Friday, May 30, 2014

Ivan Ilić Part Three

MF:  You have to stop being obsessive about improvement at some point, or else your thing can never go out into the world. 

II:  Exactly.  Yeah.  But on the other hand, it’s difficult - because you know that that obsessive quality is what makes something more refined and ultimately better than it was before.  So how do you stop? I think the only way to know is to have people around you that you trust, so you can ask them, and get a feel for whether something is good enough.  I certainly have had experience with this recently with my writing. With for example the liner notes of the CD, I wanted to explain the connections between the composers [Scriabin, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Scott Wollschleger].  And I felt very strongly about that.  But it’s one thing to talk about it, like in an interview, or with a friend over coffee or a glass of wine, and it’s another thing to write it.  When you write something down the expectation of the logical argument is much higher, and things have to really tie together.  Otherwise, you’re in trouble.

So that was a lot of work.  It was kind of like practicing the piano, actually.  I was just improving sentences by one word at a time.  And it’s so much work, but it does get better.

MF:  You’re a really good writer, you should write a book someday.

II:  Well, I have to find a subject!

MF:  You have so many interests and they all somehow all interconnect. Like you were saying, you see these patterns and connections.

II:  There was a book that I was expecting to be really interesting, by a guy who was a really, really talented chess prodigy.  And then he quit because he was just completely burnt out.  And then he became really expert at some other thing.  I think it was Tai Chi – competitive Tai Chi, or something like that.  And the premise of the book was that he was going to explain how to get really good at something.  And the idea of that really excited me, because I was studying my own learning method. And to me, the book was kind of a disappointment. 

So I was thinking that if there were some way I could write, explaining how to improve at anything – in other words if there was some kind of a method that would be universally applicable, then that would be useful.  And I think that if I was to write a book, I would want it to be useful for other people.  I wouldn’t want it to just be an opportunity for me to talk about something I'm interested in.  I mean I’d like it to be helpful.  I think those are the books that are the most powerful. 

MF:  I’d love to know more about that.  So you’re working on developing this method?

II:  Yeah, I’ve been working on it almost daily, when I’m not traveling.  Very carefully.  And I’ve talked to two people I trust about it in great detail.  And these are people that are older than me, computer programmers, so they’re obsessed with learning and that kind of thing. I’ve gotten some really good feedback.  But again, it’s kind of like the whole thing with writing.  When you have it in your head, certain things seem logical and easy to understand, but then when you have to put it into words for someone else, sometimes you can get tripped up.  So, that’s very interesting as well. 

MF:  Early on you were known as a French music specialist?

II:  I’d recorded for EMI by the time I was ten and I was playing the Chopin etudes, you know, in the womb! It just becomes really boring. And I didn’t even think about what the consequences would be.  I was interested in French music for a while, and then I was interested in other things.  And luckily I wasn’t thinking too carefully about how to position myself in terms of a market or something.  I was just going from one thing to the other.  And I think that’s healthy.  

MF: Tell me about your DVD project.

II: About a year and a half ago I was invited by a well-known visual artist in Paris to go to Geneva and do a workshop with young visual art students.  The way that we worked together was that I asked the students to make promotional videos for me.  And I wasn’t expecting to use the promotional videos. I just wanted to see what they would come up with, with their visual arts backgrounds.

And so I spent the first day introducing them to Morton Feldman’s music which, you know, none of them had ever heard of before.  And it was a really interesting experience because the videos they made reflected many of the things that I’d said, but then they’d kind of digested it and then regurgitated it back at me.  And I was really surprised by that, about how effective it can be. 

And I would say that probably the most important thing about that whole experience was how interesting it is to work with people who are not part of your field.  In other words, where you have to explain things using a vocabulary that is simple enough so that you’re not using technical jargon, which you would use if you were speaking to young musicians, for example.  But on the other hand, you can't just use, you know, two-syllable words. I mean you actually have to go into detail and explain what’s really going on.  So I think that’s very similar to what happens if you are speaking a language in which you aren’t fluent yet.  You want to communicate your ideas and do justice to them, but you don’t quite have the vocabulary you need.  

And I think that’s probably one of the most important things a human being can do - is to put yourself in that situation where you’re a little bit uncomfortable, but you have something really important to you that you want to say.  And to try to communicate it with whatever basic tools you have. And sometimes the enthusiasm with which you communicate is even more important than what you’re saying.  Which is, you know, another lesson in life.

Ivan Ilić Part Two

MF:  You said some of your colleagues have gotten into a routine?

II:  Yeah, well, that fell into that trap.  I mean, these are just little comments that people make to me.  For example, I was playing in a really beautiful, kind of like a private castle in Ireland a couple of years ago, it was a lovely venue.  In fact it had a big music room that was made in the nineteenth century for concerts.  And it was just fantastic, I loved the experience.  And afterwards, I was chatting with the organizers and they were telling me about this really famous pianist, who was going to be playing a few months later.  And I was, you know, quite proud to be on the same series as this person.  And they told me that this person had played there ten years earlier and they had played the exact same program that they would be playing a few months later.  And that the organizers had asked him if he’d be willing to maybe, you know, at least change one of the pieces.   And he wouldn’t do it!

There are all kinds of reasons why one might do that. I mean, maybe he played nine years of different programs and it just happened to be that one again.  But I doubt it. I don't think that it was a coincidence.

MF:  With someone at your level, it seems it must be easy to just sit down with a brand new piece and quickly learn it, and then perform and record it soon after?

 II:   Well, I mean there are two sides to it.  On the one hand, you do get faster as the years go on.  And in fact, I’ve been working on something, I’ve had a project now since August or September, where I’ve been making a conscious decision to try to learn faster, to allow me to play more things, and just to give me more freedom.

