Lubomyr Melnyk claims to play the piano in a way that demonstrates superior dexterity over anyone else who has tickled the ivories throughout the instrument’s 350-year tradition: “I know for fact that there is no pianist in the history of piano playing who could even attempt to perform one of the larger pieces I do. […] Neither their mind nor their fingers could even start to play these big pieces.” As bold as that statement might sound, it’s also a certified actuality — Melnyk holds two world records to support it. He’s the world’s fastest pianist, who’s recognized for “sustaining speeds of over 19.5 notes per second in each hand, simultaneously, and the most number of notes in one hour.” I couldn’t help but think of that in relation to some of my favorite contemporary pianists, in order to better understand how these attributes may effect the listener’s perception of Melnyk’s music, particularly on his latest offering, Windmills.
From Bruce Brubaker’s theatrical performances to the stark minimalism of R. Andrew Lee and the jazz/classical crossover of Adam Makowicz, the amount of pianists working today is as endless as the types of music they practice. To assert an unrivaled capability over any of those is most extraordinary — what does it matter if one is faster than another, as long as the music is sublime, right? The clue, I suppose, lies within the pursuit of variation. Melnyk would declare that his own approach, continuous music, isn’t classical, although he has cited a number of classical musicians, especially minimalist composers, as influences. This is due to the nature of continuous music and the swiftness and precision it requires that Melnyk has reason for attempting such a feat, even if those inspirations tend to color the emotional response rendered by his sound.
I recently watched Brubaker illustrate a technique that reminded me of the physical strength that’s often associated with Melnyks’s pace. During his set at King’s Place in London last year, Brubaker premiered Alvin Curran’s “Hope Street Tunnel Blues III,” which is a highly mischievous piece that necessitates great physical exertion from the pianist; “This is actually going to hurt me,” I recall Brubaker saying. That rendition saw him pouring with sweat, not at the rapidity of alternate notes, but at the percussive fashion in which he played single ones. Melnyk plays twice, maybe even three times that speed, and he does it with an elegance that radiates throughout the two tracks encompassing Windmills. This album is a collection of seamless movements, ideas, and adventures that adhere to his style and bolster his reputation, which is often coupled with the physicality that Brubaker demonstrated at his live show, because when you read Melnyk’s world record stats, it’s hard not to imagine him enduring the same amount of bodily strain. Only that’s not the case.
Continuous music isn’t grounded in transcendence, but in the desire to play each note succinctly and with passion in the context of a broader setting. Although Melnyk has talked about the concentration he maintains while performing — where “all motion becomes non-motion. Space and time all become one solid entity and the mind plays like rain on the surface of the road” — he also feels a connection with each of the keys, regardless of speed. From the perspective of the listener, Windmills paints the impression of being transported from everything that surrounds you, representing an unmistakable disconnect from what’s immediately at your side in the physical world by emphasizing certain strands.
These come in sequences across the album that depict Melnyk’s vision of an old mill on top of a cliff, battling the forces of nature. Influenced by a 1937 Disney animation, Melnyk projects the various ecosystems that exist within the mill. In his image, the scene symbolizes humankind facing up to life’s challenges, as a tumultuous storm of cavernous, swelling melodies test our endurance. The story unfolds as sweeping rushes, minimal segues, and bounding set-pieces, which showcase Melnyk’s gift and the evolution of his continuous music while stirring the deepest emotional resonance and tugging incessantly at the heartstrings.
That the music is translated from the conscious mind of the maker through the acoustic body of his instrument, as if undergoing some form of metamorphosis, is quite astounding. In tandem with Brubaker’s onslaught, Melnyk’s body transforms as he plays. “Your flesh alters substance continuously and your mind is in hyper-speed as the world whirls around you like a hurricane with the piano as its vortex,” he said of the experience. Those impressions of harsh environmental powers — tidal fluctuations and forceful winds — remain common interpretations of Melnyk’s sound, where natural elements collide with an artistic intention that charges classical influences through a gauntlet designed to test the very momentum of the human body.
The image that inspired Windmills and the three years of work that went into its production serve as metaphors for perseverance and adaptation, and it rings beautifully with Melnyk’s vision. It’s another staggering accomplishment from a man who has taken the possibilities of composition and improvisation to new heights, fusing the fervor he strives to endure as a performer with the promise of creating an expansive sonic landscape for his audience that’s teeming with life and bounding with possibility.