Lubomyr Melnyk: piano or life

Spotlights 20.05.2022

For more than fifty years, this Ukrainian pianist has been spreading the world with a deluge of notes played at full speed, giving birth to a style of which he is the sole master: continuous music. Here are a few keys to the abundant work of this musician, which does not leave one untouched.

The war in Ukraine has sadly raised the profile of a whole host of forgotten or underestimated musicians. The worldwide feeling of compassion has given rise to a fair revaluation of the Ukrainian musical heritage. Lubomyr Melnyk, who is very active on Twitter and Youtube, has not been outdone in taking a courageous stand and has been doing so for several years. Unfortunately, Melnyk's music does not yet benefit from serious critical attention. His place in the contemporary musical landscape is a little out of place, a sentimental minimalist for some or a simple virtuoso for others. The only thing is that he fills the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris or the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels more easily than the Auditorium in Lyon or the Philharmonie in Berlin.

Lubomyr Melnyk's videos generate thousands, if not millions of views, but one in particular has brought him to the attention of the general public. The one in which we see him playing in front of the BBC cameras at an uncommon speed improved arpeggios, full of accidental notes forming a long, soaring and incessant melody. And in this video two records are broken: that of the fastest pianist in the world (with more than 19 notes per second in each hand) and that of the highest number of notes in one hour: Melnyk manages to maintain a speed of 13 notes per second simultaneously in both hands, producing a remarkable total of 93,650 notes! So much for lovers of records and continuous sounds.

The word is out. Lubomyr Melnyk holds this term dearer than anything else. This is what he told me when I asked him about it for this column: "Continuous music was born at the Paris Opera in 1973. I was hungry and devoted to the piano... a good combination!... and I played the piano for Carolyn Carlson 's magical modern dance workshops in the attic of the Paris Opera. There was a need to create a "sound room" with walls and floors for the dancers to work in - a spiritual sound room - and it had to be continuous so that the 20 dancers could work in it one by one. I wanted to do with my 10 fingers the same effects as the American composers who used 15 musicians. This is how continuous music was born. It is a milestone in the history of the piano! It is definitely a radically new piano technique. It has to be learned, studied, and takes years of devotion before you can really play! It took me 40 years to become a Master, where there is a transcendence of the physical body into deeper dimensions. Continuous Music actually changes the flesh of the body, just as Tai Chi and Kung Fu change the body of the Master. But in the case of Continuous Music, the change occurs more within the music... and the hands at the piano. The greatest classical pianists in the world will never be able to play the advanced pieces I play because they only have the classical technique, with its emphasis on finger work. In continuous music, the pianist goes far beyond the fingers to achieve fast, light movements and multidimensional thinking! In fact, ALL other piano techniques, classical, rock, etc. are finger-based. Continuous music doesn't use the fingers at all... it is totally energy based and goes through the wrist." So much for the history, defence and illustration of continuous music.

His first record, KMH (a title deliberately as cryptic as a license plate) is a private concert given in 1978 in Toronto. This recording, which has become a sought-after rarity, is a unique, truly breathtaking moment. For nearly fifty minutes, Melnyk overwhelms us with notes of dazzling clarity as if he wanted to knock us out. Once you have entered this universe, which requires a certain amount of attention, you can let yourself be invaded by this shower of sound. Surely one of his best records, in any case the most emblematic of continuous music.

Apart from a certain propensity to (rightly) extol the merits of this new musical and pianistic technique, Lubomyr Melnyk is right to insist on the physical side of his music: to see this musician at the piano is one of those musical moments that one does not forget. Such dedication, such technical flexibility and such exaggerated lyricism can only convince. A video dating from 1982 in Toronto shows him at his best (34 years old) tirelessly shuffling arpeggios up and down at full speed, surreptitiously changing a note or two and modulating chromatically little by little. You can hear these resonances - of which only he has the secret - clash and respond to each other. All of Melnyk's art is in this little amateur video.

