Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilić, a graduate of UC Berkeley, has lived in France since 2001. He is an unconventional artist who surprises his listeners, again and again. Thanks to his album of Claude Debussy’s complete Préludes, I discovered certain Préludes that I – and perhaps many of you – have never heard before. His international breakthrough was his widely-acclaimed Leopold Godowsky album of 22 Chopin Studies for the left hand alone. Now living in Bordeaux and immersed in Morton Feldman’s works, Ilić recently passed through Istanbul in transit. We had the chance to meet and talk about his latest albums, and the way he connects to Feldman’s music. Ilić’s 2015 album Ivan Ilić Plays Morton Feldman is nominated for the ICMA’s 2016 Awards in the “Solo Instrument” category.
Interview by Sanat Deliorman
Whenever I see your name, excuse me, but I can’t help remembering The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy. There must be many Ivan Ilić’s?
Yes, it’s a common name in the former Yugoslavian republics, in particular. There was a prominent 20th century Austrian philosopher of Croatian descent. There is also a visual artist, a jazz guitarist, and a few athletes with my name.
You are Serbian, but were born in the States?
Yes, I was born in America. I’ve spent lots of time in Serbia as well.
Did you study music there?
A little bit. But it was an important influence. I had one teacher there: Dušan Trbojević. He was a bit of a musical philosopher. I would go to his house for lessons, but we would play the piano very little. Instead we would talk about music. I was a teenager then, and very curious. I would ask him questions that no one else asked him, or so he told me. I would always ask “Why?” – I still do. Many teachers say “Do this, do that.” But they don’t tell you why. And some teachers – when you ask them “Why?” – get frustrated and say “You don’t have to know. Just do it”. But Trbojević was interested in the “Why”. He also helped me discover Debussy’s Préludes. His deep interest in Debussy was rare among Serbian pianists of his generation. The others played Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff. But not so much Debussy. Debussy was considered exotic.
But also the Debussy Préludes you recorded are not the ones we always hear.
Many of them are rarely played. Trbojević guided me in that direction. He had his own repertoire he was known for, which distinguished him. He had preludes that were “his”, which he played often. And he played them exquisitely well – they were his signature. I found this strategy very interesting.
Taking a musical breath with Feldman, after Godowsky
Why did you switch to Morton Feldman after Godowsky?
After finishing Godowsky’s 22 Chopin Studies for the left hand, I was tired, both physically and emotionally. It took me 3 years to play those pieces at tempo. I was always working exclusively with the left hand, which is quite extreme. The music was tense. There was no rest. Before playing a concert I had to practice 6 hours a day, every day, because if I didn’t, I could lose my grip on the pieces. It was dangerous, like an extreme sport. Afterwards, I realized that the danger appealed to me.
The Godowsky was successful, which was fantastic, of course. But people started to say, “Oh, you are the guy who plays with one hand”. The period in music between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th – which includes Scriabin, Debussy, Godowsky – is among my favourites. But I needed to do something completely different, both musically and conceptually. I needed to breathe after all that. But breathe musically.
How did you prepare yourself for Feldman?
In certain repertoire, like Schumann and Scriabin, you can breathe quite a bit. Silence has an important role: you move, you stop, you start again. But that wasn’t enough. I needed more. At first, I stumbled upon a piece by Feldman where the notes are indicated, but not the rhythms. It’s a strange piece. First you play two notes, then you listen as they are suspended in the air. You wait. When you feel like it, you continue. It was one of Feldman’s “Last Pieces” from 1959 (contrary to the title, they are early works). Something fundamental in me changed when I worked on that piece. I decided to play more Feldman. Shortly afterwards, I recorded Palais de Mari for the album The Transcendentalist and kept going.
Elsewhere you have said “The time for Feldman’s music has come. We need it today because it is a serene, abstract and extremely soft music, meditative and contemplative at the same time”. But you also say that the pieces are linked to mortality – why?
The first thing is, a lot of the music has a sense of sorrow. It’s as if someone close to you is dying, and you are dealing with your grief. Second, you play a note and wait for its sound to end. Musically and philosophically, it is like anticipating the end. It is not about death, but the expectation of death. It is related to the idea of getting older, the increasing awareness of death. As we age, time goes by so slowly, but also, paradoxically, so quickly. After my Feldman concerts people often describe the experience of listening to the music the same way.
Is that why Feldman didn’t always indicate the rhythms?
Well, he notated things conventionally early on. Then, in the 1950s, he had an experimental phase. He tried to be less precise, more open, with the rhythms, or with the notes. But he was not satisfied with the result. Because some performers would play fast, and some would play slow. There was no aesthetic. He decided that the conceptual freedom, attractive as it was in theory, didn’t work in practice. He started to write using conventional notation again, and that’s when it became clear what he had been looking for all along: quiet and slow. That was his true style.
Your recording of Feldman’s Palais de Mari was released on the album The Transcendentalist. The album’s cover is very interesting. There are different metaphors, seemingly unconnected to each other. Is it just for the sake of absurdity?
