Mastering an instrument as complex as the piano is a lifetime task for most of us. Composer Lubomyr Melnyk, however, took it quite a few steps further by developing a technique and style of playing that created an entirely new language for piano music. Frequently referred to as one of the fastest piano players of all time, Melnyk’s invention of continuous music (or “the continuous mode”) bears much more depth and skill than just sheer speed.
Born in Munich to Hungarian parents, Melnyk spent his childhood years in Winnipeg before attending college in Ontario. Shortly after receiving his degree in philosophy, the self-proclaimed “hippie composer” traded Canada for the bohemian promise of ’70s Paris. It was in the French capital that Melnyk developed his distinctive style, bringing together Haydn and Terry Riley for a modern dance group. The rapid sequences, coupled with Melnyk’s awe-inspiring ability to play up to 19 notes per second (with each hand), creates a tapestry of sound that transforms mere sonic waves into a physical experience. Having spent much of his artistic life in obscurity, Lubomyr Melnyk’s work was recently rediscovered by a new generation of music lovers, offering the piano virtuoso a well-deserved renaissance with world-wide tours and recordings on labels like Erased Tapes and Hinterzimmer.
The following is an edited and condensed excerpt from his recent chat with RBMA Radio.
In what respect is the piano an unnatural instrument? You were quoted saying that, and I was wondering what exactly that means.
I was referring to the fact that all the other instruments are actually based on something natural. With a violin, you start with a hollowed out piece of wood and a natural string stretched across it. With a flute or clarinet, it’s simply a hollow reed with some holes in it. The organ is sort of in between because it’s somebody blowing into these very large tubes, so it’s like a huge flute or huge clarinet. It’s not exactly natural either because it can only be man-made. But there’s no piano form in nature, like there is for the violin, the guitar, or the flute. The piano has to be completely manufactured. It’s a completely human invention. It’s a miracle that it even exists.
At what age were you attracted to the piano?
The devotion to the piano did not come until I was much older, but the actual interest in music and piano came from when I was just a very small child, like five years old or something. We had a piano in the house and my mother saw that I was playing on it, so I got lessons and it started from there.
But you got a philosophy degree, eventually, instead of a music-related one.
Yes, I never studied music ever at university. I simply studied the technique of piano playing. I never studied in a high end conservatory or something. To do that, you have to be truly passionate about your instrument and the teachers. Everything has to be with your whole heart and soul, and I didn’t see that. I still think the philosophy has been very important in my music.
It broadens the horizons in your mind. When you’re learning to do continuous music, your mind has to become much more broader. You can’t see in a very narrow way. There is something much bigger. Part of philosophy is the concept of transcendence.
You were once quoted saying that you are not composing classical music. That you’re not sure that anyone does anymore because it requires a type of genius or mind space that’s no longer present in contemporary society.
Yes. It’s unfortunately true that there is no one who can compose classical music anymore. That died with Prokofiev. He was the last one and that was almost 60 years ago. So the world has been without a classical composer for 60 years. There might be somebody who is unknown. It’s not saying that they don’t exist on earth, but it seems that the very noisy and the very aggressive composers took the stage, and took over the world of music in the classical realm with things like new music.
I cannot compose classical music even though my music has a classical flavor or character to it. It’s definitely not rock and definitely not jazz or pop or anything like that. Its root is completely classical, but I find it very painful in the soul to hear classical music because it’s so unachievable. I cannot achieve it and the beauty of it is ... I don’t know if people understand. I think many who love classical music don’t even understand what it is.
When I hear Mozart or Beethoven or Bach, I don’t hear the music. What I hear is a velvet dimension. It actually exudes a fourth dimension. It’s the unity of the notes from one another. You can’t change the bass note or the middle note of a Chopin piece. With two notes Chopin will create a door into an enormous universe. I can’t do that and I don’t know anybody who can do that.
You said, when describing continuous music, that your approach was to take Hadyn and match it with Terry Riley. Where were you when you first experimented in that form?
I was living in Paris at the time. It was like the birth of a life. When you think about it, it’s unfathomable that it could have happened. There were so many elements that had to exist together for this music to be born. One of the elements was playing at the dance classes of Carolyn Carlson at the Paris Opera. She is a complete phenomenon of nature. She’s not really human. She actually changed time and space everywhere she walked, just by her body and by her mind.
So I’m sitting there playing the piano in that kind of an atmosphere. They wanted music, and I wanted to make music. You can’t use a Chopin waltz for modern dance. That’s not going to work. I had to create something new and something fresh every day, every class. I felt that Haydn was the absolute quintessential classical composer because he reduced classical music to its simplest elements.
When I hear Mozart or Beethoven or Bach, I don’t hear the music. What I hear is a velvet dimension.
I was also greatly affected by Terry Riley’s “In C” which all the hippies were listening to. I don’t know if people understand that, had I not been a hippie, this music would not exist. This was another one of the millions of elements. For a large segment of hippies literature, music and philosophy were the absolute focal point of existence. You would read and read and read. This was a whole generation of people living in culture, and trying to develop and broaden the scope of our culture.
When Terry Riley’s “In C” came out, it immediately blew everybody’s mind. It had this tremendous effect not just on me, but on the whole hippie culture. I wanted that beautiful serenity and that transcendence of continuous music, because my first experience with continuous music was Terry Riley. That’s why it naturally combined, because I wanted to make something that was pure. Something that would be beautiful not just today, but tomorrow and for months or years after.
You’ve said that, in playing continuous music, you can transcend your own body. Could you talk a bit about this?
