'The FASTEST pianist in the world'*
November 21, 2013 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Lubomyr Melnyk is a musician and composer who developed, in the 1970s, a distinctive way of playing piano very rapidly over extended periods of time, a style he terms ‘music in the continuous mode.’ Recent years have seen a burgeoning interest in his work, including: re-releases of his 1979 debut LP KMH (in 2007) and of his 1985 collaboration with tubaist Melvyn Poore The Voice of Trees (in 2011); the release of a CD† of joint improvisations with the guitarist James Blackshaw (The Watchers, 2012); performances with Nils Frahm and with the artist Gregory Euclide (previously); and at least two new solo releases: Corollaries and Three Solo Pieces (both 2013).

* On his website it’s claimed that Melnyk is ‘the FASTEST pianist in the world --- sustaining speeds of over 19.5 notes per second in each hand, simultaneously’ and that he has achieved ’the MOST NUMBER of NOTES in ONE HOUR --- in exactly 60 minutes, Melnyk sustained an average speed of over 13 notes per second in each hand, yielding a remarkable total of 93,650 INDIVIDUAL notes.’

† Note also that while more of his works are available than ever on CD, Melnyk takes a dim view of the medium.
posted by misteraitch (31 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
After reading that first addendum, I wasn't expecting to like this very much. I don't generally go in for musical pyrotechnics, at least not for their own sake. But this stuff is quite interesting, and musically satisfying. Thanks.
posted by eric1halfb at 8:51 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Actually, let me state that a little more emphatically, after listening to a good ten minutes of the performance with Nils Frahm: This is fantastic! Wish I could hear it in person.
posted by eric1halfb at 8:55 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for this! (I can't believe he's Ukrainian-Canadian and I had never heard of him.)

Here are the liner notes for KMH if anyone wants them.
posted by Kabanos at 9:03 AM on November 21, 2013

When I first moved to New York City, I had a roommate who had a copy of KHM, "Music In the Continuous Mode" - and we played it to death.

A few years ago I looked him up and was gratified to see that he was still producing, so I got several of his disks.

It's funny he's considered a "fast" pianist - that's about the last thing I think of him as. I'd call him more "post-Chopin" - the music doesn't seem "fast". I also really like his strange harmonies - I wouldn't call it "atonal" but perhaps "unusual tonality".
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:03 AM on November 21, 2013

> Here are the liner notes for KMH if anyone wants them.

Interesting - because these aren't the original liner notes, despite the claims that they are. I had part of those liner notes memorized - something like, "As I worked on the music, I could feel something different happening to my body, and to my mind. But the fear passed and the technique grew."

Unfortunately, my LPs are in storage.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:05 AM on November 21, 2013

Someone once put "Islands" on a MeFi CD Swap for me and it's had a prominent place in my playlists ever since. Thanks for the post.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:07 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

He's definitely very talented and demonstrates an interestingly novel way of using the piano, but I couldn't help getting a strong Soviet-era maximalism vibe from the description; playing faster, or fastest, is of course not a guarantee of playing well, or interestingly, but seems like something that would have been blithely encouraged in a certain socio-historical moment in the USSR. World's fastest piano player! World's loudest teacher! World's biggest microprocessor!
posted by clockzero at 9:08 AM on November 21, 2013

This is sort of like the guys who break 10 roofing tiles with a scream and a punch and claim to be the best punchers in the world.

