For this second performance in his intimate two-house concert at Village Underground, Lubomyr Melnyk overcame technical difficulties to create a sustained mood of concentration and contemplation. Melnyk has been active musician since the mid-1970s, but is now reaching an entirely new audience, at least in part through his involvement with the excellent contemporary classical label Erased Tapes, also home to Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm amongst others.
Melnyk, whose music is largely serene and meditative in spite of his website’s bold claim that he is officially “the fastest pianist in the world”, could easily have been a mentor and inspiration to these artists, and he sits comfortably within the label’s roster.
That being said, tonight’s performance opts to completely ignore Corollaries, his first recording for Erased Tapes, instead focusing on what he clearly views as his major compositional work. It’s hard to establish just how much of Melnyk’s bold claims for himself are genuine, and how much are simply a vehicle for self-promotion. He likes to take the time to explain his work to the audience, but these discussions are delivered in a fairly high-minded and jargonistic way, Melnyk’s onstage persona being something close to John Thomson’s Professor Denzil Dexter character in The Fast Show.
Nevertheless, watching him, it quickly becomes clear that he is no fraud. He is supremely relaxed at the instrument, his elbows flowing out and back in again in carefully timed and completely free movements. This technique (similar to the Moeller technique that helps enable uptempo speeds at the drum kit) allows free movement of the wrists, hands and fingers and allow him to sustain rapid flurries of notes for long periods of time without seeming strained.
Yet his ‘continuous music’, largely achieved by unbroken runs of arpeggiated chords and constant depression of the sustain pedal, doesn’t sound frantic, agitated, or even all that radical. Instead, it feels rather more like a meditative discipline, with a quasi-monastic austerity and focus at its core. The first piece he performs tonight, Regulator 12, feels almost completely free from tension, its harmony tranquil and largely without dissonance. It is purposefully calm and healing in its effect, although over time it begins to feel a little oppressive in its aimlessness.
Much more interesting, and more likely a major work, is Windmills, a long-form composition for two pianos. Laptop gremlins sadly mean that the piece has to be restarted tonight, but this actually serves to emphasise the care and concentration needed to achieve the correct timing, as Melnyk converses with a recording made earlier in the day on the same piano.
This performance not only demonstrates Melnyk’s attention to detail in terms of sound and timbre, but also the density and richness of his musical vision. The texture seems to get thicker, and the blocks of sound more and more intense. This time, the harmony is more unusual, and there are moments of darkness and violence to contrast with the serenity. This feels like it might be Melnyk operating well beyond his comfort zone – creating something ambitious, sustained and inspired.
Throughout the performance, Melnyk is accompanied by a real-time artwork from painter Gregory Euclide (who not only provided the cover art for Corollaries, but also the image used for the most recent Bon Iver album). Having already painted for the earlier performance, he seems to remodel the remaining paint smears into another of his fascinating, immersive fantasy landscapes. At times, his graceful movements seem like the perfect foil for Melnyk’s expansive broken chords, yet there are inevitable moments when watching Euclide’s more detailed moments feels like a distraction from the music.