Lubomyr Melnyk says he can play 19.5 notes a second. He is a pioneer of the piano style called "continuous music", which produces sweeping sounds with an impossible flood of rapid notes
But the speed is not just a gimmick. The virtuosic skill and discipline that allows Melnyk to tumble the notes together so closely produces an effect that resembles an auditory version of a 3D magic eye puzzle, or a pointillist painting. Individual notes roil and liquefy, the sustain pedal filling any minuscule gaps between them with lingering drones and overtones. The ear can often only just discern the multitude of notes making up the whole, as well as the beauty of the whole itself; the experience is dizzying and hypnotic, and can be emotionally and physically overwhelming.
Lubomyr Melnyk: His innovative musical style developed in Paris in the 1970s. Photo: Aleksandra Kawka
And that's just for the audience. For Melnyk, the experience is on another level altogether.
"My body feels that it is weightless and that all of my body is just one massive sunstar filled with light – that is how it is to play continuous music at the higher levels."
The mystic language Melnyk uses to discuss his art and his work ethic can't be chalked up to English being his second language (his family moved from Ukraine to Canada when he was in his teens), or to his (unfinished) masters in philosophy. His interview responses, conducted over email, come through in all-caps, dotted with exclamation points. "I feel the world needs a huge army of continuous pianists ... The power of their playing will counteract the horrible work of politicians!"
He first developed his innovative style while living in Paris in the 1970s, playing accompaniment for dance classes, but also not eating for days at a time and doing manual labour such as janitorial work at the Paris Opera – a phase that he firmly believes made all the difference.
"Continuous music could never, never, never have been created without the purity of starvation and poverty," he says. "And this is why I suspect the classical pianists run so fast when they see a continuous pianist – because classical pianists tend to be far too focused on comfort and wealth, and comfort is the last thing a continuous pianist thinks of ... and wealth means very little when you have wings that carry you above the earth into wonderful dimensions of being and life."
He believes strongly in the power of the mind over the body – fasting, "avoiding comfort" and self-denial, he insists, can benefit anyone, not just artists – but comes across as optimistic to the point of whimsicality, rather than stern or ascetic.
Now 68, he claims not to feel the years of intensely physical performances nagging at his busy joints just yet: "With continuous music, the pianist is forever getting better and better, so there is no old age – there is only the wonderful future ahead of you."
Melnyk's mother was an opera singer, and he loved making up melodies on the family piano from a very young age, inspired by Ukrainian folk songs, opera and Chopin. He was classically trained, but does not consider continuous music "classical" at all. The fact his innovative "new language" for piano slipped through the cracks of the contemporary classical establishment for so long, it's hard not to wonder whether his eccentric approach was given the collective cold shoulder.
Finally, over the past decade or so, the right people started listening. While his unabashedly romantic 2016 record, lllirion, is released through Sony, the crucial breakthrough came when he was signed to Erased Tapes – a beloved London indie label that specialises in the overlapping territory between avant-garde, minimal, ambient, electronic and classical, and counts Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm and A Winged Victory For The Sullen among its roster.
Framing Melnyk's work alongside such crossover success stories – and providing him with the opportunity to explore collaborations with artists such as Frahm, Peter Broderick and Kiasmos – brought him a new cohort of fans, ones with the ideal strain of keenly curious and listening habits to appreciate his genre-busting devotion to his craft. The Pitchfork review of his 2015 album Rivers & Streams recommends it to fans of powerful, patient, crescendo-heavy post-rock like Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Melnyk confesses a deep sadness "that the classical world does not possess the enthusiasm and love of life" of contemporaries such as his Erased Tapes labelmates and students of the continuous style.
What seems to distress him most, though, is that there is insufficient interest among other artists in learning the technique. It's not only the concern that he could be the last as well as the first continuous pianist. To Melnyk, his connection with a piano, the creation of sound, is the most transcendent aspect of the work, and sharing that connection with audiences and fellow artists as clearly as he can is his ultimate goal.
"Sound is the very origin of the universe – it is the deepest element of all existence, even deeper than light," he says. "It is the fundamental (foundation of mind) basis of all existence, and without sound, there could be no light. People have lost their sensitivity to sound, and of course, Apple Corporation does not help by sticking white wires into everyone's ears. I see an entire line, an endless line, of humanity shuffling along a dire road, with two white cords dangling from their ears. This is not sound. Sound is natural and real – it is the universe."
Lubomyr Melynk performs on January 28 at City Recital Hall, as part of Sydney Festival. sydneyfestival.org.au