, their minds, their convictions, and their love to Gabriela. These two represent the thousands of people who trust Gabriela Montero, confide in her, write to her, take her into their world, and who are not afraid to share their pain with Gabriela. This is only possible because Gabriela Montero treats her fellow human beings so intimately, warmly, and humanly, listens to them, and gives them support and comfort. How can a person be so human?

They trust Gabriela because she speaks out when hardly anyone else dares to. She fights for her country and for her fellow human beings, be they friends or strangers. Gabriela is responsibility personified, no matter the losses. She is there for everyone, she invests the time and energy—even when there seems to be none—she listens, tries to help, gets involved. Gabriela Montero fights. People have threatened her and tried to intimidate and wear her down. Gabriela confronts these obstacles with a strength that others generally can’t sustain. She summons overwhelming strength. I can hardly believe how strong Gabriela Montero is. She does this for her country, Venezuela, which she never did and never will abandon. She is a woman of character. And, just to be clear, I don’t mean only in the fair weather so many claim. I mean unswerving character.

In political terms, you would invoke the higher principles: You millions, be embraced or All people become brothers. We all know these principles. Just because you can spell “piano sonata”, you pose as the savior of the world, only to hang your principles on a peg the moment you leave the concert hall and face everyday life. But art is life and life is art.

An artist like Gabriela demonstrates that there is no difference. She is not merely a musician. She is a music person. She fights without regard for herself. She fights knowing that there could actually be state reprisals on her immediate family. She accepts the risk of never being able to return to her homeland. Venezuela, a country blessed with such a tremendous wealth of raw materials that it should shine, can’t shine at the moment. It can’t live, it can’t be free because it’s held by a narco-state that’s destroying the country. It’s destroying society. It’s destroying life.

Gabriela fights it at all levels. She also speaks out against colleagues and accepts that the establishment will seek to damage her career in revenge. She accepts all this. This is the unswerving character that I deeply admire in Gabriela, and which I bow to. It isn’t your standard “politics à la classical music”. Many more players in our seemingly sound world should follow her example. We should follow her example.

I don’t need to repeat that Gabriela Montero is a wonderful musician with a creative power, imagination, and inner freedom that’s second to none. I’m sure most of you have experienced Gabriela in concert—hopefully, more than once. She manages to elicit color and emotion from any instrument she touches, embracing, engaging, and touching every listener in the most direct manner. She never leaves the listener feeling that what’s happening on stage is merely beautiful. Gabriela also has musical character, which she bestows upon us listeners. You can’t remain unaffected—she makes it impossible. Great music and only great musicians can do that.

Gabriela’s notes breathe, tremble, love, fly, cry, laugh, flatter, scratch. In other words, Gabriela’s notes live. Thelonious Monk, one of the twentieth century’s major composers and pianists, succinctly said: Wrong is right. I’ll go further and say: There are no wrong notes. There are also no right notes. There are only your own. When we understand this, we’ll free music from so many chains, regulations, language rules, preconceived ideas, and cages, which only serve to hold it captive rather than set it free.

Ferruccio Busoni had already said precisely this in 1906. In his brilliant, inspiring and timeless “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music” he writes:

The creator should take over no traditional law in blind belief, which would make him view his own creative endeavor, from the outset, as an exception contrasting with that law. For his individual case he should seek out and formulate a fitting individual law, which, after the first complete realization, he should annul, that he himself may not be drawn into repetitions when his next work shall be in the making. The function of the creative artist consists in making laws, not in following laws ready made. He who follows such laws, ceases to be a creator.

Gabriela Montero’s gifts for setting music free, letting it rise anew every time, believing deeply in herself, and reducing distances to bring herself, the music, and the listeners as close to each other as possible are tremendously inspiring. Her improvisations and work on canon repertoire attest to this. The moment, not a developed plan, exists. Music originates from her. She enters into an intimate partnership between composer, audience, and herself. It becomes clear that what makes music so unique is that no one is its sole owner. It doesn’t belong to any single person—only to us all.

