Lubomyr Melnyk: It Is Like Having the Sun in Your Hands

“The natural world is where we evolved; where we became what we are, where we learned to feel and to react. It is where the human imagination formed and took flight, where it found its metaphors and its similes, among trees and pure rivers and wild creatures and grasslands rippled by the wind … It is nature which is the true haven for our psyches.”

– Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm

Lubomyr Melnyk is a Ukrainian-Canadian pianist and composer who turned 70 in December. He is the key exponent of continuous music, “a piano technique based on extremely rapid notes and complex note-series, usually with the sustain pedal held down to generate harmonic overtones and sympathetic resonances”. Melnyk invented continuous music in the 1970s and there’s a 1978 album, KMH: Piano Music in the Continuous Mode, on Spotify. He remained busy throughout the 1980s but in recent years was languishing until the Erased Tapes label rediscovered him in the early 2010s. Melnyk apparently asked: “Where were you when I was 30?”

Melnyk is the eminence grise of Erased Tapes, home to Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and so on. His Erased Tapes bio describes the genesis of continuous music: “He began to play a new kind of music, spontaneous and improvisatory… Using the sustain pedal to create echo and reverb, he transformed free-flowing cascades of notes into hypnotic waves of sound”. His own site attests to the music’s “meditative and metaphysical” aspects. Reading this self-endorsement I think: “We’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much” and also “Yes, that’s right”.

I saw Melnyk on January 24th, with my wife Sharon in a converted cinema in Hackney. Leaving the country for a concert is a big event so we ration these trips for shows that we expect to be be really special and it was extraordinary. The show was a 70th birthday celebration organised by Erased Tapes. They signed him when he was in his early sixties, and his Erased Tapes comrade Peter Broderick collaborated on his 2013 album Corollaries, which won attention his earlier work had not. He played pieces alone and with Peter Broderick and Hatis Noit. As Melnyk wound down his final piece I felt this pang of sadness, which though unexpected was no surprise, because I did not want to let go of the moment. I wondered if I’d ever share a space with Melnyk again. I was going to miss being in a room with him and his piano. I’d love to be there right now.

In practice, continuous music means that Melnyk plays long pieces that build and evolve, ebb and flow, inexorably, ever-changing. He moves in complex coruscating arpeggios up and down the keys. He plays with the speed and intensity of the Dead Kennedys and the delicacy of the Cocteau Twins. The sound is ocean waves then raindrops sprinkling a lake. Patterns repeat but subtly shift like Michael McCarthy’s grasslands rippled by the wind. The music is physical: you feel it in your chest and your belly as much as you hear it. When I really stay with a Melnyk piece I can feel it in my breathing and in the way I connect with the ground. At the show, as Melnyk and Peter Broderick were finishing up ‘Pockets of Light’, I noticed my heart was beating in time with the music. It just was!

There are a few nature metaphors there and this is by deliberate design of Melnyk. His 2015 album was called Rivers and Streams and he said then that his playing was akin to water: “flowing and ever connected”. He said he was influenced by minimalist composers and I can hear sacred minimalism in Rivers and Streams, ‘Pockets of Light’, and Fallen Trees, but the sacred object is the natural world.

I had read a bit about Lubomyr Melnyk before flying to London, and I’d listened to him a lot, and I had been looking forward so much to seeing him. I’d read him compared to Rasputin, and I’d seen his prodigious beard, and I imagined some haughty Franz Liszt character. I understood he had claimed to be the Jimi Hendrix of the piano or somesuch and this was fine. I’ve been to a lot of shows by half-ironic performers who are embarrassed to be as good as they are or to allow their work to mean as much as it could. I was looking forward to seeing someone who knows he is the greatest and does not apologise. I was expecting greatness and seriousness from Lubomyr Melnyk, and that was going to be quite enough. I was expecting to witness mastery. I wasn’t expecting as much joy. I had him wrong.

