Ioana Ilie is a pianist, composer and classical music improviser. I was at a concert she gave one evening in Basel and was reminded of the descriptions I read about Liszt’s piano concerts in the 19th century: Ioana brilliantly played well known classical pieces, entertained the audience with fascinating musical insights and had the audience actively participate in her improvisations over classical music themes.
Pianoways: Ioana, it was wonderful listening to your playing in the concert. You switched back and forth between playing well known classical compositions and playing your own improvisations. Since these activates are so fundamentally different, it was amazing to see how easily you switched from one to the other. Is it really as effortless as it seemed?
Ioana: Well I’m glad it looks effortless… the approach is definitely different, because the repertoire pieces are something that I have to process and make my own first, while the improvisations are already mine to begin with. Also, there is a lot of respect on my side when approaching a piece, a sort of distance I have to overcome first before being able to present it in an honest and convincing way. This means that written music goes back and forth from the outside inside myself and out again, while the improvised music already comes from my interior, so the process is shorter. I guess I have totally gotten used to it by now, it was very difficult at the beginning though because I had only improvised for myself for most of my life, making such an intimate activity public took a lot of courage but I was lucky to have the right professors who guided me through that process and helped me build the self-confidence and composure that improvising on a stage requires.
Pianoways: You can obviously improvise over any theme, but are there specific types of music you feel more inspired to improvise over?
Ioana: Indeed. I grew up listening to classical music so that music type is definitely my home. For some reason I can improvise in the styles of Bach, Mozart and Brahms at any time without any preparation, it’s like their music is constantly silently pounding inside me and comes out whenever asked. Improvising in other classical composers’ styles needs getting used to the composer’s way of musical thinking in terms of harmonies and technical patterns. Since music is a language as well, it’s similar to refreshing a foreign language before travelling to a foreign country and having to speak it with other people.
Pianoways: How do you approach composing versus improvising? Do your compositions start off as improvisations or do you start off with a completely different intention?
Ioana: That depends on quite a few aspects. I have to tell you a little story first: as a child, I started with improvising, (that is, playing the music I was hearing in my head), because it was one way I could trick my parents into thinking that I was practicing .I did “compose” quite a number of small pieces like that by the age of 10 but I never bothered to write them down (since I had them in my head the whole time). However, one of my teachers in music school was very fond of my little pieces and thought they should be available on paper. He actually started recording me playing my pieces and writing them down but unfortunately died a few months after that. He was writing my pieces with a really nice fountain pen and that, together with his unconditioned efforts invested in the “immortality” of my naive pieces, really impressed me. I was fascinated by this meticulous and special act of writing scores, so I started doing that as well. Therefore, until I was about 18, I wrote down the music I had heard in my head like a dictation exercise. I could do that anywhere and wasn’t bound to the piano, I only needed it to play through my pieces when they were finished or whenever I wanted to listen to them. Later on, I discovered various music notation software programs, so I stopped writing music by hand and playing my pieces myself. Similar to the improvisation, composition was something I didn’t share with many people, for fear of their reaction or lack of interest. This went on until the point where my composition teacher in Basel and other people actually wanted to hear my music, so I had to practice my pieces. At that point I had realized that my music had become less pianistic, since I hadn’t been playing it myself anymore and so I started writing at the piano, making my compositions as accessible and playable as possible. In time I started looking for my own style, since my compositions bore an obvious influence of my favorite composers. I started looking for sounds that I didn’t hear in my head and tried to surprise myself, which is how, in the end, I did return to improvisation when composing. The starting point and flow still depend on whether I’m writing music on a text (like a song or an Oratorio), a sonata or a programmatic piece inspired by an image (like my newest composition, “The Clouds”): I could write a song in 3 hours, for a sonata I’d probably need 3 months… However, the big common aspect between composing and improvising is that for both I need to have some sort of a visual form of the piece before starting it – like that, it flows.
Pianoways: When did you start improvising? Did it come naturally to you or were you taught to do it and then gradually grew into it?
Ioana: I must’ve begun improvising in my head – I couldn’t say when because it was kind of always there but for sure the fact that my mother (who isn’t a musician) used to listen to classical music the whole time played the biggest part. It did indeed come naturally to me to go to the piano and play the music I was hearing in my head while it was snowing outside one early winter morning, just as it came naturally to me to imitate different persons or life situations through improvised music. However, just like with composing, I was very shy when it came to sharing it with other people so very few persons knew of this. I probably wouldn’t have changed anything about this if it weren’t for my piano professor in Basel. Shortly after having taken up piano lessons, I noticed that through improvisation I could trick my mother into thinking that I was assiduously practicing by spending hours at the piano. This didn’t work for too long though and then I had to concentrate while practicing so she wouldn’t think I was wasting time being lazy. Still, I developed this reflex of drifting away into improvisations whenever I was practicing, then “woke up” 10-15 minutes later realizing that I had not been practicing and feeling very irresponsible. When my professor once heard me improvising in his teaching room, he curiously asked what I was “practicing” so I had to tell him the truth. At first, I thought he’d get angry and think I was lazy but instead he told me I should contact another professor in the Academy, Rudolf Lutz, who later became my first and only improvisation professor. He made me understand that I had nothing to feel ashamed or guilty about and brought me to the point where one of my biggest secrets became my signature.
Pianoways: Classical music is at a turning point. The way it was cultivated in the 20th century seems to be less appealing to people of the 21st century. I know there are many attempts by classical musicians to find new ways of connecting the audience with their music. Would you like to share some thoughts on this?
Ioana: Well because most of my solo stage apparitions are based on or mixed with improvisations, this has helped me develop a sort of trait that involves talking to my audience and making them essential to the outcome of the evening. I guess what always bothered me a bit at usual classical performances was the “wall” that seems to have been created between the soloist and the audience: we got used to having to listen passively to performances very similar to CD recordings when in a concert. In this case it makes one wonder what the difference between a live concert and a TV show should be and whether our audience doesn’t actually deserve more than that? I also don’t see why our listeners shouldn’t be on the same level with us performers – no wonder some people would rather go to a rock concert where they can wear whatever they want and sing along as loud they can than to a classical concert at which they should just sit quietly on their chairs. We are responsible for making our audience understand our message and the one of the composers, we cannot expect them to just get it by listening to a 90-minutes concert without making a sound. By allowing my audience to influence the course of my music I want to offer them an experience they can indeed call their own and a lively evening they won’t forget so easily, since they get directly involved in the action. After all, we all know that shared happiness is doubled happiness!
Pianoways: Thank you Ioana and all the best for the future!
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