No one has the sole prerogative to say what and how a musical work should be. Music can’t be held captive, and its tremendous power is difficult to reproduce in prose. It originates between us. It floats freely. Busoni spoke of it as a child—it floats on air! It touches not the earth with its feet. It knows no law of gravitation. It is wellnigh incorporeal. Its material is transparent. It is sonorous air…. It is—free.

Gabriela Montero lives this freedom. And now I come to the most important topic to me: being human. The German word for human being, “Mensch”, is a Yiddish word, meaning a person of integrity and honor, a good person. The opposite of a “Mensch” is an “Unmensch”, a monster. We’re only too happy to forget this. In his wonderful series of poems called “Mensch”, Eugen Roth wrote:

A human believes, as faithfully as a child,

that all human beings are human.

Now, Gabriela is a “Mensch” in the truest sense of the word. Throughout my life so far, I have met very few people who are as emphatic, kindhearted, loving, compassionate, inspiring, smart, and warm as she is. She’s happy when you’re happy. She’s sad when you’re sad. She listens when you need her to, without you having to ask. She takes the initiative when you’re weak. She helps. She’s there for you. And yes, I firmly believe that you can hear that. How you behave is also how you play. It’s also how you play music.

Gabriela Montero knows, lives, recognizes, sees, and feels life with all its cracks, blackness, happiness, pain, and light. And that’s why, just like only a handful of others, she’s also able to tell us about this life through her music. I’m absolutely certain that this is exactly what the Heidelberger Frühling Music Prize is: not just another award for famous musicians at the peak of their career, not just a cash prize for the stars of the industry. No. This prize represents something that the Heidelberger Frühling and, indeed, this city also represent: This prize represents the enlightened citizen.

Now and in future, you, and with this I mean the Heidelberger Frühling as a whole and all people, should not just award those that suit critics or other musicians because they are great performers, whatever that may mean. Or because—and now let’s be totally non-musical—they can play the piano really well.

We must honor those artists that show character.

We must honor those artists that are responsible.

We must honor those artists that live life just like a good person would: by being there for other people.

It’s been a great honor for me to give this laudatory speech about a unique, upright, and wonderful musician, colleague, and friend. I could only wish everyone in the world would have someone like her. I’m incredibly grateful.

Dear Gaby,

Thank you.

Gabriela Montero says thank you

Ladies and Gentleman,

It is a great pleasure to be here today, and to receive this honor, for which I am very grateful. Most of all, I am grateful for the opportunity it offers to say a few words about the duty of the individual artist when faced with some of the darkest, most criminal elements of the world in which we live today.

Nina Simone was once asked why she used the platform of music to speak out on the human rights abuses of her day, and whether it was appropriate for an artist to do so.

“I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself”, she replied. “That, to me, is my duty. At these crucial times in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when everything is a matter of survival, you can not help but be involved. How can you be an artist and NOT reflect the times? I think that the artists who do not get involved in preaching messages are happier. But you see, I have to live with Nina, and that is very difficult.”

Well, I have to live with Gabriela. And what is relevant to me is not what an uninformed journalist or an inconvenienced audience member considers the word “duty” to mean, but what I consider it to mean. I have to ask myself whether or not the times and context in which I live necessitate, and therefore justify public reflection from the concert stage, and, if so, whether I can live with myself if I choose NOT to reflect them.

I am Venezuelan. The times in which the people of Venezuela live today are unprecedented in their barbarism and deprivation, the result of a state-engineered collapse by criminals masquerading as elected officials. That collapse was begun two decades ago by Hugo Chavez, and has found its complete expression under the narcomafia regime of Nicolas Maduro, a thug who plans to claim a mandate to continue holding the country hostage after farcical presidential “elections” scheduled for May.

