In the 1970s, pianist and composer Lubomyr Melnyk developed a piano technique called ‘Continuous Music’. Rooted in minimalism theory, Melnyk wanted to develop a style that shared some technique of other modern minimalist composers, but that involved melody and tones that created a sense of emotion within the work. This approach, combined with his playing technique, created a situation that he describes, “would grow into a complete re-awakening of the body’s total physical energy.” As I discovered more of his music, I became more interested in his ideas about it, how it has changed for him over the years, what his current and past relationship to it is like, and his ideas in general. The following is an interview I conducted with him via email, and it not only answers all my questions, but also creates many other interesting ideas that have made me think about music, creativity, and life, a bit differently. I hope you enjoy the read.
How did you first start working with the piano technique you developed? What inspired you to take this direction?
It all began in 1973-74, when I was working at the Paris Opera, playing for the rather mystical classes of Carolyn Carlson. By this time, I had no money whatsoever and could not eat, except for the fruits and vegetables which the outdoor stands threw out. It’s remarkable how sensitive to light and sound you become, not just to them, but to all things physical and metaphysical … including your own body and mind.
But this fertile soil for discovery had been prepared earlier by excursions into Eastern thought and all the hippie stuff, and drugs and acid and all that … so you might think of me as a Hippie Pianist …. but anyway, during Carolyn Carlson’s truly remarkable classes (which by the way are unlike anything ever before and ever after … she commanded space and time and through her Metaphysical Explosion of Existence she taught the wonderful dancers about transcending time and space, not via the body, but via their minds that commanded the subserviant and pliant bodies .. in effect, Carolyn Carlson’s dancers lost their bodies and became weightless entities … but, through all of that, she wanted me to play the piano (we were all in the huge attic studio at the Opera with huge wooden beams and remarkable spaces, not the cold plastic barrenness of modern buildings and concrete studio walls, and I had newly recognized that Classical Music was very special, that it created a 4th dimensional exquisiteness that can not be readily perceived, but is there, something which I saw in the film The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky (seeing his film after fasting was more than exciting, let me add). In his film there is a most beautiful scene where one of the characters is playing with these remarkable weightless “stick-figures” of mathematical forms, that are incredibly complex, … and I realized that yes, THIS is what Classical Music creates in its velvet harmonies .. especially Joseph Haydn who relied on simplicity to create these mathematical forms.
Well, during the classes, the dancers would move across the huge floor in long unending and repeated rows, and I had to create music for them, so I took Haydn and Terry Riley and put them together to create these unending spatial sounds in pure and simple harmonic structure. My hope was that the metaphysical character of the music would help the dancers enter the other world.
I think that for some, it did .. they told me so afterward.
So I kept this, my only job and income, and moved up the ladder to buying cheese and bread. But what I did during the classes, I continued doing on pianos wherever I could get to one. And after playing for hours, I found that my body was changing. Really.
I found that my mind was changing. For real.
I found that by doing incongruent patterns in my two hands, something was changing in my mind, and in my body and hands/ I found that the SOUND of the piano was melting into my body and into my mind, and that I could actually transform the body into sheets of steel rods that were melting into the piano strings and keys, and that these steel rods would shift to being water and to being clouds and to being the universe.
I found that I could no longer control my fingers the way pianists do. In fact, I found that I could hardly hold on to a cup or a spoon. because the fingers were no longer there for me — how can you hold a spoon using a cloud or water ??? Yes, if I turned the flesh to stone and steel, I could, but rarely wished to.
This frightened me a lot.
But I also felt that a new world was opening up, a new universe where no pianist had yet gone … that I was starting on a road that no one before had dreamed existed, and which would lead … where?
I still don’t know where, because I am still walking …
But I do know this, that Continuous Music was the door that let me walk into the wonderful world of the metaphysical, where flesh and space melt together, and every piano in the world is your wonderful friend, and that for the first time, I could actually HEAR Classical music in its metaphysical form …. it is actually a little painful, because the purity of its velvetness is too much for us humans, sort of like tasting something wonderful for the first time, and every time.
Well, that is how it all began.
People may not understand this, but Continuous Music never ends, and the pianist moves onward endlessly, as the body begins to melt and your soul turns into sound ….
I want also to mention that touching the keys is an endless ecstasy … really ! The touch on the keys as you play is like being God and letting it rain .. it is purely delightful!!!! Maybe you will understand when I tell you, that after years of playing Continuous Mode, the fingers cease to feel anything, you just play in air, and out of this air, now at least for me, the keys release gentle little birds that fly off into space, white birds that are totally weightless and cloud-like that disappear in the distance (but this only happens with special Bel Canto pieces, like the Antiphones).
How did time, practice, and your own musical development change that approach for you?
Well, time of course changed a great deal. Under extreme circumstances, the Continuous Pianist, while generating the music from the higher levels of the technique, also generates a special energy that has on a few occasions, altered time and clocks in the near vicinity … but this is not a goal of the music.