It’s good that you didn’t see a connection between them. The cover is actually a recreation of a painting by Salvador Dali (Six Apparitions of Lenin on a Grand Piano, 1931). The pianist is not playing. His hands are down, he seems to be waiting. There are ants walking on the score, on the piano, as if he hasn’t played for ages. There are many interpretations. But the overall effect is mystery. You don’t understand – and that is the point. Because Feldman, who is the key composer on the album, often said that he didn’t understand how he wrote his music. He wrote it by instinct. He didn’t use his intellect, or try to justify the notes he chose with a system.
Salvador Dali, Six Apparitions of Lenin on a Grand Piano, 1931
Your actions are most powerful before you understand them
Isn’t this idea a contradiction for you? With your background in mathematics? And as someone who formulates the sound in his head, before giving it life on the keyboard, as you said in a previous interview?
It was. It used to be. Five years ago I would have felt uncomfortable doing something I don’t understand. Now I’m drawn to things I don’t understand.
What was the reason for the change?
Because I realized that often your actions are most powerful before you understand them. It’s connected to neuroscience. I have a friend who is a neuroscience researcher. He says that, for example, if I’m talking to you and drinking water, this is what I believe happens: I feel thirsty, take the glass, and drink the water. It is my decision. But that is not actually the way our brains work. In reality, we do things and then we interpret them. Maybe I’ll smile at you and will then say to myself “Yes I smiled because I liked Sanat”. But actually it’s something else, which I don’t understand, so I invent a reason after my action. This was proven by research decades ago.
So now I start projects before I understand them. I interpret them, but only afterwards. The motives for working with Heresy Records in 2014, for choosing the cover image for The Transcendentalist, for choosing the other pieces to go with the Feldman – were all irrational. Or maybe “extra-rational”. For instance, I chose a piece by a young composer, Scott Wollschleger. Among over 100 pieces I listened to, I heard his and said to myself, “That’s the right piece for this album”. Later on I learned that he is the student of a student of Feldman. So, the explanation came after the fact.
And you also interviewed him.
Yes. At the time I had no idea why I was doing it. I was looking for something. And I learned that his attitude was perfectly in sync with the ethos of The Transcendentalist, starting with his early love for Scriabin, and his link to Feldman and Cage.
But don’t you still hear the sound in your head before you play it? If so, isn’t this a paradox?
Yes, I still do. And yes, it’s contradictory. But, if you are doing something important, you make a plan. In the end, you do nothing as planned; you change everything. But planning gives you a road map which you can then ignore. You have to prepare carefully, and then have the courage to be free.
To come back to this year’s album, Ivan Ilić Plays Morton Feldman, now nominated for the 2016 ICMA Award, I’m curious: did you prefer a smooth, transparent sounding Pleyel (which is your favourite) when recording it?
No, I used a Steinway.
Wasn’t this a challenge for you?
The Steinway was not the only challenge. Feldman’s music is very, very soft. It’s extreme. You hear the acoustic more than you hear the piano. You hang onto each note, and listen to the room vibrate. In addition to the physical characteristics of the room, the tuner is very important. There are other factors: am I in the right state of mind to hear all the little details in Feldman’s score? During the recording in Paris, sometimes you could hear the metro! Actually, you could just barely feel a low rumble. A very low frequency. The hall was so quiet that when you turn the volume up, you can occasionally hear the passing metro underground!
Photo credit: Nelly Portal
Wasn’t there a way of preventing that?
The music is so quiet that you have to turn the microphone input volume all the way up. Inevitably, you start hearing things that you don’t normally hear. When I play Feldman in concerts, the same thing happens. There is always noise, even when you think there isn’t. Remember: John Cage went to Harvard and asked to visit a scientifically built room with no sound, an “anechoic chamber”. Even there he heard two noises. One was high, one was low. The engineer told Cage that the high one was his nervous system in operation. The low one was his blood in circulation.
When I first listened to the album, with totally unfamiliar ears, the first feeling it gave me was melancholy. But the more I listened the more accustomed I became. A softness started to appear.
That’s why the pieces are so long. If they were short you would never realize how powerful they can be. When you keep listening you start really hearing it, feeling it.
We don’t need to understand this music
How do you make Feldman’s music less intimidating for audiences?
There is a pernicious idea floating around, especially with respect to abstract music. The idea is: if you are smart and know the music, you’ll like it. The corollary, which is even worse, is: if you don’t like abstract music you’re stupid, or simple-minded.
This reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, TheEmperor’s New Clothes...
Yes, and this pushes people away from what they don’t understand. But we should accept things we don't understand. You have to practice welcoming things that scare you. Neuroscience tells us that when you travel to an unfamiliar place, it helps keep your brain healthy. You make new connections, your neural map is enriched.
You are obviously interested in neuroscience!
Yes, very. I’d like to collaborate with a neuroscientist at some point, for more insight. But once I grow curious about a subject I tend to forget about the others (he smiles).
