Ivan Ilić in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Twelfth Classical Conversation features Serbian-American pianist, Ivan Ilić. We met up for a chat at Steinway Hall in London last week, after Ivan had given a recital as part of the It’s All About Piano Festival held at the French Institute. For those interested in reading the interview, I have included a transcript at the end of this blog post.

Described by the New Yorker as an “adventurous pianist” who “likes his music on the brainy side,” Ivan is building a strong international reputation. A student of François-René Duchâble, Ivan has earned support from the American Foundation in Paris, the Karić Foundation in Belgrade, the University of Illinois, the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, and the Nadia Boulanger Foundation in Paris.

Ivan started music studies at age 6. He earned degrees in music and mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley before moving to Paris on a fellowship from the university. Shortly afterwards Ivan was admitted to the esteemed Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris, where he took a Premier Prix in piano performance. The City of Paris sponsored his first recording.

Career highlights include recitals at Carnegie Hall (New York), Wigmore Hall (London), the National Concert Hall (Dublin), Glenn Gould Studio (Toronto), and the American Academy in Rome. Other recent engagements include recital débuts in Boston, Washington, Bristol, Glasgow, and Cardiff.

Ivan’s CD of 24 Préludes by Claude Debussy received Mezzo Television’s Critic’s Choice Award in France, and was featured as a Top Five CD of the Year in America’s Fanfare Magazine. It was also selected by Classique News in France as a Top 5 CD of the Month. The disc is broadcast on Radio France, BBC Radio 3, Radio 4 Netherlands, American Public Radio, and Radio Hong Kong, as well as major classical music stations in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Estonia, Latvia, Ireland, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Canada, and South Africa.

His latest CD (2012) features the complete Chopin Studies for the left hand by Leopold Godowsky, a veritable tour-de-force of musicianship and virtuosity. The recording, described as “a major achievement” and “breathtaking” by BBC Radio 3, was the The Daily Telegraph’s CD of the Week and a Top 5 CD of MDR Figaro in Germany and Classique News in France.

Videos of Ivan performing Godowsky on YouTube have attracted over half a million views. He recently made his acting début in two French short films: Luc Plissonneau’s Les Mains, and Benoît Maire’s Le Berger. Ivan’s next recording will be of music by Morton Feldman.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read the interview:

M: Serbian American concert Pianist Ivan Ilić has played concerts all around the world in venues like Carnegie Hall, The Wigmore Hall, and The Glenn Gould Studio. His recordings have attracted many accolades and awards, and I’m delighted that he’s taken the time today to join me here at Steinway Hall in London for one of my Classical Conversations.


I: Thank You.

M: It’s lovely to chat to you here today.


M: I’m going to start by talking about your music education, how you started playing, what age were you, why you started, and erm, do you come from a musical family? (laughs) I always ask that everyone that question!

I: Well I think that like many musicians, my family appreciates music without actually being professional musicians.

The most important part of that surrounding, I would say context, is just the fact that my parents took me to concerts all the time. And so music was something that was accepted, encouraged, and valued, which is something which I think is becoming more rare today?

Parents that would not only spend time with their children first of all!

It’s kind of a shocker isn’t it? It used to happen! (laughs)

M: Yes!

I:But also, take them to things and just enjoy them together.

So we would drive to San-Francisco for 45 minutes, and we would talk about what we were about to see. The anticipation would build up, and then we would go to these events, and afterwards we would either fall asleep on the way home or talk about it (laughs). Sometimes the next morning. So it was kind of…

M: It was an event.

I:Yes, it was an event, it was very important. We would buy tickets to see Jean-Yves Thibaudet, or Ivo Pogorelich play Tchaikovsky Concerto for three weeks before, and I’d be thinking about that and we’d hear it on the radio, and it was exciting for me, yes.

M: So which teacher then, do you think was most influential on your development, who was the most important person to help you on your pianistic journey?

I: My first teacher who I’m still in touch with, his name is Paul Fink.

In the town where I grew up, Pao Alto – which is near San Francisco, he’s quite a sought-after piano teacher.

I think that, personally, I’m kind of terrified of teaching, because I think it’s a tremendous responsibility, and also, I feel that, when you teach somebody from the beginning, it’s even more of a responsibility, because you are their link to music. Do you see what I mean?

M: Yes.

I:So, all of their associations, positive or negative, will be a reflection of their relationship with you.
I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I love music, but I have this terrible teacher, and, you know, I just stopped playing because of that.’ It’s sad isn’t it.

M: Very.

I: So, I stayed with one teacher for a long time, like the first ten years from six to sixteen, who was just very open minded, let me play whatever I wanted. I was playing movie soundtracks. I transcribed a piano thing from a rap song at the time (laughs). I could do whatever I wanted. He was very, very encouraging and supportive of whatever I felt like doing.

