Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
The San Francisco Symphony concerts I attended as a child were my inspiration. I also attended concerts by brilliant young musicians in Belgrade that were just as inspiring.
In college I studied mathematics, but music seemed like a bigger challenge. It seemed like a bigger risk too; that attracted me. Also, I intuited that a career in music would be a more enriching way to develop as a person.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
At a pivotal moment in my musical development, just before I moved to France, I met Steve Coleman, a saxophonist, improviser and composer. By a stroke of luck, my final year at university coincided with the year he was in residence there. Studying improvisation with him changed everything for me. He is the most inspiring musician I’ve ever met.
But in general I’ve learned more from non-musicians than from musicians. Music is a technical subject; as a result musicians often have limited horizons. The most important lessons I’ve learned were from personal experience, analogies I drew from other fields, and my own research.
What has been the greatest challenge of your career so far?
The reconciliation of my intellectual curiosity with my career as a performer. I’m starting to find ways of combining the two. But for years it was terrifying to be in a field where there is so little critical questioning of the fundamentals. The typical performer’s career is, in many ways, anti-intellectual. One is expected to act, and to leave the thinking to others. Countering that trend has become a guiding principle for me.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Recordings are more important to me than performances. From experience, I know not to trust in-the-moment feelings I have at concerts. Performances feel like experiences, whereas recordings feel like achievements (or failures). Studio recordings are, first and foremost, an incredible tool for self-knowledge. I can’t imagine my musical life without them. For musicians, a recording is “proof” that they can do something. It’s a powerful message.
Further, the ability to edit has elevated recording into a process of constructing a version of a piece that is what you would like it to be, within the limits of what you can do. Recordings have become frozen, idealized performances that can be revisited. Making them is exhilarating. At its best, a recorded version of a piece feels like it has an almost physical weight, or inertia, like a sculpture. It’s built to last. If it’s good enough, it does.
People often remark that recordings rarely have the same “magical” atmosphere as a fine performance. There does seem to be a Faustian bargain involved: you trade the feeling of communion with an audience for a musical artifice. But the insight you gain and the ability to spread the music are just two of many reasons why recordings have become an unavoidable part of how we experience music.
A friend of mine suggested that performers make recordings as a way of compensating for the fact that they don’t “create”. It’s an interesting idea. But my reply is that recordings are proof that we do create, that playing is a creative act. The ability to forge an interpretation that doesn’t instantly evaporate has destabilised the work-performance dichotomy, which has become outdated. Now there is a trichotomy: work, performance, and recording. One might even say that recordings are neither performances, nor works, but something in between. Or perhaps they form a triangle. The position of recordings is ambiguous and hard to pin down.
This has certain philosophical implications. For example: does an excellent recording erode the importance of the score? What is the essence of the work: the dots on the page? The sounds that result when you play the dots? Your intention, the ideal that you strive for, or the actual sounds themselves? A combination of all of these? These questions are important, and when you try to answer them you realize how elusive they are. Strangely, classical music is a field in which many people get angry if you even ask such questions.
The recording of sound is only about 140 years old. It is the musician’s printing press. We still haven’t come to terms with the extent to which it has changed musical culture.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
Any work I’ve never heard before. When I have no reference points I am the most free.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
It’s changed over the years. I used to play repertoire at the intersection of my interests and those of concert promoters. Now things are much more skewed towards what I feel I must do, for myself. I’ve come to rely on fear as a guide for finding the right repertoire.
My left-hand Godowsky project (2012) is an example. When I had the idea, I was petrified. As I began to pursue it, many people tried to talk me out of it. The amount of work was overwhelming. But it was a great success, the reaction was like a tidal wave. It allowed me to break out from my generation, and from the pernicious influence of other people’s opinions. The experience transformed me.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Before an important recital I often play for a friend at home, a few days before. Always a non-musician, and always someone I trust. The person is only 2 meters away, which makes it very difficult. But the one to one communication is powerful.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
At the moment my favourite piece to perform is Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari (1986). I’ve never heard audiences listen as intently as they do when they listen to it live. I expect that in ten years the piece will become mainstream, i.e. it will be programmed alongside Chopin, Debussy, and Scriabin.
When it comes to listening, nothing replaces the physical vibrations and the welling-up of emotion one gets when listening to a first-rate orchestra, live, in a great hall. And, contrary to popular opinion, we live in an age with many worthwhile composers. I heard a wonderfully glamorous orchestra piece by Péter Eötvös recently, the orchestra sparkled.
Who are your favourite musicians?
For the past two years my favourite musician has been Morton Feldman. His works have deeply affected me, as well as his interviews and his lectures about music. He’s taught me so much, even though he’s been dead for 27 years.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There have been concerts where I had epiphanies that permanently changed my playing. Those are the most memorable.
Progress is not linear in music. You can labour for weeks on something, then one day it comes together. Sometimes the practice accumulates. But other times you just try something differently and – bang! – you understand something you never understood before. For musicians, as with athletes, these moments are usually coupled with a new physical sensation. Sometimes there is even a transcendental sense of being “connected” to something.
One example was a recital I gave in 2006. Because the audience was seated all around me in an intimate setting, I changed my gestures at the piano, making them more expressive, because it fit the moment and the sound of the room. I could never have planned it, I just did it. And that aspect changed permanently from then on. Being in a new situation seems to be an important common factor with these experiences.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Read. Write. Refine your mind as well as your musicianship. Cultivate what makes you different from others. Exercise. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep. Socialize with people with whom you have nothing in common, preferably of all ages. In addition to music school, study at a university and take classes in as many diverse subjects as you can. Demand access to the best teachers. Listen to them carefully and with scepticism. Never compromise anything having to do with your education. If a subject is difficult for you, ask for help. Eat well. Be wary of distractions (read: smartphones). If you can, live somewhere other than where you were born, preferably in a foreign language; it’s the best cure for arrogance. Be generous: if you pursue a living as a musician, chances are you were the recipient of selfless generosity from dozens of people over the years. Say thank you. Never let anyone tell you you can’t, or won’t succeed. You will.
What are you working on at the moment?
Improving my learning speed. It’s interesting how if you focus on improving one quantifiable aspect of your playing, everything else tends to improve with it.
Ivan Ilić recently released a new CD on Heresy Records entitled The Transcendentalist, featuring works by Alexander Scriabin, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Scott Wollschleger (b 1980). The album has enjoyed substantial critical acclaim and is broadcast often on six continents.
Ivan Ilić’s full biography