Lubomyr Melnyk"It’s a very special energy that is totally metaphysical."
I first met composer and pianist Lubomyr Melnyk at the Numina Lente festival in New York in 2011. He was selling a book of progressive piano studies- I’d never seen a score at a merch table (or a pedagogical treatise) and was immediately curious. Melnyk eagerly and kindly explained that the book contained instructions for the advanced study of Continuous Music, a piano technique based in extremely rapid note series, that he has developed since the 70s. Soon afterwards I became a student of his via mail correspondance. Following a lifetime of standardized training in classical music, Melnyk's scores offered an alternative model-- one that forces a player to reimagine their physical relationship with an instrument, negates the concept of a musical 'work', and transforms the discipline of classical performance into a joy for sound in itself.How would you summarize Continuous Music?
Alright… I will try to come up with a description…I was trained as a classical pianist. Continuous Music is very different from regular piano playing, very different from any other type of piano playing really. I find that between classical and other piano styles, there isn’t that much difference in terms of technique.
So you think of it as a piano technique rather than an aesthetic?
Yes—the reason I started with this description of so-called normal piano playing is because what drew me to Continuous Music was the fact that it was so different. The actual technique and the music itself grew together. You cannot separate the technique from the music.
Would you say that the technique came before the sound?
The sound started the whole thing, but once it got rolling and moving, the technique took over and became the guiding light for the music. The technique has become the most important feature of this music. Even though the listener might not hear it.How would you describe your sound?
I established a very early commitment to traditional classical harmonies and chord structures—that became the fundamental basis for the music and would allow me to use any type of dissonance or atonal music in the creation of the sound. The technique would guide me and use that harmonic language to generate itself, like a motor running inside the body. Once you get it started, it just keeps going, and the music you hear is like the fuel that keeps the motor chugging and burning and pumping away.
That’s a beautiful picture. So much of your music emphasizes the body over any sense of a piece—you have a really unique relationship to the keyboard.
In other music, where the music is on the page, all you have to do is play the notes, and the music will happen. You can play Beethoven’s Sonata very badly but you’re still playing it, and the music occurs. In Continuous Music, the music is not on the page. The notes are written on the page, but just playing the notes will not make the music happen.
Yeah, it’s almost like a framework for improvisation, a performance practice rather than pieces.
Because you’re playing with time, that is the real element in the music. In terms of improvisation, I have to qualify that because the pianist is not really supposed to change a whole bunch of notes or take a little bunch of ideas in the music and then just go on. I expect myself to play the piece the way it’s written, or 95% anyway, so improvisation’s a difficult word to bring into this thing.
And yet the scores are modular, an open framework.
Yes, most of the pieces grow out of a small seed, an idea, a musical module. Out of that, I play with it and work with it, and it will grow. It spreads through time in the same way that tree branches grow over a period of years. It may take only a few hours or a few minutes, but they develop over time and eventually form a piece.
Time doesn’t move in your music in the same way that it does in others—there’s no trajectory from the beginning of the piece to the end.
With Continuous Music, every little bit is a universe that you can just experience on its own. This ability to just pick out a little part of the piece and play it for oneself and feel totally satisfied with that makes this music a good private experience.
It’s also a specific experience for the player.
There is a special energy within human flesh, where the sound and the flesh of the player unite. There’s a dimension where they meet, and there is an energy within that dimension that is unacceptable to any other piano technique or any other musical activity. It’s a very special energy that is totally metaphysical.
You’ve told me that you developed this method out of working with dancers.
Dancers were a huge inspiration to me in their physical devotion to the body.
Their body is the instrument.
They would devote 90% of the time to developing their instrument to function well. Now, when you compare that to a conservatory student studying to be a pianist, 100% of the time is devoted to learning a piece. They never even imagine that they are supposed to develop their fingers as part of their body. Their entire existence is focused on being able to play this piece of Chopin. And they bang their heads on the concrete wall. They ram themselves into this wall until they are bloody and still they cannot break through. You’re basically a phenomenal athlete with your fingers on the piano. A pianist is an incredible athlete, able to do miraculous things. And yet, unlike dancers, pianists completely ignore their fingers and their bodies and simply work on the choreography, which is the piece.
How did you come into contact with dance?
Carolyn Carlson was the star dancer at the Paris Opera in the early or mid 1970s, and she had a modern dance company. She was my first serious connection with dance, and proved very important.
What did you play for them?
I was expected to improvise and create a musical universe for these dancers to go through. Being modern dance, the philosophy of the movement was totally different from a ballet concept. In modern dance, there is another dimension, where you mentally put yourself in a different space to overcome space and gravity. The music was supposed to help that. Terry Riley’s music in the late 1960s had finally been released on record and then a whole wave of people started making music where sound just flows and chords continue in time. So that’s what I did—I took sounds from the piano, certain chord harmonies, and sustained them through time.
Was that the first time you had done anything like that?