M: That’s great.

I: It is great, and I think that that’s wonderful because, let’s say I didn’t become a musician, I would’ve just loved music forever because it would’ve been just a positive experience. So I was lucky, I was really, really, really lucky! So, I didn’t have this really strict pedagogical format. But I think that’s ok, you know, I think that sometimes we think that you have to play the Chopin études by the time you’re 14 and record them for E.M.I, otherwise your career with never go anywhere, and that’s absurd. It’s so stupid, you know, this isn’t the Olympics, this isn’t gymnastics.

M: It’s an old fashioned idea now I suppose.

I:Well, luckily it’s becoming old fashioned, thank goodness that more and more people are realizing that that’s… you know it’s, there are people that live that path, but there are lots that don’t. It’s probably more enjoyable not to I think, you know? Maybe that’s the way I feel.

M: Yes. (laughs).

So how did you develop your technique?

I: I’m still developing my technique! (laughs)

I think that the best thing that can happen to you in terms of technique is to have an insecurity. In other words – to believe that your technique is not good. Then you will continue to improve.

M: Yes.

I:If you have a friend that plays faster than you, more accurately, that will be a good thing, because then you will be pushed to continually strive forward.

Whereas, if at any point with piano technique, if you think that you’re doing ok, then that’s when – it’s kind of like they say businesses are always either growing or shrinking – I think piano technique is always either getting better or worse. (laughs)

So if you’re playing a lot of slow music, you’re not challenging yourself, it’s dangerous.

So, basically, I practice technique today the same way that I did 20 years ago. I’m just trying to play harder and harder pieces, and I’m trying to play better, and I’m trying to be self critical about things I can improve. I mean, people talk about technique, I think there are certain objective characteristics like, how fast the metronome work is, or how many notes am I screwing up out of a hundred? You know, you could calibrate those things. Obviously there are a lot of other things. There’s control of the sound. There’s control of your mental state. How concentrated are you? Is your mind wandering when you’re playing? The audience can hear it.

M: That’s quite amazing actually. Yes, it’s often forgotten.

I: Yes. That’s technique.

If you can play all the notes perfectly at home, but when you’re in front of the public, you’re not ‘there’, it’s worthless.

So just continuous improvement I guess.

M: So you studied maths and music at the University of California.

What point did you say: “I’ve got to become a pianist.”?
Because you’ve taken two subjects to a high level there.

I: Yes. I knew almost immediately. As soon as I was in college and I had the opportunity to go to different classes and things, I have this big problem which is I’m very curious about things. So all of a sudden I had anthropology classes and history of art classes, and I was torn in all directions on the one hand.

On the other hand, every morning at eight o’clock, I was at the practice rooms when it opened. It wasn’t difficult. I just wanted to be there. So I suppose that it was natural, in the sense that I just – what I really wanted was to become as good as possible, and that didn’t prevent me from doing other things. I suppose when you are doing that, then that’s a good sign that that’s what you should be doing.

M: That’s right, yes.
Your recording of ‘Debussy Preludes’ has had a lot of accolades. What attracts you to this music?

I: The Préludes which I recorded, there was one thing I’m very interested in. The first book of Préludes: 1909 – 1910, is the sound-world that we associate with Debussy. So it’s kind of like it’s the iconic repertoire for French music. All those sounds, all these parallel chords and everything. That’s what we think about when we think about French music.

Then, a couple of years later, 1912 – 1913 when he wrote the second book, he’s completely changed his language. It’s influenced by Stravinsky, the ballets he was hearing in Paris. It’s much more complex harmonically. I love that, I find that so interesting. He wrote both books of preludes in a very short time, which was rare for him.

When you put the two books together on a CD, it’s about 75 minutes of music, and you have two different people, really. I find that so interesting. I’m always interested by these ‘road to Damascus’ moments, where artists change. His first book of preludes was a completely self-sufficient world, and he could have just continued doing that for the rest of his life. For some reason, he didn’t, he moved to something else.

I can relate to that, I’m sure you can as well. You have moment when, all of a sudden, in six months time you’re different, and I just find the change very, very interesting.

M: So which other composers do you really enjoy playing, would you say?

I: I played Godowsky for a long time, 3 or 4 years. It just takes a long time to learn it, it’s so difficult. I found that interesting because the melodies are familiar – the Chopin, as a pianist I know them so, so well. So this was a way to play that music without playing that music, the Chopin.

M: That was my next question actually, what made you decide to record all the Chopin Etudes for left hand by Godowsky? It’s very unusual.

I: Yes, it was a challenge, definitely.

I wanted to know if I could get away with it really! (laughs)

Also, I was curious, it just seemed like a good idea and I was surprised that no one had done it.

M: You’ve attracted a lot of attention on You-tube haven’t you?

