Ivan Ilic’s personal homage to a daring composer

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. 20.01.2015

As composer Morton Feldman enjoys a comeback in contemporary music circles today, a Swiss arts and design academy has published a new tribute to him along with a CD featuring an ethereal interpretation of Palais de Mari, Feldman’s last solo piano work.

Morton Feldman by the author, Michael Johnson

In the multimedia package (CD, DVD, art book), Detours Which Have to be Investigated, Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilic interpreted the piece, collaborated on the text and is featured on the DVD. The result is a highly accessible introduction to a unique and daring composer from the “downtown” New York school of the 1950s and 1960s.

Ilic’s partner in the text was Benoît Maire, a Paris-based conceptual artist. Publisher is HEAD (Haute école d’art et de design) in Geneva, with a text in French and English. 

The title is taken from a documentary film on the late abstract expressionist artist Philip Guston, a close friend of Feldman for many years, in which he urges an open mind to creative opportunities -- hence the call to investigate “detours”, or chance opportunities, that arise during the creative process.

The book is a publishing marvel – an experimental representation of Feldman’s music in print format – large white spaces, some blank pages, with blocs of text swimming in the void. Much of the book is synthesized history but it also includes a never-published photo of John Cage, an early Feldman mentor.

The aim of the book is to give the reader an experience close to what he or she would feel from listening to Feldman’s minimalist music. The look is, as the French say, “très design.” 

The CD recording highlights Ilic’s tightly controlled pianism, which suits Feldman’s works perfectly. As Ilic writes, “Almost all of Feldman’s music is played at the limit of audibility.” The notes trickle into your ears, he says, “at unpredictable intervals, and you begin to wonder when, or rather if the piece will stop”.

Ilic, a rising star in Europe, performs a sample of Palais de Mari in this excerpt, brief yet mesmerizing:

Ilic’s CD is his second published recording of Palais de Mari. I wrote a favorable review of his first, the concluding track on the CD The Transcendentalist, last year for Facts and Arts, archived here. The new CD, which contains only the 25-minute Palais de Mari piece makes a more intimate impact because it is isolated from other pieces.

Aside from the music and videos, this book offers a delightful taste of Feldman’s whimsical thinking and writing, distilled in nine excerpts from his lectures and prose. A prolific memoirist and analyst of contemporary music, Feldman enjoys telling drôle stories on himself.  In one of the excerpts he recalls a meeting with a “big time publisher” in New York who found his music overly quiet. The publisher told him “You’re a fabulous composer, but you’re not …. unless …”

“Unless what?” Feldman demanded. 

“You need a little drama – not much. You need a little drama. Just a little bit.”

Fortunately for the rest of us, Feldman’s style indeed changed, and the hypnotic repetitions of his late style are evident in Palais which ends in a whisper. 

Feldman died in 1987 in Buffalo, New York. He had occupied the Edgar Varèse chair in composition at the University of Buffalo for 14 years.

Artist Guston also gets two blocs of text in this book. He believed that “nothing is ever solved in painting”, as he said in an excerpt that led to the title of this book. “It’s a continuous chain that sometimes doesn’t go in one line, but goes in a serpentine path, or in crooked paths, detours which have to be investigated.” 

Ivan Ilic

His metaphor for this process is the mountain climber. “I feel like an explorer who almost got to the top of Mount Everest, and somehow stopped just short, and remembered and thought, ‘Well, perhaps, maybe I forgot some gear… But in going down to recover this equipment, I took some side paths that looked exciting, full of possibilities.’”

As Ilic and Maire explain, Feldman and Guston fell out after twenty years of close friendship when Feldman once hesitated to praise the new direction that Guston’s art was taking. A pity, for they had reinforced each other in their different art forms for many fruitful years.

In my own Feldman readings a few months ago I came across a dark Feldmanism that helped explain the break. He called Guston “an arch crank”. “Very little was art (for him). Always aware in his own work of the rhetorical nature of the complication, Guston reduces, reduces building his own Tower of Babel and then destroys it.” 

Guston’s early abstracts still attract visitors to major galleries. His Painting No. 9 is a powerful example of his style :

Feldman has left us a rich legacy of more than 200 CDs, many of them detours well worth investigating.  Thankfully, Ivan Ilic and Benoît Maire have put this sound-world within reach.

The book is available here.

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