Born to Ukrainian parents in Munich in 1948, his parents moved to Canada in the early 1950s to escape communism. " I started playing when I was 3 years old, my mother and her sister were trained singers, and we had a piano at home - even though we were very poor immigrants at that time - because music was very important to my mother. And when she saw that I was composing music on the piano, she made me take lessons - which I hated - but soon I started to like it more and more ... until this instrument became my life and my breath. I was classically trained, of course! Where else can you get such technical training and knowledge? I did the normal conservatory work and ended up playing the difficult Beethoven piano sonatas. I always loved Beethoven's music above all else but I had a special love for his Third Piano Concerto which I listened to maybe 300 times..." It was on a trip to Paris that he met the choreographer Carolyn Carlson and developed his famous continuous technique. He even published a theoretical work: Open Time: The Art of Continuous Music . It was through dance - so closely linked to music since the dawn of time - that Melnyk found himself. He will never stop collaborating with different choreographers.

Today in 2022, he lives in Sweden and has established himself through the strength of his ten fingers, his self-production (the label Bandura Records label is almost dedicated to him) and thanks to his self-sacrifice as a kind of minimalist outsider - although he strongly rejects this term. We resume our conversation "I do NOT consider my music minimalist at all - not at all! In fact, my music is maximalist! It has the maximum possible of everything a pianist can do! Ten fingers working non-stop, and patterns, rhythms and melodies intertwining into a solid flow of sound." However, there are some close links with aspects of this minimalist aesthetic: a clear return to tonality, a stable pulse, a strong tendency towards melodic, harmonic and rhythmic repetition and a slowly evolving structure. Some of the works may recall the acoustic effects of a Steve Reich and the repetitive superimpositions of a Terry Riley. But we are indeed far from Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt or Meredith Monk. Melnyk's musical approach draws more on the legacy of 19th century piano composers such as Beethoven (his absolute master), Liszt and Chopin. Like Chopin, he only plays his own music and teaches it through courses and methods. Pedagogy is an essential mission for him: "Why does this music exist if not to give it to other people so that they can appreciate it and love it? This music was not given to me so that I would be rich... it was given to me so that the world would be richer for it! And that means I have to teach it to others. Melnyk's scores can be obtained either by writing to him directly or through one of his labels, Erased Tapes, on which he has released four albums in recent years and a collection of his works. His piano pieces are meticulously written and annotated, but very particular in their writing: they require acclimatisation and some advice from the Master (which he offers on video), but unfortunately the result is never quite up to the standard of the model (according to his own admission), and he would so much like to see his style adopted by other pianists: "That's my biggest problem! That nobody can play this music. It's impossible for the best classical pianists to do well... they can of course play anything... but not well and they will NEVER be able to achieve the right key pressure or speed or anything else correctly, because they are doing tai chi with karate technique and it doesn't work! So who? Who will play this music when I'm gone?" For any enthusiast, studying Circular Pieces - 22 Etudes could be the start.

Lubomyr Melnyk collaborates from time to time with other musicians (pianists, violists, trombonists or cellists) and composes for them, but it is really as a soloist that one can appreciate all his power and originality. Over the years, through concerts and recordings, Lubomyr Melnyk has made a name for himself with a young audience more used to listening to electro or the epigones of the great figures of minimalism. He still has to win over the classical and contemporary public, which sometimes takes too long to accept the new: Glass, Reich and Pärt are finally being taken seriously and are in their eighties.

In recent months, concerts have resumed for Lubomyr Melnyk, but his heart is torn by the Ukrainian conflict, several videos testify to this, and a few works have been born of this terror. Like his compatriot Valentin Silvestrov, his language in recent years has become less radical, much more lyrical and exacerbated. In the face of horror, Lubomyr Melnyk has slowed down his fingers and his notes to make room for silence, verbal anger and emotion.

François Mardirossian

Lubomyr Melnyk will perform at the Superspectives festival in Lyon on 17 June.

Four works to listen to in priority:
The Voice Of Trees (1985)
This work for two pianos and three tubas uses the re-recording technique. Lubomyr records himself once and plays back what he has just played, as does the tuba player. Composed for the Maison de la Danse de Lyon for choreographer Kilina Cremona.
Concert-Requiem (1984)
Composed for piano and violin, this long requiem is a tribute to the 7 million victims of the Holodomor, the great famine suffered by Ukraine between 1931 and 1933
Illirion (2016)
"Beyond Romance" - 2016 (a piano piece typical of his style today, with an extended, tender and enveloping lyricism)
The Song Of Galadriel (1984)
A vast Melnyk-like fresco inspired by the mythology of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. This work is full of extremely successful moments, with an unparalleled melodic momentum)
And to go further, Pockets of Light (2013) 


buy twitter accounts