I: I’ve been lucky that people have been interested in it. It’s quite an obscure repertoire in a way. It’s one of these things that’s paradoxical isn’t it, because it’s both obscure and famous for being obscure (laughs). So it’s famous for being not famous.

Yes, I think something I’d be interested in doing more of. If I was to teach or if I was to do master classes and things like that, I think it’s really important to develop your left hand technique because people have weak left hands.

M: Absolutely.

I: I did as well before this, no question I felt the weakness. At moments in certain repertoire, the left hand wouldn’t sing, it wasn’t as free, and was a little bit tight.

M: I bet it’s fantastic now though! (laughs)

I: It’s no longer problem! My left hand is – there’s kind of a battle now when I play repertoire, like: ‘who am I listening to more’.
Yes, just working on your weaknesses I suppose is always very interesting if you’re comfortable enough with yourself to do that. It’s not always easy, right?

M: No, no.

I: To admit too yourself what you’re bad at, and improve that. Most people play on their strengths, which is normal, I suppose, but long term, I don’t think you make as much progress.

M: Your next project is the American composer Morton Feldman. What attracted you to this music and how did this come about? It’s another interesting composer.

I: Yes. First of all, it’s the total opposite of Godowsky (laughs). Godowsky was one hand, it was fast, it was Chopin, so, a very traditional harmonic language.

Morton Feldman is slow, always slow, always quiet, two hands, abstract, contemporary.

I think what I learned the most with Godowsky is how to talk to the public about strange music. They would ask questions, and I would have to tell the story why this music was written.

With Feldman, that difficulty is still there, but it’s so much more difficult to bring contemporary music to a ‘normal’ audience. I love that, I think it’s really, really interesting, so I’m starting to do it now. It’s so much more rewarding to bring something to people that they never would’ve liked, and they never would’ve discovered.

It’s kind of like when I was thirteen. I was in high school and I went to lunch with a friend, and he showed me Sushi. I was embarrassed to refuse it in front I him, because he was my friend. He was eating sushi like it was the most normal thing in the world. I was like, ‘oh my God, that’s raw fish!’, and I loved it, I thought it was fantastic. So thanks to him – Brian if you are out there somewhere! –

M: You now eat raw Sushi! (laughs)

I: I eat sushi like, twice a week! Right? And maybe if I hadn’t gone to that lunch, I wouldn’t. The idea that I can do that for somebody, I love that, it’s amazing.
We all have our routines, I suppose.

M: It’s easy to stay safe.

I: Yes, it is easy.
Also I find with Morton Feldman’s music, because it’s quite slow and quiet it might be easier for those who don’t usually listen to contemporary music to get into. Sometimes when you have these loud noises, they are aggressive, people just say: “That doesn’t interest me, it’s ugly, it’s grotesque”.

Whereas with this music, you can’t say that. In a way it might be kind of a ‘middle ground’, it’s like a gateway drug to Boulez or something else, I don’t know (laughs).

The other thing is that the pieces are quite long. So there’s a piece which I’ve recorded which is 75 minutes long, with one movement, there’s never a break.

M: That’s one movement? Incredible.

I: Yes. Playing that means that you necessarily change the concert ritual. You can’t just walk in and play the 75 minutes of music without explaining it. The context has to be different. The people have to know what they’re in for.

The other day, I played a shorter piece, 30 minutes, that’s still pretty long. We put candles in a private room. I thought it was interesting, it was lovely.

M: It was the whole experience, theatrical.

I: Yes, it was the whole experience, very theatrical. It’s funny that you should use that word, I’m interested in theatre.

M: Well, my next question is, tell us about your acting career? Because I notice you act as well, and you’re the second pianist if met in the last few weeks that’s also an actor, it’s interesting.

 I: Oh really? It is interesting. I’d be curious to know more about other people who’ve had this experience. I’m very lucky. It’s fun to do that. It improves your confidence. It’s nice to see yourself on the screen. It’s a little bit strange. You certainly see all of your physical faults that you weren’t necessarily aware of, which I’m sure we’ll see later on in this video! (laughs)

M: I was going to say, I’ve got quite used to that now!

I: Oh yes, good for you! It’s good for the ego isn’t it? It puts you right in your place!

M: It does, absolutely!

I: I met a couple of people. I’ve been trying to meet people who are not musicians, as it’s more enriching. I was lucky to meet people who have short film projects. At exactly the right moment, one of them wrote a screenplay for me to play Godowsky. A story – why would someone play with their left hand? So he made up the story, and that’s the film.

M: That’s superb.

I: Yes, it’s fantastic. It was a great experience for me.

M: Where can we see this?

I: It’s going to be on YouTube soon now because it was doing the round of festivals and therefore it had to be excluded from online, but he gave me the go-ahead now that two years after the release its ok, so it’s hopefully on YouTube soon;

The other one was with a visual artist. I suppose I’m very interested in visual things, which is ironic because I’m a musician, but I find I’ve learned a lot from the visual arts – just being interested in it. Also I find that visual artists talk about things much more, they’re comfortable with the abstract. They’re comfortable with the context of everything.