Is Morton Feldman a minimalist, in the generic sense of the term? Or do his scores use fewer notes for a different purpose?
I don’t think Feldman is a minimalist. I don’t know if this is true in Turkey, but for example in France, the UK and Germany, the word “minimalist” has become a very powerful brand. A prestigious cultural label. Like Ferrari. There are minimalist festivals, minimalist books… None of this was true 30 years ago. Of course, I would like Feldman’s music to be more popular. So I could cheat, and say “Yes he is a minimalist,” and link him to Steve Reich or Philip Glass… But the truth is that he is not. He’s doing something else. On the other hand, his decision to write very long works might have been influenced by minimalists. During my Feldman research, I found a letter from La Monte Young to Feldman, from the 1970s. Young was thanking him for coming to his concert. He said: “Thank you for coming, and thank you for staying so long. Very few people stayed for hours, but you did. Thank you.”
The cult of Feldman is a small one. So how come your new album, which is dedicated to his music, has received such wide attention?
I don’t know. I do know that I love Feldman’s music. I believe it is emotionally powerful and important. And I take every opportunity I can to introduce people to it. Many of them would never have heard it otherwise. It has allowed me to forget myself completely and devote myself to the music, which is an intoxicating feeling. Maybe my enthusiasm is contagious?
You would like to make Feldman more popular. Which composers would you recommend to an uninitiated listener, to warm up with before Feldman?
My answer to that question is simple. They can listen to my album The Transcendentalist. The secret to that CD is: I recorded the Feldman first. Then I contemplated what else I could put on the album, to pull the listener in, and encourage them to listen all the way to the end. And find themselves listening to Feldman, without realizing it.
The album starts with early Scriabin miniatures. They’re simple, beautiful and accessible. They’re like Chopin. Then comes an early piece by John Cage, which is also accessible, but with less drama, less narrative. It keeps repeating. The listener starts to loosen up. Then we go back to Scriabin. Then there is Wollschleger’s Music Without Metaphor, in the middle. A much more abstract work, but only 6 minutes long. Then we go back to Scriabin again. So, I’m slowly saying “Give me a little bit more, a little bit more. Have some Scriabin, a reward. Like a little piece of chocolate.” All the while, I’m pulling them gently. And to my surprise a lot of people told me it worked. Once they listened to the first 10 minutes, they would listen until the end. The Feldman felt just like the rest to them, although it’s abstract and a much more complex work.
Familiarity makes me feel like an animal in a cage
You must have listened to myriad recordings to decide on the best pieces…
Yes. But I was also specifically looking for pieces I didn’t know. When I’ve never heard something before, I’m freer. If I have heard someone else play something or if I’ve developed a familiarity with a piece over the years, then I feel like an animal in a cage. I don’t have as much room to move around. So, for instance, when I started to work on Feldman, I only listened to the first 10 minutes of the pieces I chose to record. I trusted Feldman. I knew that the rest would be good. My choices seem restricted when I’ve heard other people’s choices. And, as an interpreter, the choices you make are the whole point. The notes, the score, it’s just 3 percent of what is happening. The other 97 percent depends on the choices you make while playing.
Photo credit: Ker Xavier
So you don’t listen to other recordings when preparing a repertoire?
I check briefly, to make sure there is room for improvement. I concentrate on the choices the player makes. After the first few minutes, I can usually predict what’s coming. I don’t have to listen to the rest. Most players are very predictable. But a handful, like Arcadi Volodos, are exceptions. When I listen to him it’s the opposite: I know that he will surprise me.
How do you feel about being one of the candidates for the 2016 ICMA Award with your Feldman album?
The most interesting thing about being nominated for an award is learning more about what the other people, my fellow musicians, are doing. All musicians do this, I imagine. If I have an interview in a magazine and someone sends me the magazine then I use it to learn more about what other people are doing. There may be a female musician who had children and disappeared, and returns with a new approach. Or maybe a man, a well-known chamber musician, suddenly becomes a soloist. I like to observe people changing, and speculate about the underlying reasons. The people who are always doing the same thing bore me. Like musicians who just play and record Beethoven for 50 years.
Lastly, can you introduce yourself as a musician? How would you describe yourself?
What I try to communicate with music is the joy of being alive. This doesn’t necessarily mean happiness. I try to make the music vibrate in a way so that if someone is coughing she will stop. If someone is on the phone, he will hang up. If someone is on the computer, reading e-mail, with Youtube on in the background, she will stop writing and start listening. If it makes the person want to do just one thing, listen, I’ve succeeded. To listen, forget yourself, forget where you are. Music is a collection of vibrations, which enrich your life – whether or not you understand why.
Photo credit: Benoît Maire
FOR READERS’ INTEREST
In addition to The Transcendentalist (2014) and Ivan Ilić plays Morton Feldman (2015), Ivan Ilić also recently directed an Art book/DVD project about Feldman, in collaboration with the Geneva University of Art & Design. The publication, Detours Which Have To Be Investigated (2014), can be purchased from the artist’s website on http://www.ivancdg.com