Ukrainian-Canadian composer and pianist Lubomyr Melnyk emerged onto the contemporary music scene in the 1970s, but it’s only recently that his work has found an audience among those familiar with the “minimal” music of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. Melnyk’s keyboard studies are drawn from continuous, overlapping linear eddies (cf. the drawing in space of Pollock or Brice Marden) and pedal-sustained overtones, which he has termed “continuous music.” Looking to the Balinese gamelan and African rhythm choirs as well as a kinship with European composers Charlemagne Palestine and Simeon Ten Holt, Melnyk’s continuous music resurfaced at seemingly the right time with the reissue of 1979’s KMH (Music Gallery Editions/Unseen Worlds).
Though he’s long documented his work on CD-R and cassette, most of that hasn’t been particularly easy to source. Take for example The Voice of Trees, a stunning work of orchestral magnitude for two pianos and the three tubas of British improvising composer Melvyn Poore. Designed as one part of a sound and movement fantasia for the choreographer Kilina Cremona, The Voice of Trees was privately released on cassette (and later a CD-R), though this Hinterzimmer CD is its first commercial issue anywhere (and therefore, pretty much the first anyone outside of the cognoscenti were aware of its existence).
Recorded in Lyon, France in 1983, The Voice of Trees is a masterful appropriation of overdubs to create a lushly orchestrated environment that explores nuance, texture, and scale through overtones and the ebb and flow of pre-recorded presence. Poore’s tuba possesses a dusky hue and adds a girding contrast. A founding member of Zeitkratzer, his work with the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and trombonist Paul Rutherford’s (1940-2007) brass ensembles is first-rate and also worth seeking out. However, these brass waves keen upward and, set against the skating piano rhythms, build pedal points that are both stately and light. Melnyk’s interlocking and disassembled chords are in consistent, delicate play with phase relationships, creating a rich and active setting for the brain’s tonal receptors. The ear picks up ghostly choruses, guitar plinks, mallet percussion, organ and string-like harmonic masses.
Melnyk himself disavows the use of the term “minimal” in relation to his art – as most practitioners of tonal process music do – and prefers it to be called “maximal” for the amount of physical work and formal density that is put forth. But Melnyk’s music, like that of his peers (and which differentiates this language from Cage and the Darmstadt school immensely), is also predicated on the composer as nuanced performer. It wouldn’t be what it is without not only Melnyk’s abilities, but also his touch and phrasing. In the moment, he is delicate and massive, flashing between athletic formal purity and hushed reflection – a far cry from the machine music of David Tudor or the Kontarsky brothers, for example.
Though the music’s structure and results are quite different, it might not be totally unfair to align Melnyk with the later, more reductive music of Cecil Taylor, albeit without the bluesy flourishes. Perhaps the presence of immediacy is one reason why this music has an affinity with pure improvisation, though it is not improvised in the “jazz/creative music” sense of the word. One knows it’s the hand of Melnyk or Riley as much as one knows it’s Monk or Taylor at the piano, even if the results are many worlds apart. The Voice of Trees is a gorgeous document, fully realized continuous music that opens up to a range of aesthetic possibilities and certainly one of Melnyk’s most powerful recordings.