Born: February 12, 1958
Matthew Montfort is the leader of the world fusion music ensemble Ancient Future. Recognized as one of the world's 100 Greatest Acoustic Guitarists by the DigitalDreamDoor best of site, Montfort is a pioneer of the scalloped fretboard guitar (an instrument combining qualities of the South Indian vina and the steel string guitar). Montfort spent three months in intensive study with vina master K.S. Subramanian in order to fully apply the South Indian gamaka (note-bending) techniques to the guitar. He is also known for his work on electric guitar, flamenco guitar, sitar, charango, mandolin, and gamelan, and as Ancient Future's main composer....
AwardsLouis Armstrong Jazz Award, Colorado Outstanding Young Guitarist Award
The relationship between musicians and composers varies tremendously from one world tradition to another. In European classical music, the musician’s job is to play exactly what the composer says to play. That is why when a European classical musician says the word “music,” he usually means sheets of paper, not actual sound: “Put your music on the stand,” etc.
In Indian music, this relationship is dramatically reversed. A musician is someone who makes music, in the sense of actual sound, not marks on paper. Many teachers do use a form of written music, but it is regarded with suspicion and usually only used to teach exercises. The preferred form of teaching is having the student copy a melody directly with voice or instrument. In the Karnatik music of South India, this fundamentally oral tradition has preserved compositions by 18th century composers, who dominate Karnatik music the way their contemporaries Mozart and Haydn dominate European music. These Karnatik compositions, however, are supplemented by long improvised passages, which means that the musician is a creative artist, in addition to an interpretive artist.
In the Hindustani music of the North, the musician has even greater creative responsibility. The “composer,” as understood in the West, does not exist at all. A Hindustani raga is not a melody, but rather a set of rules, both firm and flexible, which always create a similar mood, but are never “played the same way twice.
Students learn fixed compositions from their teachers, and must play them perfectly during the lesson. But the experienced musician must use those compositions as raw material to create music on the spot, which must be both completely new and firmly rooted in tradition.
This paradoxical blend of freedom and discipline was both appealing and a bit frightening to guitarist and composer Matthew Montfort. He once had dreams of becoming a classical sitarist and studied extensively at the Ali Akbar College of Music. But Ali Akbar Khan was an understandably intimidating role model. The patterns he taught in class were amazingly beautiful and profound, but the ability to improvise great music based on those patterns seemed to elude almost all of his western students.
Montfort concluded that he could not do his best work if he pretended that he had grown up in a village in Maihar and only had one teacher. Northern California was (and still is) home to music from almost everywhere: South America, Bali, Africa, the Middle East, as well as North and South India. Montfort decided to create a style he would call World Fusion music, which would combine elements from all of these traditions. Stitching together all of these different traditions could not be done instinctively and spontaneously. It required careful musical scholarship and a discovery of connections between styles that had developed in separate cultural universes. The kind of freedom enjoyed by Hindustani musicians would not be possible. Instead, Montfort became a master of arranging instruments that had never been played together before. Although improvisation was frequent, it was usually allocated to specific points in an otherwise fixed composition.
Montfort’s band, Ancient Future, sold hundreds of thousands of albums, received rave critical notices, and won numerous awards. However, the trials of managing an unclassifiable band inadvertently pushed him back to being an improvisational musician. As his studio arrangements became richer and more complex, it became harder to recreate them in live performance, particularly as he began collaborating with international musicians with worldwide concert commitments. Montfort was thus frequently required to book whoever he could find and see what music came up. The good news was that his decades of studying and performing so many different styles of music gave him a depth of skill far beyond that of the young man who had once decided he couldn’t be a classical sitarist. He could now respond to unpredictable situations with completely fresh music created on the spot��music that deserved to be not only performed but recorded.
Montfort’s newest album, Seven Serenades, is remarkably similar to a classical Hindustani improvised performance. There are brief guest spots featuring supportive background performances of didjeridu, santoor, and violin, but most tracks are single note melodies on guitar, accompanied by nothing but an unobtrusive drone. The basic form of most of the tracks is the Hindustani alap/jhor/jhala, that slowly explores every part of the selected scale, first with no rhythm at all, then with a slowly increasing rhythmic pulse that builds to a heavily strummed crescendo.
But although some of the scales on this album are based on traditional ragas, they do not come from a single guru, but from every corner of Montfort’s diverse musical history. “Celtic Raga” is based on the Hindustani scale khamaj, known as mixolydian in the west, which is the basis for many Irish fiddle tunes. Montfort’s interpretation starts by evoking a slow Celtic air, then gradually falls into the structure of a dancing Irish reel as it picks up tempo. “Lilalit” is built on the challenging scale of raga lalit. Montfort’s interpretation combines the broad stark intervals of that raga to reveal jazzy chords that sound dissonant at first, but are actually following a special kind of consonance. “Purple Raga” unpacks the melodic rules contained within the guitar riff of the famous Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze” and reveals some powerful connections between Afro-American and Hindustani musical roots.
Because Montfort’s guitar has a scalloped fretboard, his fingers touch only the strings, enabling him to produce ornaments more characteristic of the sitar. This album reveals a thorough knowledge of Hindustani microtonal ornaments, transferred in ways that create one of the most distinctive guitar sounds in contemporary music. However, it also reveals a lifetime of exploration in world music, which can be immediately summoned in a flash of inspiration. When this level of mastery is reached, there is no need to rewrite. The first improvisation has the depth of a reworked composition. �� Teed Rockwell, INDIA CURRENTS
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Willing to teach:
Advanced students only.
Matthew Montfort is on the faculty of Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco, where he teaches music theory, all styles of guitar as well as rhythm classes based on his book on the rhythmic traditions of Africa, Bali, and India. He also teaches at his studio in San Rafael, California. Some of his students have gone on to promising music careers.
Matthew Montfort, Ancient Future's leader, is the author of Ancient Traditions Future Possibilities: Rhythmic Training Through the Traditions of Africa, Bali and India (Mill Valley, 1985: Panoramic Press. ISBN 0-937879-00-2). The book, which is the basis for Ancient Future's world music workshops, received rave reviews in publications such as GUITAR PLAYER, ELECTRONIC MUSICIAN, DRUMS AND DRUMMING, and the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE. Lou Harrison, prominent composer and founder of the American gamelan movement, calls the work "a very useful contribution to musical scholarship." The workshops are presented in an easy to follow, entertaining yet educational format for all instrumentalists, vocalists and music lovers. African polyrhythms, Balinese kotèkan and Indian rhythmic cycles were chosen as the source material for the training because these three traditions in combination cover the major types of rhythmic organization used in most of the world's music. Not just for musicians and percussionists, this training can help anyone with a desire to improve their rhythmic skills, which are crucial to the success of all performers. No musical background is required, and classes can be tailored for beginning through advanced levels, or mixed groups. All three areas can beSecond Grade Rhythm Class covered in one workshop, or the workshop may focus on one rhythmic tradition.