Lubomyr Melnyk’s story may be as interesting as the music he has created spanning a career of 40 years. Ukrainian by birth, he spent much of his life in Paris working with dancer and choreographer Carolyn Carlson at the Paris Opera, in that time producing over 120 works predominantly for piano and double piano, and sometimes with an ensemble.
During this time, he developed a novel style of playing that owes much to the minimalism of the 1970s – a kind of second wave minimalism reminiscent of Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Philip Glass. This is ‘continuous music’, or music in the ‘continuous mode’. It is also worth noting that among Melnyk’s achievements is the claim of being the fastest pianist in the world.
Whilst this is true – he sustains speeds of over 19.5 notes per second simultaneously in each hand (a record set in 1985) – to repeat that fact does not do justice to the way in which speed plays an integral part in building his textured ‘continuous sound’. Speed makes sense in the context in which he places it: a context of rapid notes and complex note-series, in which the sustain pedal is used to generate overtones and sympathetic resonances, which clash or bind according to the harmonic changes governed by his swift hands.
Melnyk teaches this stuff and has produced a book ('OPEN TIME: The Art of Continuous Music') explaining the supposed meditative, metaphysical state that he accesses through the combined mental and physical activity of playing in the ‘continuous style’. Melnyk is a self-styled guru in a field of his own creation. He studied philosophy at the University of Ontario and candidly describes himself as a ‘hippy composer’. Pretty heavy, you might think to yourself. Surely this music, however pleasant, cannot transport you like it claims to.
And you would be right. Melnyk is no doubt a gifted, innovative pianist who, only now, is beginning to be recognised by the mainstream (in part due to his association with the neo-classical label Erased Tapes). His music does sound incredibly new and fresh. However, on ‘Rivers and Streams’, his most recent work, which focuses on the perpetual movement of water, no such meditative state is reached in the listener. The six tracks are pleasant and evocative, even astounding in their complexity. Guitars float lazily on top of flowing piano and brass stabs accentuate the melodic piano.
But despite all this, the music lacks the meditative quality of similar works like those by Philip Glass. In place of this, tracks like ‘Sunshimmers’ and ‘The Amazon: The Highlands’ produce a warmness that makes the album an agreeable experience, an experience that does not ensnare the listener’s attention – Melnyk’s subtle changes do not delight the listener as they do in Glass’ ‘Etudes’ for example.
‘Rivers And Streams’ functions as a shining example of Melnyk’s enduring style, capturing the improvisational spirit of his astounding live performance. If it seems odd to you that Lubomyr Melnyk has only begun to see such recognition, it seems even more odd to the man himself. When Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths decided it was time to share the mans work on his label, Melnyk remarked “Where were you when I was thirty?”
Words: Alex Green
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