Research is the key to making yourself a better musician

Ivan IlićMon 2nd June 2014
Ivan Ilić's new album, 'The Transcendentalist'Ivan Ilić's new album, 'The Transcendentalist'

Pianist Ivan Ilić embarks on a journey of discovery for his new album of Feldman, Scriabin and Cage

Until a few years ago, I had no interest in reading composers’ biographies or anecdotes from their lives. I concentrated exclusively on the music. But then I had a couple of experiences that led to a change of heart.

Out of the blue, I was contacted by an important French museum about a project for the Venice Biennial. An artist wanted to focus on left-hand piano repertoire as part of his video installation. Following my CD of Godowsky’s 22 Chopin Studies for the Left Hand (2012), I had become known as an authority on left hand repertoire, so he asked to meet me in Paris.

After an hour’s conversation I was astonished by how little I knew about the subject. Although I had read Jeremy Nicholas’s biography of Godowsky and Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein with a fine-toothed comb, the artist, not a musician, had read much more than me, and synthesized the information. His research was not just broader but deeper. He had ordered every available book on left hand repertoire, even the rare and outrageously expensive ones. He was even traveling, including his trip to meet me, to fill in gaps in his knowledge. I could offer musical expertise, but not much else.

What impressed me most was not the information he had collected and digested, but his enthusiasm. It was contagious. It got me excited about left-hand repertoire again, pieces like Franz Schmidt’s Concertante Variations on a Theme by Beethoven for piano and orchestra. I had never heard or sight-read the work, because trying to find the score had proved too time-consuming. With the museum’s help, we located a copy of the score in Vienna. Reading through the music after weeks of delays was electrifying. Still, I was embarrassed that someone who was not a musician, or music researcher, had made my previous ‘research’ look so pedestrian. As a result, something surprising happened: my sense of inadequacy turned into a source of inspiration. I began to emulate the artist’s approach.

A second experience confirmed my faith in research. When I was contacted by the museum, I was four months into reading about composer Morton Feldman. After meeting the artist, and without realizing the causal connection, I traveled to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel. The foundation houses a rich collection of Feldman’s documents. I spent several days poring over his manuscript scores, reading his correspondence, and reading rare and hard to find books about him.

Before my trip, I had already read thousands of words by or about Feldman, in books, articles, and on the extraordinary Feldman website by Chris Villars. Yet nothing could prepare me for the experience of coming into contact with the primary sources, on microfilm, in the foundation’s bank vault-like setting. I learned about Feldman’s creative process and about the extent to which he struggled for recognition. I also gained access to a broader spectrum of views about the man and his music.

But the biggest thing I took from the experience was the motivation it gave me. There was something about the act of traveling to Basel, a place I’d never been, and devoting the time and resources to do in-depth research, for its own sake. There’s a huge difference between ordering books on Amazon and traveling to icy Switzerland in February to read microfilm. I never thought I would say this, but it made me a better, a more engaged musician.

At the time, it wasn’t clear why I was doing it. What was I looking for? Feldman himself gave me a clue: he once said that the point of accumulating knowledge was that it 'gives you authority'. If I knew nothing about Feldman, I would still make strong decisions based on the scores. But the knowledge I gained from the archives increased my emotional commitment to my interpretive choices. Any performer will tell you: that very commitment is what distinguishes a good performance from a great one. It’s essential.

But in addition to the quest for authority, what about the knowledge itself? Can it be useful in practice? While recording Palais de Mari, I was haunted by something Feldman once said about a performance of his Trio. He said it was 'a little stiff' and that he 'wanted [the musicians] to breathe with each other more naturally. Breathe rather than count'. He said the performance was 'a little too mechanical in the counting.' It was impossible to forget this description. I felt like Feldman was looking over my shoulder, telling me to 'breathe rather than count.'

At one point in Palais de Mari, there is a long section in which the music gently alternates between 7, 8, and 9 beats per measure [click here to listen to this section]. To the listener, this manifests itself as a tiny inflection. Because of the aforementioned anecdote, I knew that Feldman wasn’t looking for metronomic precision. But there is a very fine line between supple, and rhythmically unintelligible. If one stops counting altogether, the music becomes mush. I take this delicate rhythmic balance much more seriously now because I know that it was at the front of Feldman’s mind.

Knowledge gained during research can be applied not only to musical specifics, but to understanding the music within a broader context. From my deep immersion in Feldman’s documents, I learned that he openly admired the music of the past, unlike many of his contemporaries. In his lectures and writings, Feldman often refers to Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy and others. This makes programming his music alongside a composer like Scriabin not only justified; it’s plausible that Feldman would approve.

These are just a few examples of how research has influenced my musical choices. I suspect that many more operate on a subconscious level. But having seen the way access to information has transformed my playing, one thing is certain: my musical life will never be the same.

Ivan Ilić's new recording of Morton Feldman's Palais de Mari is included on his new album 'The Transcendentalist', available from Amazon and iTunes now.

Ivan Ilić

Ivan Ilić is a Serbian pianist based in France. His new CD, 'The Transcendentalist', features works by Alexander Scriabin, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Scott Wollschleger

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