He plays two-octave arpeggios relatively quickly, but by no means faster than any classical pianist of renown, and seems to use only one technique and a limited harmonic pallette for all of his music (unless you count clamming as a distinct technique).

posted by TheRedArmy at 9:37 AM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I like his album with Poole a lot. Several years ago Aquarius Records was pushing him hard—it's not unlike some of Charlemagne Palestine's stuff.
posted by kenko at 9:44 AM on November 21, 2013

There is definitely a charming sort of kookiness at work here, but the music itself is quite nice. Reminds me a little of Philip Glass in that the effect relies on a bit of hypnosis and deep attention -- you might even call it a trance. But it's "prettier" than most of Glass's music. Lovely wash of sound. Heck, I just went to iTunes and bought "Three Solo Pieces". Perfect music for headphones and a day in bed feeling sick.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 10:00 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Art Tatum played a lot faster, and did not rely on constantly rolling, repeated arpeggios (an old trick). Now get off my lawn.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 10:11 AM on November 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm with Seekerofsplendor. Some of the music is interesting, I guess, if you're into that sort of repeated arpeggiation minimalism (I'm not, but de gustibus non est disputandum). But the ability to continually roll chords really fast just doesn't strike me as all that impressive, especially compared to something like the runs in this.
posted by slkinsey at 10:26 AM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks slkinsey. You get it, obviously.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 10:30 AM on November 21, 2013

Kinda sorta a la sheets of sound. I'm not sure what's the point of quantification, if his aesthetic is circular fluidity.
posted by methinks at 10:33 AM on November 21, 2013

The emphasis on speed and quantity is coloring my enjoyment of what is rather nice music. Surprising that the musician himself promotes these perceptions. I find them neither true nor useful claims, even if they were.

And continuous - isn't all music continuous, until it isn't? Perhaps what is meant is unrelenting? Is that a good thing? Bad thing? Neither? I am confused by the descriptions of this music highlighting the very things which are least novel and interesting about it.

But as I said, I think it's nice, in spite of all that.
posted by SNACKeR at 11:45 AM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wanted to link "Faster Isn't Always Better" by Sister Ray, but sadly the internets appear not to have it in stock.
posted by Decani at 11:51 AM on November 21, 2013

I'm more impressed by the slowest piano in the world. Thelonious Monk, perhaps?
posted by Fnarf at 12:21 PM on November 21, 2013

I think what's weird about focusing on how fast this guy is playing is that musical displays of virtuosity are definitely a legitimate way of creating excitement and drama in music. Always have been. But his compositions aren't trying to do anything exciting or dramatic with his virtuosity. It's really just a way of creating a novel soundscape.

It's kind of like U2 guitarist The Edge creating a wall of sound with guitar effects. He gets his sound through clever use of effects rather than virtuoso technique, but knowing that doesn't diminish the appeal of his sound because he's just trying to create a certain kind of sound rather than create the drama of, say, an Eddie Van Halen solo.

This is certainly not a criticism of Melnyk's music. It just to say that focusing on the speed his fingers are moving doesn't seem relevant to appreciating what he's doing musically.
posted by straight at 12:54 PM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

This guy really isn't playing that fast. The style he's playing in, it's something you hear regularly from various piano players. His web sites make extravagant claims based on how fast he's playing; I'd like to see some comparative numbers before I say he's objectively that much faster than anybody else.
posted by koeselitz at 12:56 PM on November 21, 2013

– but some of his stuff is wonderful and amazing! I do like this kind of focus, even if I think the "speed" thing is a silly gimmick.
posted by koeselitz at 12:58 PM on November 21, 2013

Gimmicks are often a big part of getting people to invest time in an art form that is otherwise hard to talk about, especially for those who are untrained. That's why the vast majority of music criticism resorts to comparison. If we can't talk about compositional structure or harmonic progression, well..."sounds like post-punk Pink Floyd, informed by a real IDM/Warp Records sensibility" (or) "...The bass player uses a slide, and his bass only has three strings!" This is also (to a large degree) why people like Andrea Bocelli or Evelyn Glennie are so successful; talent and training aside, it's so much easier for people to remember "that blind opera singer" or "that female percussionist who's deaf." Perhaps Melnyk is just playing into that well established method of marketing music. Is it stupid and a bit crass? Yup. But it's obviously winning him some listeners.
posted by eric1halfb at 1:13 PM on November 21, 2013

I agree the emphasis on speed is a little odd, and I only stressed it myself as I thought it made for an eye-catching one-liner… As well as Melnyk, I see that Yuja Wang is the fastest piano player in the world. As is Adnan Sami. And Nico Brina. Not forgetting Liberace!