Transcendence occurs, but that’s a bad word to use for this. The body of the continuous pianist actually changes. We have fundamentally the same body, but there’s a real radical difference. The continuous pianist body is very different because the flesh has been altered by other dimensions – and the energy that grows out of the music and the sound of the piano. The body becomes very fast moving and fluid and soft. My body can do motions that are faster than people can normally do. And that’s not just playing the piano. I mean anything. This is a direct result of the piano, because you can’t do this music without your body undergoing this very beautiful change.
Is that something where you put yourself in a trance-like space when you start playing the piano?
You mentioned the word trance, and I would say, “Absolutely no way.” Trance has nothing do with it. I don’t know how to explain it to Western people in words... I’m a human being. I walk on earth. I have to eat and drink and I have sort of a normal body, but things are different inside and they’re always different. You don’t change when you go to play the piano. You are permanently in this state. Your body is permanently in this state of... It’s a beautiful state because your whole body is like one huge ball of energy and it’s delightful.
It’s like taking a breath and exhaling out onto the piano, and the piano will sing for you.
That’s another aspect of the pleasure of playing the piano as a continuous pianist as opposed to playing Beethoven. That’s not a pleasure. Beethoven’s piece is beautiful, but the actual act of playing it is not beautiful. It’s kind of necessary and I find it annoying. I just want to experience the beauty of his music without having to play it, whereas in continuous music it’s actually a physical pleasure, a real pleasure that you would not sell for all the money in the world. If you could experience it, you would understand. It’s like taking a breath and exhaling out onto the piano, and the piano will sing for you. You look at this and you see me working away and playing and my fingers are going, but actually nothing is happening.
I don’t know why God made it happen that I could do this music or could find it, but it seems that anyone can do it. I know that they can. It’s just somehow the mind has to get a bit of a knock. It’s not that odd. It’s not that distant that it’s unachievable. This is the worst part when you’re talking about this music and the technique: It seems so weird and so far out.
When you compose continuous music how much room is there for improvisation?
It depends on the piece. Some pieces have almost none. In a work like “Windmills,” there’s not much room for improvisation. What does it mean, improvisation? People have this narrow concept of improvisation as somebody sitting down and playing whatever comes into their mind. All musicians should be able to do that. That’s part of the character of being a musician and being a master of your instrument.
In classical music, there is no improvisation in terms of the pieces. There is in the concertos, but that’s also misunderstood in the classical world. They don’t understand what improvisation is, or they’re afraid to understand. But there is room in piano concertos where you’re supposed to improvise and nobody does.
What kind of authority is holding them back from that?
If I imagine the world without this piano music, I couldn’t stand it. It has to be. It has to exist.
It’s because they’re trained like little toy soldiers to play a piece, and to move their fingers quite fast and very accurately. That’s the sum total of their musicianship. I don’t think that’s enough. A musician has to go beyond that. There is no authority. They’re afraid because when you improvise, you will be judged. If you’re playing the “Third Piano Concerto in C Minor” by Beethoven, you need to do a hell of a job doing the cadenza part with the themes. It’s just wrong not to improvise. It’s a defect in the musical education. You can’t educate it, but you have to develop a musician so that they really can play their instrument.
A piece of mine like “Butterfly” has almost no improvisation. But then you have a second piano which can move anywhere in the universe around that first piano. So every time you play the piece, it’s wonderfully different. This is the beautiful thing with continuous music. As a pianist if you’re playing Beethoven or Chopin, you’re always playing the same piece over and over. It’s transcendentally beautiful music, but I don’t know how you can stand playing that same sonata for a whole set of concerts where there’s nothing that ever changes aside from nuances here and there in your touch and timing. I think both ways are important in life. You have to be able to improvise and you have to have the actual structure of a piece somewhere in your life too.
You said in the past that the concert hall presents some challenges for continuous music.
There is definitely an effect. In a large concert hall there is a distance between the pianist and the people, and it’s not good. It’s not a good distance. Last night in Cologne, the people were very close and sitting on the floor. I find that kind of an atmosphere of being so close to the people, where everyone is getting a full body dose of the piano, this beautiful sound, is very valuable to me. But you can listen to it in a small intimate setting or in a big concert hall. I’ve experienced classical music so incredibly intensively in a concert hall. In fact, it was here in Cologne I had one of the most intense experiences. I don’t know why Cologne is so important.
When I heard the piano putting out this sound and I felt my body as I was doing it, it was like I entered another universe.
I don’t know. It’s wonderful. It must be the churches, yeah. And the bells. The bells are important. A city without church bells is a city of death. I hear them here, so it’s alive. Anyway, where was I? Concert halls. Since my music is not of the quality of Chopin and Beethoven, it needs the intimacy. It has other things. When I say it’s not of the quality of Chopin, I mean honestly, I would be ashamed even to face him. I couldn’t. But I think it’s very important that this music exists.
If I imagine the world without this piano music, I couldn’t stand it. It has to be. It has to exist. It’s like the life and the voice of the piano have never been heard. Because, when it gets down to it, you can do those piano concertos on an accordion. They don’t have to be on the piano. Continuous music can only exist on the piano. It should only exist live. The recordings don’t do it. This is the huge cloud that hangs over me every day, the horror. It makes me sick when I think that I am the only pianist who can do this music. It’s totally stupid. How can this music live after me? It can’t.
Are you working on a strategy to teach it?
Teaching it is not the problem. I’ve been working for many years now, starting at the very simplest level and then building the students up. But everybody is very busy. The piano is simply something that is done on the side, a hobby. That’s a good thing, but to become advanced with it, you have to stop eating. You have to live and breathe continuous music.
When I started doing continuous music, nothing else was important. I did not need to eat. Well, I had no money so I couldn’t eat, but nothing else was important. There was absolutely nothing else. When I heard the piano putting out this sound and I felt my body as I was doing it, it was like I entered another universe. No pianist on earth can even comprehend what a physical and spiritual and emotional pleasure it is to do continuous music. It’s like your soul can fly.