As for practicing on the piano, the initial change-over to Continuous playing took a lot of work and practice … and this coupled with taking in very little food, because really, I was discovering that the piano and sound the Beauty were all intermingling and blending together into one mysterious change.
Through the many hours of loving practice (and this is important, that pianists must love to touch the piano, all the time, in order to learn anything at all about themselves and their instrument) I could discern that my flesh was changing, that the body was becoming soft and mystical and that the actual thought of the fingers moving the keys was melting into the sinews and tendons that were doing it, and all melting into the sound. To reach this necessary and beautiful awareness, requires many, many, many hours of loving work.
But perhaps I had a great advantage in that being a classically trained pianist, I was used to work, and also, and perhaps the greatest advantage, I had NO IDEA of where this work was taking me, there was no goal, no “finish-line” ahead to reach for … I was just re/learning the piano and found myself immersed in a ferocious love of the sound of the piano and the magnificent physical and meta-physical activity required to move the instrument into its Singing Mode …
And this process of change, although it is not so dramatic and “visible” as it was in the early beginnings of the Continuous Technique, nevertheless, it remains in motion and has no end in sight … the Continuous Pianist is forever developing, forever …. and this is so beautiful.
But before I leave your question, I realized that in neither of these two answers about the music and its technique, have I mentioned the most important thing ..!!!
This is what it feels like to play Continuous Piano … well, as long as any one who wants to learn does not take this as a goal ( ! ! ! ) but simply as a BY-PRODUCT of the Technique, I can tell you that playing the piano becomes like being a Wind that blows life into the instrument, and together, you and the Piano fly through the air, weightless and singing, effortlessly, with mo more effort than breathing … the mind sails off on a sea of sound that is being driven by this Mysterious Engine called the body, a Mysterious Engine that works on its own because the mind wills it to do so, and in willing it, the Engine moves in its motions with no physical effort.
I worry that all this makes Continuous Music sound so far away, and almost like a Transcendental Meditation … but it really is quite down-to-earth, really … I still walk on the ground, and am physically human and body-bound … the real essence of Continuous Piano is to play without any effort or stress … the mind controls the fingers and the piano … it really is very very easy once you have worked at the music … the Continuous Music actually makes the change in your flesh happen …. but you must first love the Piano and love the Music ! first of all, I am very afraid that pianists might be terrified by the philosophy and thoughts contained in Continuous Piano playing, because my words describe rather mystical and unconventional things .. but, in reality, the playing of Continuous Music is really different in one and only one major point, that playing the piano becomes a REAL PLEASURE … all fear of wrong notes is gone, there just remains a pianist sitting alongside the beloved instrument and the two together making beautiful music …. it’s really just that, because nothing in this world would make me happier than sharing this physical and emotional joy with other pianists (well, some things would of course make me happier, but they are totally unrealistic) .. I really want to give the joy of the piano to other pianists.
While music in general has various developments from 500 A.D. up to 1800 A.D. the only significant changes that occurred over this period are tied to the piano, because that is the only new event that happened in the last 300 years
a) the rise of the piano and its early prototypes from ca. 1700, and the question> how is it that these first people learned to play at all, because there was no one to teach them, like the chicken and the egg … unlike the other instruments, (including violin) the piano is an UN-Natural instrument and had to be invented and the technique of playing it never ever existed before …
b) the rise of the Great Masters and the Supreme Velvet of Classical Harmony. (ca. 1650 – 1950)
c) the universal spread of the Piano as the home instrument where people could play real music at home
=========================== 1965 ==============================
d)== the disappearance of the Great Masters from earth … after 1913, no Great Masters were born … the last one died in the late 1900′s…
e) ==the arise of Minimalism and Continuous Music into Western culture
f) ==the disappearance of the Piano from earth …. no one is interested in learning to move their fingers or enjoy the ability to play the piano any more, and no one is interested in having a real piano any more, no one is interested in having a good speaker system to listen to music, and no one want to do anything except sit like a blob in a chair and look at their computer monitor 24 hours a day …. so that is REALLY a big change!
So you see, in the last 30 years, in fact THREE major upheavals have occurred in music
… that’s more than in the last 1000 years !!!
How do you think instruments play a role in this process? Is it important for a specific instrument to be used to communicate the notation? What occurs sonically that makes it so?
This is indeed a good question or aspect you bring up … unlike Classical music, which in its Greatness and grandeur lives without sound, ie. the perfection of the tone relationships remains embedded forever in the 4th and 5th Dimensions, my Continuous Music requires real sound to live. So I suppose my work is really quite inferior to the Masters of old … but there has been no Master on earth for the last 50 years, so I really don’t feel that my work is a bad thing, on the contrary, this Continuous Music is really so beautiful and the ability to do it is so incredibly new and beautiful, that I am glad it exists, glad and Thankful!
