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Living a kind of nomadic existence throughout his long career on the fringes, Melnyk is a character who's techniques of playing and his actual relationship with the piano is of almost sacred importance
"If all you can do is look in your phone all day long for messages and bang out a few letters in reply and listen to music all day long with headsets there’s generally nothing left. You don’t exist. You might as well be a splotch of dirt on the wall."
Having recently released his second album ‘Rivers and Streams‘, the 67-year-old Ukranian Lubomyr Melnyk brings his virtuosic piano playing to Dublin. After years playing in obscurity, it wasn’t until the London-based label Erased Tapes, home to fellow ambient excursionists Nils Frahm and Ólufar Arnalds, picked up on Lubomyr’s extraordinary piano playing that his music reached the audience it deserves.
Heralded as one of the fastest pianist players in the world (hitting at times 19 notes per second), the former student of philosophy has an intriguing outlook on music and life.
Sean Finnan goes deep with Lubomyr as he extolls the virtues of continuous music, the radicalism of the hippy movement and the problems facing the digital world.
"Because I was a hippy I was able to develop this incredible technique on the piano that is physically impossible for any pianist to do."
As we often focus on electronic music or hip hop, some of our readers might not be as familiar with your work and especially with continuous music. Would you be able to explain a little bit about it?
I think there’s a strong relationship between continuous music and electronic music. Electronic music tends to be continuous and ambient. It wasn’t always that way. You know, electronic music tends to have a varied history, let’s put it this way, a varying kind of character in the music. But in these last ten years, electronic music has become mostly ambient and that’s what continuous music is about as well. It’s a constant flow of sound, a river of sound and so there’s a strong affinity.
I think if you like ambient electronic you probably would like, but not necessarily, like my music. I try to create a constant river of sound, doing so on an instrument. I’m not the only one who does continuous music.
I prefer to see the human being actually playing an instrument, to create this river of sound. I think there’s a lot of philosophical and metaphysical reasons for that, you know.
Why do you prefer this? Is it that there’s a more intimate relationship between a musician making sound on an acoustic instrument that maybe doesn’t exist between musician’s using electronic instruments?
It is, and that’s the way musicians should be. It’s impossible to be that with an electronic instrument. You can be very sensitive in your fingers and, let’s say, tuned in to the results you’re getting but you are basically doing nothing. You’re just turning a knob. And you’re maybe sensitive and very creative in turning the knob but it doesn’t matter.
Is it to do with the constant process of alienation in the modern world? The persistence of the separation between people’s labour and any personal sense of value that they get from it?
You are definitely on to a very important aspect. This isolation and this alienation they go together. The being able to do nothing. This may sound as if ‘this is the fault of the electronic musicians that they’re doing this’ but no not at all. They are the victims of this huge process of alienation, where you yourself are totally, and I really mean totally, incapable of doing anything whatsoever and this is really a serious problem for the world. It’s not a musician’s problem. It’s a problem of the whole western world. And together with this being totally incapable of doing anything at all except maybe boil an egg and some water, it makes people totally helpless and life becomes very meaningless.
If you can do nothing, if all you can do is look in your phone all day long for messages and bang out a few letters in reply and listen to music all day long with headsets there’s generally nothing left. You don’t exist. You might as well be a splotch of dirt on the wall. You have absolutely no substance to you. Now the problem is that people don’t understand that as they’re already stuck on the wall and they’re sort of melting and they’re losing everything that is themselves. We are losing the ability to live and this is really terrible.
I should mention that I had a workshop with electronic musicians and talked about this and they were really upset because they understood they were doing really sensitive stuff and they were really listening carefully. It wasn’t as though they were being careless and floppy in their musical creation, they were being extremely conscientious and creative but they didn’t understand the point. They thought I was talking about the results of their music being not interesting. People always twist in their own heads what you say as it’s a way of deflecting the arrow of truth.
If somebody is telling you something, it really requires a substantial shift in your thinking. Automatically the human mind puts up a shield and deflects it. Then you lie to yourself and say ‘ah-ha this person was telling me that the tree is on the other side of the road’, when in fact the tree is on your side of the road. But because that tree means for you that you have to change your life, to change your thinking, your subconscious throws the statement, it twists it and this is what people do.
They don’t allow themselves to think about the seriousness of this digital world.
You moved to Paris in the early 70s after the radicalism of the sixties had begun to wane. I’ve read elsewhere that you stated being a hippy was fundamental in the development of continuous music. How important is that type of environment, a constant questioning of everything, in conceiving of a new musical form?
People nowadays don’t understand much about what the hippies were and what the whole movement meant and the total shift in human consciousness that occurred. It was a phenomenal event.
It was like the whole earth got shifted, totally and mentally in people’s minds. Instead of your whole focus being on getting a job, a car, refrigerator, wife and two kids with a house in a suburbs, your life was becoming something like religious, monkish, philosophical, transcendental.
Of course it didn’t last very long and maybe four years was all we had. It did change the world. Had I not been a hippy you can be sure that this music that I’m doing would not have existed and not only that but because I was a hippy I was able to develop this incredible technique on the piano that is physically impossible for any pianist to do.
You know I’m kind of glad we got on this topic because I never really get into it with interviews but you gotta understand this, without being a hippy, the music might have existed but this technique, the ability to play at these phenomenal accuracies and speeds, like beyond anything that a concert pianist can even dream of doing, this could only occur because I was a hippy.
People think that I was born a fantastic pianist, a child prodigy and blah blah blah. Not at all. I was the worst pianist in the school. The worst. I worked very hard but I was just scraping by. The only thing that actually brought this music to existence and the technique was my years and years playing scales and learning classical music and then being a hippy and then reading everything that I read and meeting the people that I met. It’s a huge process of actually changing the pianist.
Could you say continuous music is then a new music language conceived by your relationship with the piano?
Yeah it is. It is the life of the piano. Like the other music, like classical music, like concertos and jazz and rock they’re not really piano music. You can do them on anything. You can sort of emulate the effect on another instrument. You know, it sounds nice on the piano but it’s not really piano music. The real piano music was not born until continuous music. And the true soul of the piano was finally released and could sing for people. It’s an amazing instrument, the sound. People that know only classical music or jazz don’t know what they’re missing because they’ve never heard a real piano. A real piano sings like a choir and it’s like a whole room full of angels in beautiful harmony. It’s fantastic.
You studied philosophy in university and must be interested in ideas of ’truth’. Do you think with continuous music that you have unlocked a certain ‘truth’ from the instrument?
Definitely so. The piano has opened up a lot of transcendental doors for me and it will for other people too. It’s a very special instrument.
I think I said somewhere that it’s the only instrument that’s completely unnatural. Totally unnatural. It’s like Prometheus dropped the piano to the world, ’cause the piano should not exist. It has no basis in nature. There is nothing there that is at all natural. It is a completely sort of ingenious construction.
I forget the Italian’s name, I think it was around the 1700’s, this Italian guy, it could be Cristo Valdi, but I’m not entirely sure (Actual name is Bartolomeo Cristofori) invented it. It’s interesting if it is his name because his name is based on Christ and Christ enlightened the world a great deal and I think the piano is a part of this enlightenment.
A whole process of enlightenment perhaps.
Yeah but I don’t know. I’m starting to feel very little hope right now.
Finally, Homebeat here in Dublin are very interested in coupling alternative venues with different artists. Do you like the opportunity of playing in diverse spaces?
Yes I do. I think it is very important. It helps me at least anyway to have a fresh kind of spirit and you sit down at the piano and you’re in an unusual setting. It sort of rises me up and makes things sparkle a bit more. The audience might not notice it but myself, mentally, I do like that a lot.