You know, if you – let’s say it takes you sixteen hours to learn a piece, and you have X number of pieces to learn. Imagine if you could somehow bring that number down from sixteen to ten, and play at the exact same level of skill.   That would be a huge advantage, right?  I mean, you’d have so much more time to do other things. 

And so I’ve been working on that, and it turns out that you can get faster.  And, you know, one of the things that immediately comes up when someone talks about this is that if you’re learning faster, then you’re not learning as well, right?  Like, you must be learning more superficially.  But in fact the opposite is true.  If you’re able to kind of trim the fat from your practicing, you can learn faster and the music sticks longer to your brain.

MF: Wow!

II: I’ve been experimenting with this, and taking notes, and kind of making a journal about it - about how I’ve been teaching myself how to learn faster.   And it’s been just incredible.  I mean, I haven’t been this engaged in practicing for years and years.  So I guess if you’re the kind of person that’s interested in those things, then it’s never boring, you know? It doesn’t feel like work.   On the other hand if you say to yourself, well, it’s going to take me sixteen hours to learn this piece, I just have to put in the time, then it becomes hell. 

MF:  Let’s talk about the composers you’ve chose for this new CD,  Morton Feldman, Scriabin and John Cage.  What’s the common thread?

II:   The common thread is the particular pieces I chose. I mean, if you were to put those composers together on a CD, and just choose any random works, then it would be all over the place.  It would be like one of these potpourri CDs, which is becoming popular, unfortunately!  But with this CD, I’ve picked particular pieces. 

For example, the two pieces by Cage I’ve chosen are early Cage, which were very lyrical, meditative, slow.  Very easy to listen to, actually, not at all what one would associate with Cage’s reputation, for, you know, kind of avant-garde style.  With the Feldman, it is probably his most accessible piece because, on the one hand, it’s short, for him.  Twenty-three minutes is short.  You know, normally his pieces are over an hour.  And also it’s just very gentle.  It opens with a melody that sounds like it almost could be Debussy.   It is quite melodic, and it becomes more abstract later, but I find that there’s that thread.  

And the reason I put Scriabin next to all of this, you know, avant-garde American music, is because there’s a few places in Feldman’s journals and his writing where he talks about the fact that the first pieces he ever wrote were Scriabin-esque.  And I’ve been to foundations where they have archives of his, and it seems like these pieces were lost, so we will never know what the pieces sounded like that Feldman wrote when he was, say, thirteen or fourteen.   But I imagine that they sound just like Scriabin, and I love that idea.  So I put in real Scriabin.  And it seems to me like there’s a certain continuity which is of interest.   Now, if you put them side by side, you start to hear connections.

MF:  So, are you traveling soon in order to promote the CD?

II:  Absolutely.  I’m traveling a lot, actually, leaving on Tuesday to Bratislava, Slovakia, and then Vienna a few days later. I’ll be back to France for a couple of days, and then I’m leaving for Hong Kong and then China at the end of May.   And then in June there are a bunch of concerts in France, both in Paris and the provinces.  Also there’s a big concert in Dublin, in Ireland, in the beginning of June as well because this record label, Heresy Records, is based there.  So I’m really excited about that. 

MF:  What proportion of your year is spent traveling?

II:  I’m actually trying to make it more extreme.  I’m trying to make the traveling for concerts part of the year be really, really, condensed.  As condensed as possible, so I can spend more time just reading and reflecting and thinking about things. Working on my practice method.   Looking for new composers, new pieces, new projects.   So I would say now it’s down to about a third of the time traveling.  Whereas before it was closer to more than half, actually. So I’m getting better at, you know, grouping things together, which is great.  It’s difficult, because sometimes you just feel like staying at home and reading about something or learning a new piece, and you can’t. 

MF:  Do you read music books for fun?

II:  I probably should read biographies of composers more.  I don’t that much.  What I do like to read is interviews, for example.  Primary documents where sometimes like a little anecdote can be really telling and tell you more about the person than a whole biography. 

I also like to read things that have nothing to do with music.  Actually, I was working on a new CD project, which is not going to be released commercially, but it was the idea of critique.  That was the theme.  So I was reading critical theory by Foucault and also going back to things like Kant and Hume.  Philosophers that I’d read in college but I haven’t really gone deep into for a while.  And I was interested in this idea of “What is critique in the arts?”   In particular in music.  What does it mean to look at pieces with a critical eye, not just to say to yourself that these are masterpieces that are perfect in every way and the composers were kind of like, you know, prophets, or something?

MF: [laughs]

II:  I think it’s more fun to think of composers as humans, who make mistakes, or who write music that can be awkward sometimes, or maybe can be improved.  You know I like that idea of, kind of, breaking down the icon status of composers. 

MF: It struck me when you said, being alone with yourself and the instrument and the music forces you to face your own -- shortcomings, was I think the word you used?  Maybe that place of imperfection you’re talking about is really where art is born. Except for somebody like Mozart.

II:  Yes, that’s right. Obviously there are exceptions.  But the way that most people work, is that they will start something and then they’ll improve it by a tiny bit, and then it will continue to improve by a tiny bit.  And then at some point they decide that they’re done and they feel like stopping.  I mean that’s how everyone I know works, whether it’s as a performer, as a composer, a visual artist.  And it’s actually a major topic of discussion among artists: how do you know when a work is done?   And that’s something Feldman used to discuss with visual artists in New York back in the fifties and sixties.  How do you know when you don’t want to touch something anymore?   I think that’s a really interesting question.