In fact, I’m always surprised to see how many visual artists know so much about music, and musicians know nothing about the visual arts. Morton Feldman was another musician who knew all these New York painters like Robert Rauschenberg, Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock. He was involved in these circles. How many musicians do we know who can write or talk about the visual arts as if they are a curator? He did that, and I really admire that, I think it’s amazing.

M: Which venues have you loved playing in? What’s your favorite venue?

I: My favorite venues in general are venues where the piano is horrible! (laughs)

Where you’re on tour, and you arrive at a venue, and you’re shocked because it’s not at all how you imagined it. Once I had an upright piano. I arrived and my mouth was agape. The organizer was there and he said “So, how do you like the piano!?” and I was (speechless). What do you say?! I mean, you’re in situations where you just have to make it work.

Also, I find the acoustic more important than the piano in general, also the audience. On Sunday, for example, at the festival, it was a really, really quiet audience. They were so quiet, that I was terrified. I thought they didn’t like it, you know, “Why are they so quiet? Are they asleep? What’s going on!?” (laughs) I couldn’t believe it.

M: I’ll just say that’s the ‘All about Piano’ festival in South Kensington.

I: Yes, it was a wonderful festival on many levels.

I suppose that the experiences that you have are not related to the name brand of the hall, or even the quality of the instrument, or any of those things.

M: That’s true.

I: It has to do also with where you are in life. Maybe you’ve played a piece 30 times and the 31st is the magical one.

Also what you experience outside the concert hall. You know, I like to talk to the audience after concerts, and sometimes, what people say to me afterwards makes me kind of re-experience [the concert]. I’m experiencing it through their emotions. They’ll say something about how amazing something was, let’s say, which I didn’t think it was, but as a result it makes me feel good about myself. I was able to provide something that was special to someone, maybe that they’ll remember. So, that turns out to be more important than me saying: “Oh, this is the most incredible piano” that’s so new that it still has the plastic on the pedals. (laughs)

I mean, those are wonderful, but after the first couple of years, that’s not what makes in memorable.

M: So, what exciting plans have you got coming up for the rest of the year?

I: Lots! (laughs) Where to begin!?

The first thing is this CD of Morton Feldman’s work which is called For Bunita Marcus It’s a gorgeous piece of music and I’ve no idea how I’m going to tour with it or explain it, it’s a big challenge. I’m writing about it right now for the text to the CD.

In two weeks I’ll be in Geneva for a project with the Geneva School of Art and Design. I’ve been invited there for a workshop, and they want to publish something. I recorded another piece by Feldman earlier, a half hour piece. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I’m going to publish that. We did videos together, those will be a DVD/CD thing. There’ll be images, text. I’m putting that together.

It’s just really fun to do that. It’s fun to do things – I mean the recording is very important to me – but, it’s important to have, I’m hoping it will be a beautiful object that I can be proud of. Something that people would like to just hold, touch and open, and they’ll be interested in the whole story behind it.

It’s not just going to be a CD where…what happens when you give somebody a CD? They put it on the CD player and they’re reading the notes while they are listening. They’re not really listening! (laughs) Maybe they’ll listen for ten minutes, if you’re lucky, then they’ll go and put something else on.

M: Yes.

I: Yes, changing that experience.

M: What does playing the piano mean to you?

I: Playing piano to me is my way of accessing music. To me, sound has always been the thing that compels me the most emotionally. If I was to think of something that would be the most effective way of getting me to cry, let’s say, it would be sound, it would be music. To me, just the very humble, everyday practicing, listening to myself, thinking to myself: “That sounds horrible, how can I improve it?”(laughs)

Doing that everyday keeps me grounded. It just makes me feel good about myself. So, in that sense, music allows me to be comfortable, and of course, the idea that you can share that with other people.

When I was taking mathematics I was able to have a similar kind of, you know, it’s very humble. In mathematics, you read a page and you sit there and you try to understand it, and you read it, and you re-read it. Then if you’re lucky, at some point you get it, and you feel so incredible. It just makes you feel so good to be able to get it. But, you can’t really share that in mathematics.

You can talk about it with someone who gets it also, or your girlfriend who doesn’t get it at all! (laughs) That’s not very satisfying.

With music, not only can you have this access to work and pleasure. You know, it’s kind of like eating a wonderful meal for four hours, practicing, it’s wonderful – I love that. But you can also share it. What more do you want in life really? Doing something beautiful and being able to share it? I don’t know how you feel, but I feel like the luckiest person alive. I can’t imagine doing anything else that would give me so much pleasure.

M: Good, thank you so much for joining me!

I: Thank you.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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