In 2004, I was offered the promise of lifelong financial security to play a concert for the Venezuelan regime. It was made very clear to me that I would be “looked after” with state oil money. I had no more than 1,000 dollars in the bank at the time. I was a single mother of two girls living in Caracas, but I told them I was not for sale. I refused to ever play a concert for Chavez, knowing that I would be serving a regime apparatus that was certain to bring about the collapse of Venezuela. I could not live with that moral dissonance. That was my choice.

For the next decade, I watched my fellow Venezuelan musicians enter into an extravagant contractual relationship of propaganda with the regime. Under a regime ministry, they were paraded on the world stage as the incarnation of Chavez’s progressive “Revolution”, child billboards wearing the new flag on their backs, welcomed by the concert halls of the world, feted by the press, promoted by agents, adored by the public. The anti-bourgeois Chavez had succeeded in hijacking classical music to launder his regime’s image abroad and prolong the abject lie of democratic social progress, as symbolized potently by the emotional optics of the orchestral unit.

Back home in Venezuela, however, the nation spiraled toward collapse. By 2011, when I composed “Ex Patria”, the murder rate had risen by 500%. 19,336 murders were reported that year. I dedicated “Ex Patria” to those victims. By the time I came to record the work in 2015, that number had increased to 27,875, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory. When 42 young protesters lost their lives in 2014, for daring to object to these hellish conditions, concerts went ahead in Caracas without a word of objection by the government-funded musicians. I could not remain silent.

I publically appealed to Gustavo Dudamel and Jose Antonio Abreu to reconsider their relationship with the regime, given that their state paymaster was creating the very conditions of depravity from which they claimed, by way of mission statement, to be delivering the young musicians. Yet, they continued to serve the regime, even playing at the United Nations Security Council, publicly upheld by Delcy Rodriguez as models of the Revolution. Ms. Rodriguez now heads the illegitimate Constituent Assembly, Maduro’s alternative parliament, cobbled together illegally to replace the democratically elected, opposition-held National Assembly.

Only when a young musician was shot at close range in the neck and killed last year by state security forces, after months of peaceful demonstrations by millions, did Gustavo Dudamel, allegedly under pressure from the board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, choose to utter a word. Not once did he condemn the regime or declare it illegitimate, appealing only for a general restoration of democratic values. Far too little, far too late.

Today, I spend my time sending medicine and food parcels to Venezuela via secret back channels. I open the hundreds of unsolicited messages I receive from musicians asking, perfectly understandably, for help, for money, for medicines, and for a route to a new life in the US or Europe.

I worked with some Venezuelan musicians in Chile last summer on an ARTE recording with the YOA Orchestra of the Americas. I heard their stories first hand. One girl with symptoms I can only describe as PTSD and malnutrition, trembled and cried as she told me how her family chases the garbage truck at night to find scraps of food. Other told how family members had been victims of deadly violence. On my return to Europe, I was able to find places for three of those musicians in the ESMUC conservatory in Barcelona, thanks to the compassion of its principal, and the generosity of the Venezuelan community in exile. There are thousands more to be helped. They face a humanitarian crisis of food and medicine shortages in a failed state, whose hyperinflation was reported this week by Bloomberg to have reached 82,000%.

So, to the gentleman in Berlin who heckled when Venezuelans in the audience spontaneously sang our National Anthem before one of my performances; and to critics who tell me to “just shut up and play”, I say this: I did not choose these times or situations, but I do choose to protest them, and to reflect them on stage in the metaphorical and emotional language of improvised and composed music, in the tradition of past composers, until such time as I have no more reason to do so. I will fight without apology for those who do not have this platform from which to speak, and I will continue to hold to account those who willingly contracted to propagandize the criminal regime that has destroyed my country.

In her dying words, the Czech dissident Milada Horáková wrote, “Man does not live alone in this world. In that, there is great happiness, but also a tremendous responsibility. Our obligation is not acting selfishly, but rather merging with the needs and goals of others.”

The needs and goals of the Venezuelan people is to rid their society of the cancer that has destroyed it these last twenty years, albeit to the soundtrack of Beethoven and Mahler. I will not shut up until those needs and goals are reached.

Silence is not an option.

Thank you.