Ivan Ilic on Feldman: He enters your mind on little cat feet

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 18.10.2015

Morton Feldman’s delicate, will o’ the wisp compositions demand of the listener a special mental and spiritual investment, a belief in music’s potential to pervade human consciousness. Without this leap of faith, one is tempted to say, as a young mother whispered to me recently at a Feldman recital, “My ten-year-old could play this.”

Ivan Ilic, the Serbian-American pianist based in France is helping lead a renaissance of the Feldman oeuvre – dormant for decades. He might be tempted to retort, “Madame, either you get it or you don’t.”

Ilic gets it, profoundly, as a result of about three years of an off-and-on effort to get into Feldman’s head and play him the way his work was intended. He read extensively from Feldman’s published writings, he recorded a range of his piano pieces, and he continues to lecture to recital audiences before sitting down to play. He is determined to show the way to the rapture he felt, which he describes as wanting “the spell to continue, and interruption seems unthinkable”.

As he said in a recent interview, “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.”

His new CD, “Ivan Ilic Plays Morton Feldman” (Paraty/Harmonia Mundi), in worldwide release this week, delivers a rarefied performance that gets to the essence of music. Nothing distracts from the backbone of single notes or quiet chords. In one of the tracks, Feldman creates a “tremendous feeling of space”, Ilic writes, with a hollow chord in the left hand and only two notes in the right hand. “Few composers can do so much with so little.”

The CD consists of a single Feldman piece, “For Bunita Marcus”, and the minimalist playing enters your mind on little cat feet. It is the third and final publication of his “Morton Feldman Trilogy”, the others being his recent CD “The Transdendentalist” and his art book/CD/DVD “Detours Which Have To Be Investigated".

An important innovation is Ilic’s first-ever decision to break up this single piece, more than an hour long, into 22 tracks, inviting listeners to go back to favorite passages for repeated hearings. Each track is explained in some detail, to guide the uninitiated to this higher consciousness. Feldman and his mentor John Cage believed in wisdom from India that quietude in music could invite divine intervention in the mind.

Feldman also saw a morbid side. Ilic quotes him as writing, “’In my art I feel myself dying very, very SLOWLY.’ The last third of ‘For Bunita Marcus’ is a wonderful illustration of that idea.”

Ilic writes in his extraordinarily candid liner notes that his first brush with Feldman left him feeling “edgy”. He says he developed nagging feeling that “the music isn’t going anywhere”.  He warns that the process of acceptance might replicate his own, which consisted of “puzzlement-tension-release-trance”. 

He discovered that his sense of time could disappear. “The piece can last one hours, or four hours; I know I’ll follow it to the end.”


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