After an interview with Lubomyr Melnyk on Radio 4’s Today programme recorded on the day of this performance, John Humphrys let out one of his all too familiar snorts of derision. “But is it music?”, he sneered, which made me wonder whether he had been paying attention to the previous five minutes of his show, never mind the course of musical history. You can understand (if not agree with) a conceptual approach to music which regards noise, or sound art, as being “non-musical”, but a guy playing notes on a piano? That isn’t to say that Melnyk hasn’t created his own style: in particular, his “continuous music” is famously fast (I presume it was this aspect of his music which caught the attention of Today), reaching speeds measured at 19.5 notes per second. But it still deals with chords and melody in a recognisable way. Melnyk is influenced by both Joseph Haydn and Terry Riley, so this continuous music is music that fits very well into the continuum of classical piano music (did I say the word “music” enough times in that sentence?)
Melnyk’s recorded music has been frustratingly hard to get hold of in recent years. Whether any logistical or economical issues have played a part in this I don’t know, but he doesn’t seem all that bothered. A factor may be that he is a man who regards the live setting as being the only satisfactory way to experience his music. The precise characteristics of the piano, the acoustic properties of the room, even the atmospheric sounds of the venue, are all musical variables to Melnyk as much as the notes themselves. Given this, it a shame we don’t get to hear him do it more often. This Café Oto show was – incredibly – his first ever UK performance.
Melnyk played three pieces at Oto, each of which was designed to show off a different facet of his continuous music technique. The first piece was more akin to his older recorder material – something “slower”, in his words, though it is all relative. He played a long, unbroken line of notes with heavy sustain, arpeggios repeating and merging into each other until they became something else, watery smears of sound, which flowed faster and faster, ultimately forming a river. The second piece was newer, and perhaps even more of a technical challenge (if somewhat more accessible, even slightly saccharine at times) as he began to weave a boldly coloured melody line onto the tapestry of sound beneath. The title “House of a Thousand Shutters” references a gradual opening up, a letting in of light and air to the music, and to the venue…and possibly to our minds. Previous interviews with Melnyk have given the impression that he is trying to create more than “just” music, that he is trying to reach a mental state, seeking some sort of union between man and piano, between venue and sound.
The last piece he played tonight, “The Fountain” took this notion further, by utilising a recording he had made earlier that same day, in the same room, on the same piano (of course). He fed these notes, and accompanying recorded resonance, back into the room, and played along with it, the two streams merging into something deeper and faster. The longer the piece went on, the more you could hear of the resonance and even the architecture of the piano itself, a groaning and creaking sound that built to a low moan – Melnyk likened it to the sound of a Buddhist monk chanting. Which seemed fitting as, looking around me, a fair number of people in the room seemed to be attaining some sort of nirvana.