INTERVIEW – For several years pianist Ivan Ilić has cultivated a passion for composer Morton Feldman. His newest album “Ivan Ilić plays Morton Feldman” (Paraty) is the culmination of his research. It’s a captivating and unsettling disc. The new release is the opportunity to talk about the experimental American composer (whose dates are 1926-1987) and about the specificity of his music. Exceedingly simple in appearance, it can induce a state of contemplative calm in the listener. And the music is gaining in popularity. It remains to be seen what the ideal conditions are for this music, both for listening and for performance.
It seems that Morton Feldman’s music is increasingly played, recorded, discussed. Is it becoming fashionable?
Ivan Ilić: Yes, absolutely! His music has attracted a lot of media attention, first and foremost in English-speaking countries, but also throughout Europe, especially in Germany. The music has very few notes, and I think performers often infer that it will be easy! (laughter) Unfortunately, some play the music without internalizing the depth of Feldman’s world. For example, his music necessitates a conscious rethinking of gesture. It also requires you to lose yourself in the music, both as a listener and as a performer. If the musician isn’t completely absorbed in the music, it’s missing something. It’s cold, superficial.
What about you? Did you choose to play Feldman’s music as a career move?
I.I.: (Laughter) Inevitably, I knew that someone would ask me that question! I spent three years of immersive research on Feldman and his music (including a first CD, “The Transcendentalist” and an Art book/DVD, “Detours Which Have To Be Investigated”). I’ve performed the music extensively. The music has given me a great deal in return. It has allowed me to reach new audiences. [Among 20th century composers] I also have a great love for Xenakis, for example, but his music is much more difficult to advocate. I remember a concert by Roger Muraro in Avignon about 15 years ago. He played Messiaen’s “Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus”. It made a big impression. The audience was dumbfounded. Not only because of the strong link between Muraro and Messiaen but because of the pianist’s commitment to the music. I told myself, “So it is possible!” Feldman is my Messiaen.
How did you transition from the virtuosity of Godowsky’s Studies to Feldman’s pared-down world?
I.I.: With Godowsky, the works were so demanding that I had to develop tools I didn’t have. It was a almost an athletic endeavor. Later on, I discovered unexpected depths in the music. Feldman’s music leads performers to ask different questions. For example: what do you do while listening to the silence between two notes? In traditional music, the body memorizes gestures, and constantly anticipates the next movement. When you play “For Bunita Marcus”, a 70-minute work, from memory – as I do – it’s easy to panic and forget the next note. It’s demanding in a more profound way. You need a certain poise.
Is this music for the young, or for the mature?
I.I.: The central concern of Feldman’s music is mortality. In his lectures, Feldman would slip phrases in like “I have 15 or 20 years left to live”. He was only 60 years old and didn’t know he would die one year later (of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in June 1987; he died in September). He wrote long works in which one loses one’s self which, to my mind, evokes the end. There are no special effects, there is no spectacle in this music. Just the sorrow of existence. This kind of thing rarely attracts 20 year old pianists. Today, I’m 37 years old. Certain professors of mine from Berkeley, in piano and philosophy, are now dead. I can’t talk to them anymore. I’m starting to anticipate too.
What role does the performer have in Feldman’s music?
I.I.: Feldman took a while before he started to trust performers. As he was not a popular composer [during his lifetime], only a handful of performers were willing to play his music: for example, Roger Woodward, Aki Takahashi, Nils Vigeland, and Bunita Marcus, who was a composition student, to whom he dedicated “For Bunita Marcus”. Early on Feldman wrote graphic scores but he quickly realized that performers were not doing what he wanted. He accepted that there was a discrepancy, and clearly transcribed the characteristics of the sounds he wanted – soft, long – and his “favorite notes”, which recurred frequently. This was the opposite of John Cage, who sought to extend his musical language, by using chance operations, for example.
“For Bunita Marcus” is a work which calls for unusual listening conditions, right?
I.I.: That’s true. I once listened to it with a friend in the basement of a library in an American university, which was empty for vacation. We listened with our eyes closed. I think it’s important to listen to Feldman’s music with someone you trust, without looking at one another, without worrying about how you’re dressed, without checking your phone every five minutes (laughter). I’ll soon perform the piece in Paris in front a hundred people. I imagine it will be a powerful experience, of a different kind. The public will have to choose to experience the piece in full, to go all the way together.
CD – The English-speaking press has widely covered the release of “Ivan Ilić plays Morton Feldman”. Last year we enjoyed Ilić’s previous album “The Transcendentalist”. With “Ivan Ilić plays Morton Feldman” (Paraty) the pianist goes even further by recording “For Bunita Marcus”, a 70-minute work in one movement. As the musician said in the interview above, the challenge is to become fully subsumed in this stripped-down music. Ivan Ilić is right to bring up the fear of mortality, as the long silences are so profoundly disturbing. The pianist, like a friend, is our guide in the absurdity of the human condition.