I’ve been enjoying Melnyk’s music since 2002 when I happened upon a copy of the Lund-St. Petri Symphony LP at a junkshop in Karlskrona, Sweden, where I lived at the time. He didn’t have an on-line presence back then, & I ended up ordering some more LPs from him directly via snail-mail. His work remains impressive to my untutored ears, although I do feel his pieces can seem like their familial resemblance to one another is a little too close (perhaps given their common reliance on application of the ‘continuous mode’).

> Someone once put "Islands" on a MeFi CD Swap

That might just have been my ‘Piano Piano’ mix in the spring ’07 swap…
posted by misteraitch at 1:49 PM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

misteraitch: That might just have been my ‘Piano Piano’ mix in the spring ’07 swap…

I think you are right! It also had "Liebliches Lied" by Alexandre Rabinovitch and "Kesson Daslef" by Aphex Twin, amongst others, I think. I'm not generally a fan of "classical" piano music, but there were several tracks on there that have stuck with me. Thanks again!
posted by Rock Steady at 1:54 PM on November 21, 2013

the argument for all virtuosity is that it allows you to express stuff that couldn't be expressed in any other way (ie: if the only way to express a particular mood is via 90 notes per second, then you better be capable of playing those 90 notes per second). But otherwise, as many have noted, it's just show-offy, about as impressive as a street legal sports car that can do 200 mph. What's the f***ing point (other than being an asshole) if the speed limit's 70?

But I've gotta say I like what I'm hearing here, trance-inducing, mesmerizing, fluid, like water flowing past.
posted by philip-random at 2:38 PM on November 21, 2013

I couldn't help getting a strong Soviet-era maximalism vibe from the description; playing faster, or fastest, is of course not a guarantee of playing well, or interestingly, but seems like something that would have been blithely encouraged in a certain socio-historical moment in the USSR.

I don't mean to be too critical of this aside, since Melnyk wasn't born and has never lived in the USSR, but I'm not sure that this characterization of "Soviet-era" music makes any sense. You are talking about a period of over 70 years, during which time orchestral and chamber music existed in a variety of forms. Pressure to produce popular, stirring, accessible music was applied at various intervals with various degrees of force, sometimes deadly force. But I don't think it makes any sense to say that Soviet piano music was produced on the same model as Soviet concrete or Soviet tanks.

The early Soviet modernists produced plenty of loud music that was suppressed by the state as decadent, corrupt, and inaccessible. I wrote an entire FPP about popular Soviet composer Georgy Sviridov. I don't know if it makes sense to characterize his music as quantity first, then quality possibly later. Or consider such giants of (Soviet) composition as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian.

The USSR was complicated, maaan. Even so, I'm not sure Melnyk would have been successful (or tolerated) in that environment.
posted by Nomyte at 2:39 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think some people are just naturally wired up to be attracted to the virtuoso thing. Someone said this to me about Shawn Lane; he was just kind of an extreme personality in every way. He got seriously good on piano and drums, he read all the time, he smoked too much, and he played, perhaps, too many notes on the guitar. Live, that kind of style has a very powerful impact, but it can be tedious to listen to recordings of it for long, I find.
posted by thelonius at 3:00 PM on November 21, 2013

This post from Rory Marinich has some really great piano-as-wall-of-texture going on, too.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 6:40 PM on November 21, 2013

You call that fast? Moby is not impressed ("Thousand" ramps up to more than 1,000 BPMs, which he has "played" on keyboards in the past).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:25 PM on November 21, 2013

kenko: it's not unlike some of Charlemagne Palestine's stuff.

My first thought as well.. but after listening to several snippets of Lubomyr Melnyk's performances I find his playing brash and as if he is not really present.. IMO Charlemagne Palestine is a much more interesting artist.. more varied and much more sensitive.
posted by snaparapans at 11:57 AM on November 22, 2013

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