It’s easy to write off a musician like Lubomyr Melnyk. Track down any nay-sayer (which is easy to do, thank you Internet comments) and you’ll probaby hear or read variations of these complaints: it’s just repetition. He’s just playing broken chords and no melody. Sure, he can play 19 notes in a second, but speed doesn’t make for great music. The Ukranian-born pianist has been in the recording business for close to 40 years now, so I’m going to treat such criticisms as old hat. Instead, I’d like to approach
If you are new to Lubomyr Melnyk’s musical approach, it’s something he calls “continuous music”. He’ll rapidly play a figure over and over again, sometimes with only the slightest variation along the way, with the artistic purpose of providing the listener with a soft bed of sound. It’s like when electronic musicians produce a drone to hypnotize you; only musicians like Melnyk have to accomplish the same effect the acoustic way. Hence, the necessity (or the desire?) for him to produce as many as 19 keystrokes within any given second. Being a fan of composers like Terry Riley, Melnyk decided early in his career that sounds were more crucial to his pieces than their nuts-and-bolts content. With five pieces clocking in at almost an hour, you’re in for some long form meditations on Illirion.
These five tracks were recorded over the span of three years in various places. Three were recorded in a studio in Winnipeg in 2012, 2013, and 2014, and the remaining two were recorded in the Netherlands with one being a live performance. “Beyond Romance”, “Cloud No. 81”, and the title track all hover around the 15-minute mark. That’s an awful lot of notes, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. This brand of minimalism illustrates the difference between absorbing many notes and withstanding many notes.
“Cloud No. 81” is one track that doesn’t rely on swift arpeggios to get its point across. Instead, it plays with a shifting emphasis as chords pop up and down like pistons. Just when you think you have the rhythmic pattern nailed down, Melnyk shifts it by one degree. It remains the same figure, but it travels by way of a completely different walk. Opener “Beyond Romance” is the biggest display of the pianist’s tantric approach, spreading the arpeggios high and wide for more than 16 minutes.
“Sunset”, Illirion‘s shortest number, is probably the fastest composition here. Curiously, it also spends a great deal of time toiling away in the piano’s lower register, giving the song a rumbling effect no matter how many high notes he tickles. If the tempo of “Sunset” is furious, then “Solitude No. 1”, the lone in-concert recording, is probably the slowest and most orthodox sounding. In the album’s liner notes, Melnyk seems ready to admit that this song is more about the key changes than the rapid-fire ambience — a piece to encapsulate progression and an eventual return to its starting point.
Closing number “Illirion” is out to tie up all these traits into one 14-minute ball of flame — or at least that’s how it comes across. “This piece presents the pure sound of the piano in its initial opening quietude, where we can hear the marvelous deep cave-like resonance of the entire instrument singing in its soul”. More fodder for the hater’s cannon, for sure. It’s also a work of art developed deeply in earnest. The only hyperbole I take issue with is Lubomyr Melnyk’s reputation as a “prophet of the piano”. How do you prophesize from a piano?