One could safely say that was the starting point. Playing for them, creating an ocean of sound, a watery substance they had to swim through, dance through... this harmonic sound from the piano that would not change. It was meant to be a sea of sound. That was my first serious connection with dance, and one of the major elements that made me sensitive to my fingers and to the flesh of the body. I’ve been thinking now more and more, that if it’s not the technique that actually is the real purpose, it’s the blending of the fingers and the arms into the piano to form one flesh. The piano and the pianist form one united being. This occurs only in conjunction with a certain type of metaphysical energy that is generated only from these patterns.
Do you see your music as a kind of meditation practice?
It would be suitable to call it that, but that’s only one element. Another element is time—the transition of time and sound. I’ve noticed that when the pianist does Continuous Music, all the laws of nature are destroyed. Totally. This is something that science cannot accept or understand.
When you play Continuous Music, you hear sounds that are inaudible because of the volume of the piano. For example, if I sit at a piano and play this very loud music, if somebody drops a pin somewhere in the hall, it will pierce my ears, it will be like a huge boom. Now that is scientifically impossible because that little pin drop is inaudible. But it’s actually as loud as a canon. Science does not understand that. It does not understand anything.
And in terms of time?
Continuous Music puts you in a dimension where time is altered, where the mind and the body perform things that are beyond the physical world of time and space. The touch of the pianist to the piano, in doing Continuous Music at the highest level, is during the Vocaleses. What happens in the pianist’s body and mind is so incredible. The touch of the finger to the piano at the speed that things happen is beyond. Science cannot measure that speed. It’s not of this universe.
What do we hear when this happens?
All you hear is a note that comes out. But the note has to be touched in a certain way. That touch can generate things that happen so quickly they are immeasurable. I can alter the weight of my body. I can alter the time around me. In a sense, Continuous Music is a door to a zen world. Like John Cage said, “When you have studied zen, and you have passed into it, then you’re still walking on the street except that your feet aren’t touching the ground.” That’s Continuous Music. You’re touching the piano, but you’re not even touching it. When you reach the higher levels, the piano is played solely with your mind. I just did a recording last week, only 25 minutes long, which was very short and in the last 10 minutes I could not feel my right hand at all. It was simply my mind that pulled the sound out of my hand. I had absolutely no feeling.
It seems like Continuous Music is a goal. It’s a place that you try to get to when your mind is able to overcome your body. You’ve negated your body as an actor in it.
I started doing Continuous Music with normal piano technique...and suddenly I discovered that my flesh was changing and that everything was turning to water and air. The technique grows within the body—this is why, for example, if you play a piece a year later, it will sound completely different. It will feel completely different. You the player have changed, time has changed, your space has changed; your soul is no longer in the same state that it was a year ago. The music will be changed, your touch will be changed, so there’s no real goal. What happens is you simply have to follow the change.
Is Continuous Music adaptable to other instruments, or is it solely a piano technique?
That’s a difficult question. I feel that it is purely a piano thing. You can’t even do it on the organ, you can’t do it on any other instrument. It requires this horizontal plane where the two hands are functioning at a certain level with the body at the waist area.
But could it be done with other instruments?
There’s a guitarist, James Blackshaw from England, who does a kind of Continuous Music on the guitar. His technique, of course, is different because you have the left hand and the right hand, which do a completely different type of activity. It’s not really the same technique, but I’m sure that he probably experiences something similar to me. Both hands are very active, and there’s a constant stream of sound. It’s probably like asking a martial artist, “If you use the sword or if you don’t use the sword in tai chi, is the technique the same?”
You played in 2011 at the Numina Lente Festival with a recording of yourself, as a piano duo. Do you ever play with others? Is there an ensemble version of Continuous Music?
There’s a lot of multi-piano music that I write, but it’s very hard to find any other pianists who have studied long enough to play with me. This is the main problem. And, as I play longer, my own technique advances and changes. So I play with a tape of myself because then we’re both at the same level.
I’m curious because the technique seems focused on the individual’s body, while ensemble playing depends on a social interaction and exchange.
I can easily envision five or six pianists doing a fairly simple early level of continuous playing. I think it would be really fun for people to do it. The aural result would be wonderful. I don’t think that one has to refrain from doing Continuous Music just because one isn’t an expert—one has to start somewhere.
I want to talk a little bit about how you teach your method.
It’s always an experiment to meet a new student because each person has their own personal difficulties with the body and the fingers. One has to adjust the teaching to try to help the student advance and get control over their fingers. I’ve found that what I’m looking for is that sense of power that eventually comes from the actual flesh—an internal power that will drive the fingers down through the keys. I look to develop that because then I know that the energy and power will go into their hands, and they can start that beautiful relationship with the piano, where they can actually unite with the sound and have a meaningful dialogue with the instrument.
You’ve also broken Continuous Music down into a series of piano exercises.
Around 20 years ago, I actually started doing a little book. Well, I first did a very big book on the whole philosophy of continuous playing and its technique. It was never published, but it explains how to do the music at the higher level. Afterwards I realized that if these people were going to learn they had to start where I started, so I had to work backwards and remember how I started. I went back to the original sensation of being able to control these simple things. It was like re-learning how to ride a bicycle... what a feeling.