The Gandalf of the keys is headed for Oz, and Sydneysiders take note, the sorcerer of Continuous Music is seeking an apprentice.
Lubomyr Melnyk has been acclaimed worldwide as “the world’s fastest pianist”, but for the 68-year-old Ukranian composer, whose family migrated with him to Canada, there’s a great deal more to his “Continuous Music” than that. Although he can reportedly rattle off 19.5 notes per second – as verified by the Guinness Book of Records – he revels in a semi-shamanistic persona and has previously likened his playing to “an eagle flying, a dolphin swimming, a cheetah running”. Indeed, he told the Guardian in 2015 that in performance he “turns into the rain, into the clouds, into the colour of the sky”.
Melnyk can now count himself relatively successful – a respected, senior hipster even – but acceptance was a very long time coming for the avant-garde musician who trained as a classical pianist before being smacked between the eyes by Terry Riley’s 1968 minimalist masterpiece In C. Soon after, Melnyk moved to Paris where he lived from 1973 to 1975, earning a living as a janitor at the Paris Opera and playing for modern dance classes, most notably with dance maker Carolyn Carlson.
In conjunction with Carlson’s choreographic fingerprints, Melnyk developed the airy, weightless, rapid-digit playing style he called “Continuous Music”. He spent two years just working on the technique. But it has taken decades of performance and rejection by the classical world he holds in such respect for his unique brand of sonically-led pianism to gain a certain recognition.
According to his website, Melnyk’s music is based on the principle of a “continuous and unbroken line of sound from the piano. This is created by generating a constant flow of rapid (at times EXTREMELY rapid) notes, usually with the pedal sustained non-stop. The notes can be either in the form of patterns or as broken chords that are spread over the keyboard.”
“To accomplish this requires a special technique, one that usually takes years to master,” he says. “This technique is the very basis of the meditative and ‘metaphysical’ aspects within the music and the art of the piano.” Whereas, in his earlier works, Melnyk devoted much attention to the overtones which the piano generates, in his more recent works he has become more and more involved with the melodic potential of this music.
Coming to Australia this month as part of Wesley Enoch’s first Sydney Festival as Artistic Director, the pianist gave Limelight a typically honest and idiosyncratic interview (the capitalisation and punctuation is all Melnyk).
As a young man, who were the composers whose work you listened to and admired the most?
It had to be Chopin and Beethoven – I still remember the VERY FIRST LP I bought as a young teenager, around 14 years old… I had NO IDEA what I was buying… it was an LP of piano pieces by a guy called Chopin, whose name I had no idea how to pronounce… but something inside said to me “GET THIS ONE – THAT NAME SOUNDS VERY VERY SPECIAL.
And so I did… two weeks later came an LP in the post… and I was completely “gone”… especially the piece BALLADE In F Major… unbelievable! And after that, well, I listened quietly with a little solitary MONO headphone in one ear. In the early 1960s, I listened to the classical radio shows… lying in bed, and hoping that they would play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C Minor… my favourite ‘piece’… and they often did… so it was like going to heaven every night…
What led you to explore the sound worlds of the American Minimalists in the 1960s?
I guess it was my Hippie Era experience… you know… all “that” stuff… stuff that expands the mind and the body
So did you become disillusioned with that scene? And do you mind if people align you with them today?
Well, these people like Riley and Reich and a few British composers – I remember TUBULAR BELLS so well and even still more recent, like Enya etc (who is really a kind of minimalist in her ambient way) – all of them were important to me because they opened up a door to a new Road of music… But once I put my feet on that road, I went my own way…
And yes, what I did rebel against in their work was that they used a LOT of musicians, doing basically simple things, to create a wonderfully complex tapestry of sound… Well. I wanted to make that tapestry myself, and felt that a Master Musician must be able to do this! – without anyone else.
Your own music hasn’t always been understood or appreciated. Was there a low point in your creative existence and did you ever despair?
Ha—! My entire CAREER was one eternally long low point – where 99.9990099909007 percent of the population refused to see the wonder of this new Piano Music! I remember well how I was massively BOOOED off the stage by the wonderful folks in Toronto in 1976 when I did my first concert appearance there – it’s amazing how being young gives you wings strong enough to survive the distain of the world! But I think, young or old, the opinion of the general public is only important to Thievous Businessmen and politicians…
People tend to focus on the speed aspect of “Continuous Music”, but is that a mistake?
Not really – because the speed is a measure of the pianist’s ability to do the more important things… like touching the piano with a feather and with a bolt of lightning… if you cannot touch the keys like a weightless feather, you cannot achieve much speed either… everything works together in Continuous Music… The abolition of the body in creating the sound is what enables the pianist to operate at super-sonic speeds.
Is your music set in concrete, or is there an improvisational quality to your performances?
Both… the pieces are about 90% written out and have about a 10% variable operation – so that I can create the music freshly, every moment… Continuous Music has to be fresh and alive!
You have described performing as having a meditative element, or even as being an out of body experience. How and where does your mind travel when you play?
Where the pianist’s mind goes, no one knows… not even I know… But sometimes it has happened actually that I fall asleep as I am playing, only to wake up a half-minute later and see that I am still playing correctly… very strange feeling that!!!!
Do you hold particular spiritual beliefs, and are these a part of your music making?
Music is a gift from God, so how can I be “non” religious?? Animals can not perceive music… they can hear the sounds of the instruments, but they cannot perceive the symphony… if you respect human beings, you must respect music, and by respecting music, you are respecting God.
Just because cows give more milk after listening to Mozart does not mean they can hear the music… just like we do not understand or comprehend the wonder of a fruit even though we can feel the goodness of its being inside us…
Have you always believed that music has a special power to change lives? And if so, in what way?
No, not always… this is something that has become evident to me only in the last few years… when I myself was able to go beyond my ordinary life and enter that special world of Continuous Musical Transcendence… but I am really too stupid to know what I am doing – I just breath and live, and hope that somehow the music I do will cast a beautiful shadow for someone… I hope…
You appear to be very much a solitary musician. Do you have students, or would you like to pass on your musical philosophies?
My most important goal in life now is to pass on my knowledge of the piano to someone else… Continuous Music is the greatest gift to the piano world… it is a wonderful new ability that no other pianists yet understand… it generates beautiful new possibilities for the pianist, – but alas, it is a gift that pianists have rejected!
My greatest dream is to know that someone else has loved the piano so much they could learn how to do these marvellous things that ONLY Continuous Music can do! No one ever before has been able to touch the piano this way – there are no words to describe the beauty of the touch between the Continuous Pianist and the piano itself! It is a transcendental act.
So yes, my greatest hope is that someone will actually want to acquire this ability to become a Master of Continuous Music… want it enough that they will actually learn! To play my music will require the utmost devotion to finding the spaces between Space and the time between Time… it will also make the person lighter than air and stronger than stone… it will let them pass between many dimensions… so I would say it is worth learning…
Lubomyr Melnyk plays at City Recital Hall as part of Sydney Festival on January 28