I cannot explain to another pianist what it is, but I could tell them truthfully that being able to play continuous music is worth more than anything in the universe. Anything. It is like having the sun in your hands. It is like having the four winds. It is like having ice and snow. It is like having hurricanes. It’s like having steel and factories. It’s like having the sunshine just pouring through your fingers. It’s – it’s – it’s a JOY.

– Lubomyr Melnyk, “The Continuous Music Man”

In Hackney, Melnyk bowed and thanked the crowd before walking offstage in a manner so delighted and appreciative that you very much wanted to bear-hug him. He spoke about of his forty-year struggle with a classical music establishment that hadn’t wanted to hear continuous music: “But you do!” (Huge cheer.) Built into the bear-hug is the sense of loss of a musician of Melnyk’s calibre being overlooked for so long, but there’s also an amazing inner resolve at work there. Imagine the belief in yourself and your art that it takes to persist despite apathy from all-comers for thirty years. Imagine that sense of mission! What a gift.

Also, Melnyk is not one to look back. At the show, he said that he would not be playing any old music. He opened with a new work and he said the only person who’d heard it before was himself. “This piece has no name yet,” he told us. “It’s for you. It’s all just music!” His career is a constant act of creating the new right now. He said “There’s nothing like the feeling the first time a piece of music is born”.

It is a lot to ask of a musician or any artist to ask them to make us feel joy. There is a lot to not be joyful about. There is always a new story about humans destroying each other or destroying the earth. And joy has to be genuine. Joy has to exist despite knowledge that contradicts it. An artist who instils joy must acknowledge the suffering and calamity and still find a spark of eternal hope. This is difficult at the best of times but for weeks before seeing Lubomyr I’d been thinking more than usual about the destruction of the natural world. This is often what’s in my mind when nothing else is, but I’d been carrying around a pall of gloom after reading a piece detailing the collapse of insect life in the rain forest in Puerto Rico. I couldn’t shake the thought that if they go, we all go, and even if we don’t, species-loneliness is what we’re leaving our kids. The music in Hackney was suffused with love for nature but can you enjoy hymns to the natural world when the natural world is disappearing? Surely grief is the right response? Surely these are elegies?

I thought about Lubomyr here and his long journey and the ecstatic quality of his work; the bountiful heart that is in it. I watched him play this electric luminous music with his back straight, his arms extended and his eyes closed, like he and the piano were interwoven. I watched him stand and beam and look over at his instrument and touch it again, and shake his head with wonder and say “You know, every day the piano sounds more beautiful”. I thought, I really want to accept this joy, but it felt indulgent to do so while the rivers and forests to which Melnyk’s music pays homage are being deserted and despoiled.

It’s taken a few days to get my head at all straight about this and to attempt a response, which actually comes from Michael McCarthy, a writer and naturalist I encountered on On Being. In The Moth Snowstorm, McCarthy writes that to prevent the ruination of the natural world, people must regain belief in nature’s worth. He compares the change in our worldview that will be required to save it to the changes that accompanied the the Renaissance and the spread of religion: “These are great events,” he writes, “but they are fully matched in historical significance by the calamitous event we are entering upon, the destruction of the natural world”.

He argues that we need to reawaken a delight in nature, to remember “that there is an ancient bond with the natural world surviving deep within us, which makes it not just a luxury, not an optional extra, not even just an enchantment, but part of our essence – the natural home for our psyches where we can find not only joy but also peace, and to destroy which is to destroy a fundamental part of ourselves.” He writes that a mature love for the natural world recognises the scale of the threat, and is engaged, and a love for a forest or lake or bird will recognise that they may not be there next year, and that love “will do whatever it can to protect or save it; [it is] a love that can be fierce”.

McCarthy’s book ends where I think Melnyk and his fallen trees and raindrops and huge unruly beauty comes in; where the joy Melnyk’s work invokes and inspires finds an even higher purpose, and finds a hopeful, hard-headed home. “Now as the twenty-first century crashes upon the natural world like a tsnunami, with all the obliteration and merciless unthinking ruin,” concludes McCarthy, “let this new love be expressed; let it be articulated; let it be proclaimed.”

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