Lubomyr Melnyk – Live – Komedia, 15/3/2016

“Sound is a fourth dimensional element”, explains Lubomyr Melnyk, as he stands at the microphone introducing himself by way of sermon to around 100 dedicated fans. Komedia’s intimate basement resembles an oversized jazz club, with tea lights scattered on tables and beards and spectacles abundant.

Melnyk has waited a long time for appreciation of this magnitude. His unique, hyper-fast brand of ‘continuous music’, which he has been composing and playing to audiences since 1968, has been rejected by the classical music establishment many times over.

Tired of setbacks, he virtually gave up on the idea of acceptance in the mid-eighties. Only in the last few years, since being taken in by the Erased Tapes label – home of Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm and Rival Consoles – has his music found a wider audience. It turns out that fans of sparse electronica really, really like intense, transcendental piano playing.

The Ukrainian tells the audience that, tonight, we’ll be “listening to the piano”, not him, before taking a seat at a ramshackle stool to play Illorium. Low and high notes collide and joust with one another with increasing boldness. Layer after layer of sound builds and fuses, looping and resonating beyond comprehension.

Melnyk plays entirely from memory. He stares into the distance and his hands glide gracefully along the full length of the keyboard, occasionally glancing down at the keys to calibrate. The purity of the sound seems almost to escape into the room, like something wild and unrestrainable.

When Illorium concludes and he returns to the mic, it’s surreal to hear the voice of a human being emerge from such a devastating, overwhelming cacophony of sound. The sensation serves to highlight Melnyk’s point that we are here to listen to the piano, not him – he feeds it and it carries the momentum to an unearthly place. Bearded and aged, he has the hybrid accent of a well-traveled man, not of time or place.

Parasols, from 2015’s Rivers and Streams, merges with itself, notes folding over one another, being left behind and straining to catch up, before drowning and sinking, lost forever. Melnyk immerses himself in the composition. His fingers are dragged along and kept in perpetual, patterned motion by the endless flow of arpeggios and crescendos.

Every section is methodically constructed and allowed to formulate like a lavish sandcastle, before the momentum of the sound inevitably dissolves the foundation and it’s washed away, to be re-built over and over with shifted formations and specifications.

Butterfly is introduced with a sly reference to Philip Glass’s Metaphorphosis and Melnyk explains that his intention is to harness the power of continuous music to transform a single butterfly into many. True to his word, a timid, understated sound grows into an avalanche of motion and emotion, ghost melodies seeping into every corner of the room.

I Love You, which he curiously describes as “kind of an embarrassing thing to play to people” is a love letter – or plea – to humanity. “Love is the most fundamental thing of this universe,” he says, to unanimous applause.

And love weighs heavy on the keys, dragged like a precious stone. Melnyk’s hands and fingers span the keyboard like a god spreading great power. He plays his ode to love with sorrow and melancholy, hinting at absent love rather than a love that might be.

After a short break Melnyk return with Windmills, an epic piece for two pianos, one part of which was recorded earlier in the day. “You can’t really understand this music without the story behind it,” he says, proceeding to paint a vivid picture of the destruction and subsequent entry into the afterlife of a rural windmill (“windmill nirvana”). It begins ominously, with a bass-heavy drag, and it’s as utterly compelling as it sounds.

These themes of absolutes return time and time again, recalling the aesthetics of Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. For Songs of Love and Hate, read Songs of Convergence and Mortality. Members of the audience sit in universal stillness; heads are bowed and eyes closed, almost recalling a moment of prayer or meditation.

“In my life, happiness doesn’t last long,” says Melnyk during one of tonight’s intervals, matter-of-factly. It was a throwaway comment, but it seems to be the key to understanding his wonderful music.

Words by Tom Furnival-Adams

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