So you see, the actual sound is truly very crucial to Continuous Music … this is of course because each piano creates totally unique sounds and overtones that will produce a unique result for the player’s ear …. Continuous music is such that not only each piano will create a new sound, but even every time you touch the piano and play the pieces (or parts thereof) you will hear new things that were not actually there before, the notes will combine into new harmonic dimensions or Sound-Continuoums (-ua-) that arise and fall away as time and life dictate …
This means that every concert is totally unique, even if one plays the same piece, because:
a) the piano is different
b) you play with a new mind and new fingers
c) you stretch and compress the duration of the harmonic “totalities”
d) the sound in the hall is different
e) the person hearing you play is seated somewhere else
In your question you ask about what occurs sonically to facilitate these major changes all the time .. well, if I were to answer you truly I would be locked up, but I can probably stretch the truth enough to say that sound is only partially dependent on physical material, and partially on the meta-physical dimensions, and so the piano will sing its Continuous Song both because of its physical dimensions, but also because the living pianist is actually hearing the music and playing it, … those who actually believe in science and Darwin can not possibly understand this, because they have shut themselves off from everything that is beyond the physical, but those who have knowledge of things immaterial, will understand.
Your site discusses some interesting ideas about sound. How does this theory relate to the creation of your music, where physical movement coincides with the phenomena of acoustics?
Partially, this was touched upon in the earlier paragraphs … but sound is FAR BEYOND the comprehension of scientists and “modern thinkers” .. scientists love to lie about things they know nothing of, eg. the speed of light, the age of the earth, the universe, and microcosmic world, light itself, etc. etc. and ESPECIALLY sound .. sound has been picked out by the deluded scientific world because it is so easy to handle in their terms, they can measure its speed, and its strength or force, and so on, they can measure cycles per second even, and what they call “frequencies” but everything they say is actually false, because, if you at all think about it without the prejudice of believing them, you see directly that nothing they say holds water … if sound were a frequency then we would hear nothing except sporadic explosions of sound, and varying volumes all the time as the frequencies fought each other, canceling each other out, driving “holes” into one another … nor can they even imagine why sound travels in a fully circular outward movement, totally filling Space, with no attention at all to walls or objects, eg. if you sit at the bottom of a solid fence, how can you hear anything at all coming from the other side of the fence, because you are not in the direct line of the sound travel, and the solid fence (low wall) would totally block the sound .. yet you hear the sounds as the sound travels OVER the wall and then shoots down instantly at 90 degrees … NOTHING behaves like that in Nature, only Sound.
But scientists love to hide their heads in the sand as soon as a logical issue arises, they just pretend that the impossible results of their “statements” are impossible but ignorable … just like philosophers run for the hills as soon as you mention Xeno’s paradox to them .. no one thinks … but logic is beautiful and available to everyone, and even free …
So I can tell you that Sound is a Total Mystery, about which we know nothing.
It exists, and we enjoy it and use it … but it is still WAY beyond our mental capacities to understand even in simplest terms. The only reason science gets away with its idiotic “explanations” of physics and physical phenomena is because people do not dare to question scientists … like the people watching the Emperor Without Clothes, everyone is afraid to mention the most obvious truths!
Just one last word on this>>> let no one think that in order to recognize the mystery of a physical phenomena one has to become a fasting and wild-haired aesthete sitting cross-legged on a mountain top .. not at all, … removing the fetters of scientific thought means only that you become like everyone else on earth prior to the Great Attack of science around 1900 A.D. ,,, before we were beaten senseless with fear and dread of questioning the men in white frocks …. I personally find it really really nice to look at the world every moment and see a glorious and beautiful mystery in every spot of existence.
Ideas, approach, and technique are one side of the coin for music. The other side deals with the public. How do you see Continuous Music best represented – performance or recording – for a listening audience, and why? In this regard, how does that determine the sustainability of the work? Can it survive?
I feel that the best public performances of Continuous Music must be held in natural settings, not in concert halls .. absolutely not in concert halls … the music should occur in multi-roomed and multi-walled Great Halls, where the sound can roam around and fill the spaces and get mixed in with delicious echoes and reverberations … where the Sound can GROW! … I want GREEN HALLS, ie,. NATURAL acoustics, not dead/killed murderous concert halls that seek out and destroy Sound … dangerous places!
And these natural rooms must have WOOD !!!! … and stone can be very good for sound… I seek soft lighting preferably sunlight from large windows, but if not that, then soft electric light will do … the human ear should be allowed to taste and savour sound just like we do at a gourmet dinner where every nuance of flavour is delicately thought about … because Sound is a living entity, quite unlike what scientists are telling us.
Sound is beautiful and deserves to live, so let’s not crush it under the Armoured Tanks of the Concert halls!
You understand perhaps that people need to be comfortable and at peace, and so does Sound .. when both are allowed to live in space, then we are all happy.
That is why this music needs LARGE spaces where people can sit far apart, or stretch out on the floors, and enjoy hearing the sound, not just from the instrument, but from the far away walls and surfaces where sound loves to play …
More info on Melnyk’s work at www.lubomyr.com