Friday, May 30, 2014

Ivan Ilić Part One

I interviewed the amazing American pianist Ivan Ilić ahead of the release of his new CD, The Transcendentalist -

Here's part one of our chat:

 MF:  You played Glenn Gould in a film. What was that like?

II:  It was very interesting.  Part of the challenge with it was that I had to somehow physically evoke Glenn Gould - but, you know, I wasn’t playing him actually. It was the reincarnation of him, so I was supposed to allude to him without actually being him, so that was pretty tricky.  But it worked out well.  I was lucky.

MF: You were in another movie about a pianist, right?

II:  Yeah, that was a much more in-depth experience for me because the director, Luc Plissonneau, wrote the script for me.  It was really, really fun!  I had a blast with it.  And actually it’s online now, finally, for the first time, after two years.  So I’m really excited.  It's going really well.

MF:  You were born in Yugoslavia. What language did your parents speak?

II:  Serbian.  Or I guess at the time it was called Serbo-Croatian, but it’s, you know, it’s the same language – Serbian and Croatian.  It’s a Slavic language.  It’s quite similar to Russian in terms of its structure.  And it’s actually quite a useful language for music because it’s very, very different from English.  And so if one speaks both languages, it gives you access to other languages.

MF:  Were your parents musicians?

II:  They’re not, but they’re very appreciative of music.  And I would say that they understand the importance of culture in general.  That was very important, because otherwise it would have been impossible to pursue the path I did.  You know, there are stories of people who forge careers against all odds.  I wasn’t really one of those people.  I mean there were odds, but they were mostly odds I made for myself, rather than odds that were against me.  I think it’s really important to have support, whether it’s your family, or the people that are close to you.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are musicians themselves, but if they just are supportive of somebody working hard toward a goal, I think that’s the most important thing. 

MF:  So at some point you must have told them you needed a piano.

II:  [laughs] Yeah!  I had a really horrible upright piano for years and years, and actually it was a big long debate when I was in high school, whether my parents were going to invest in a really beautiful instrument.  And I remember very clearly, my parents being kind of skeptical, saying to themselves, you know, we’re going to invest I don’t know how many thousands of dollars in this beautiful instrument, and I bet he’s going to give up the piano six months later.  I’m still pretty proud that I didn’t!  Actually we still have that piano.  It’s a wonderful piano.

MF:  Is that the one in the picture of you on your website, where you’re really little, like six or seven?

II:  That was the very first one.  It was a Baldwin, which was fine.  But it was one of these things where - I’m sure that many piano students can relate to this - when I went to my teacher’s house, every time I thought his piano keys were so heavy, because he had a grand piano. And mine were super light, and I didn’t realize that.  And it’s ironic because I still keep in touch with that piano teacher, and I sometimes go back to his place, and now his piano seems really, really light. So it’s ironic. Of course maybe it’s just that twenty years later, people have been playing on his piano so much that it’s become light…but I don’t think so.

MF:  So your parents brought you to the States when you were a toddler, and then you went to UC Berkeley, where you majored in piano and math?

II: Yeah, it was a really busy time. From the very beginning of my studies I was practicing a lot.  The only people that were practicing as much as I was, were the music majors that were really, really serious.  So that just happened immediately.  But it’s interesting because at the time, I didn't feel like I had to choose.  I knew that I was going to be in school, and that I had at least four years ahead of me.  And so it felt like a comfortable surrounding in which I could try different things.  And that, for me, was very important.  Maybe some people at that age just want to practice and do nothing else, but I was really curious about other things.

Math was always something that was easy for me, early on, but the kind of math that you study at a big university is completely different than the kind of math that you learn when you’re an adolescent.  So that was a big eye-opener for me and much, much more difficult than I expected.  But it was also really attractive to me, that challenge.  And it was fun, because the math majors were all Chinese, or Russians, or Indians, and the teachers were all from the former Soviet Union.  They’d left because their jobs there were not comfortable jobs.  Many of them were Jews.  And there’s this whole scandal that’s come out recently, about how there were many Jewish students that were really, really talented that couldn’t get a place at the math academies because of anti-Semitism.   So it was just a really interesting cultural experience in addition to the whole math thing.

MF:  You said that language is sort of like music. Are language and music related to math?

II:  Yes, definitely.  I think that whether it’s different languages, or music, or math, there’s always some kind of a structure.  There are certain people that perceive patterns more quickly and then, you know, they’ll just learn things by patterns.  So if you learn things by pattern you’re not learning the exceptions to the rules very well. So you’re making little mistakes, but you get kind of most of it right.   And that was something that, I think, was complementary, learning these different things at the same time. So there were other things that I was less interested in, say, like biology or chemistry.  Part of that has to do with having teachers who weren’t as engaged as my math teachers.  But I think that also some of that is memorization.  And I – I never was that interested in memorization.  It was more kind of about somehow imposing a structure on a whole bunch of information, so things would go faster.  Like finding shortcuts, is, I guess, another way of saying it. 

MF:  Instead of concertizing, you’re concentrating on the piano as a solo instrument.  Was that a conscious choice?

II:  Yeah, definitely a very conscious choice on my part.  Earlier I was playing with orchestras when I was in my early twenties, and also a lot of chamber music.  I was accompanying singers. I was living with a singer at the time, and that was a big part of my life. It was, you know, wonderful.  I’m sure there were a lot of important things that happened.  But ultimately – I guess it maybe has to do with my personality type – but when you’re alone and faced with your own shortcomings, there’s a certain kind of progress you can make, which I find very compelling. It just interests me.  And I’m lucky that there’s both a big repertoire for solo piano and also a lot of audience for solo piano.  You know many of the concert series where I play across Europe, there might be, let’s say, one big concert a month.  And there’ll be chamber music, and there’ll always be a solo piano recital.  Because that’s something that’s, you know, still pretty popular in the context of classical music.  In terms of repertoire, I became more and more comfortable with playing whatever I was interested in.  Earlier in my career I played famous pieces, because people want to hear familiar music.  But more and more I feel that it’s better to play what you can do well and what you feel like playing, rather than playing something because you think other people expect it of you.  I think that if you do that, and I have a few colleagues that have been doing that for decades, you lose your curiosity.   You lose, kind of, your edge.  And I think that’s probably the most dangerous thing in this profession, to have it become a routine.   It becomes really obvious when someone is on stage and they don’t feel like being there.