Headphones: Aging Pianist Shines Through His Unique Technique

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Lubomyr Melnyk, an emerging Ukrainian Pianist of supreme technical and compositional ability, recently celebrated his 70th birthday with the release of his latest album, Fallen Trees. Also known by notable title, “The Profit of the Piano,” the composer is recognized in his field for his unique physical abilities and signature technique, though he only started gaining traction with the public over the past five years, coinciding with his decision to release music under the London record label, Erased Tapes Records. According to his website, Melnyk has set two world records in his lifetime, one for the fastest pianist in the world— an astonishing 19.5 notes played per hand, per second—and one for the most number of notes played in one, uninterrupted, hour-long sitting—93,650, or an average of 13 notes per hand, per second for the entire 60 minutes. However, it’s important to note that these claims are not supported by any objectively reputable outside sources, and though you will find many articles drawing from Melnyk’s website to substantiate the claim that he is in fact the, “fastest player in the world,” most likely this is done to generate intrigue though clickbait headlines. Bottom line—take these statistics with a grain of salt. That being said, one needs only a glimpse of Melnyk at the keys to understand what he can do. Here’s a small taste of his sheer playing speed from a BBC news piece released in January of 2012:

This practically inhuman playing ability led Melnyk to pioneer what is now known as “Continuous Playing,” a technique he started refining as early as the 70s, involving the perpetual arpeggiation of notes, suspended across an entire piece through use of the piano’s sustain pedal. The technique, on top of requiring immense physical and mental talent, calls for an impeccable understanding of the underlying harmonics behind each note, and how they correspond with the rest of the notes on the piano.

Since pianos, by default, halt the continuation of a key’s pitch once said key is released, a pianist has a sustain pedal at his or her disposal. This pedal lifts a felt bar which normally lays across the strings inside the instrument, allowing for the suspension of a key’s pitch even after the pianist has released said key. Utilizing this pedal to free up the strings within the instrument, Melnyk then rapidly arpeggiates notes, as previously mentioned. To successfully accomplish these prolonged arpeggiations, Melnyk must have a deep understanding of each and every key he presses, as each suspended pitch must mesh seamlessly with the next. Throughout, Fallen Trees, Melnyk masterfully uses these suspended harmonies to his advantage, providing sweet and soft sounding consonance, or grabbing your attention though sudden, striking dissonance. The true beauty of this technique, however, lies in Melnyk’s ability to fade instantly between these two vastly different tonalities. A simple altering of one note, if emphasized well enough, can change the entire mood of a small section of his piece. 

Another benefit of this technique, is the ability to provide areas of contrast simply by releasing the sustain pedal. On, “Fallen Trees: Pt. II. Existence,” Melnyk unexpectedly drops the sustain pedal out, providing a much more tangible and pungent sound, which he slowly disperses by periodically reimplementing the pedal, completely returning to the full pedal technique by the end of the movement. This juxtaposition provides a transient sense of orientation, making the reintegration of the pedal much more effective, as we quite literally fade from, “Pt. II. Existence,” into the ethereal sounding, “Pt. III. Apparition”—the third movement of the piece. Melnyk clearly knows what he has done here, showcasing his ideas on our corporeal understanding of existence, and slowly fading back into the unearthly world of apparitions, adding wispy vocals to the foreground of the movement in order to amplify this feeling. It is an utterly foreign yet somehow familiarly melancholic sounding movement, with a ceaseless cascade of notes shaping a full-bodied ambiance. 

As Melnyk continues to release his compositions to a more mainstream audience, so too does he continue to gain recognition. Though some find his pieces to be overwhelming, yearning for the quiet gaps of more traditional songs, many more are acknowledging his remarkable skills as a pianist and as an architect of truly rich, new soundscapes. All those who are interested in the transformative abilities of music, and especially of the piano as a solo instrument, should give the man a listen.