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Down and Out in Paris and Kiev

28/07/2014 11:00 BST | Updated 26/09/2014 10:59 BST

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A comedian will tell that timing is everything. This is equally true for musicians, if not quite for the same reasons. Sometimes a musician can be ahead of their time, or even out of it.

For acts like the Velvet Underground it can mean it takes years to build up the reputation their music deserves, or for other acts in can mean total obscurity for their entire career. For the composer and pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, it thankfully hasn't come to that.

"The nicest thing for a musician is to play concerts; it's like a horse that gets to run."

This charming simile is the first thing the 65 year old Ukrainian says to me as we meet backstage at the Vortex Jazz club in east London. Lubomyr is clearly exhilarated to be playing, and one look at his crowd will tell you why. These people aren't the grey haired, conservative, lovers of classical music one might expect, these are the young and the hip (if not necessarily hipters). Their tastes range from everything from Godspeed Your Black Emperor to the music of Michael Nyman and Melnyk's own Erased Tapes label mates, Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnalds.

It's taken since the mid-70's for Lubomyr's distinctive style of 'continuous music', forged in the practice spaces of Paris, to find an audience outside of a hardcore of avant-garde devotees, and now that the younger generation are tuning in (Particularly to his Peter Broderick produced Corollaries album) he's keen to play to as many people as possible.

I spoke to him about his influences, his career and how his recent re-discovery has affected his life.

Daniel Cadwallader: I want to start at the beginning, can you tell me a little about your earliest musical memories, when was the first time you heard music?

Lubomyr Melnyk: I started playing music on the piano when I was five or six. My mother recognised that I had some talent and should study piano. My earliest musical memories are the beautiful Ukrainian songs that she would sing. She had a very beautiful voice, she had a trained operatic voice you know, and she was my inspiration, she supported my music all my life. Oddly enough, my father was probably the most un-musical person that the world has ever seen. In fact, he never listened to one second of music. Isn't that strange.

DC: You mentioned your mother was classically trained, did she ever perform?

LM: She didn't have a career, but she did do concerts. She had a very, very beautiful voice, and I loved the songs. I think the Ukrainian folk songs had a very strong influence on my musicality. I see, constantly, a Slavic/Ukrainian character in my creation of music. You can't take the Ukrainian out of Tchaikovsky, it's always going to be there. He was from Ukraine and it permeated his music. I believe that music is international and universal, but as a composer you can't escape being influenced by your heritage.

DC: What aesthetically or sonically is a Ukrainian imprint, what is it about your music channels that?

LM: There's a tendency to use a lot of minor chords, it's not so much that they're sad, for Ukrainians, in minor chords, there's something there that's quite glorious. They have perfection in them. They have the drama of life built into them. When I hear the minor chords I get a beauty that I don't get from the majors. I think people need to get away from the idea that minor chords are melancholy. They should look at them and see a universe and we should explore that universe.

DC: I know you left the Ukraine with your family when you were very young and I believe you moved to Canada?

LM: At first yes, but I've lived in Europe for 40 years now. I don't consider myself a North American, like many artists we kind of move around in the world and I feel quite international.

DC: You've mentioned the Ukrainian influences, but what influences from the west did you pick up after you'd left Ukraine?

LM: Well I was trained classically as a pianist, so classical music is my base. For me though it was the start of continuous music. That was people like Terry Riley, and particularly 'In C' a recording that came out in about 1968, this music opened a whole new universe, and of course I was a hippie at that time, so it had an even more powerful effect. If you listen to the rock music of the hippies there was this two or three year period where that whole space of psychedelic music and sort of drifting off into the ether was evident even in rock music, and that really touched me to. There were so many influences, it's like a 100 different things came together to make my music what it is. There's Jimi Hendrix, there's John Mclaughlin, there's Ravi Shankar, there's the Beatles there's Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. All of these people.

DC: So the art of the late sixties and early seventies, the loosely described post-modern era, influenced you as well?

LM: Everything, whatever was happening in music I would listen to and it was always exciting. I'm very glad people have not stopped coming to concerts because I think just relying on recordings is not enough, you've got to hear music really live. There was a thought, in the 70's, about 'Who needs concerts when we have such amazing recordings'. Glen Gould, particularly, was trying to push this idea. These artists, to be fair, had a point with what they were doing, it's not necessary to hear Glen Gould live, but it's also a bit fake to manipulate a recording. I think a musician has to be quite honest, if you make a mistake live then you make a mistake, it happens. Perfection isn't a good thing and the universe will not allow it. That's the actually perfect thing about the universe, that it will not allow perfection to exist.

DC: You've said already that you started composing your own pieces as soon as you were able to make a piano work as a child, but when did you start composing in the continuous music style?

LM: That started in about 1972/73. I was starving to death in Paris (laughs) and a very kind woman got me a job playing piano for Caroline Carlson's dance classes, they were in the attic of the Paris Opera, and it was an amazing thing for me to walk to the Paris opera because they didn't normally allow bums in. The classes were long and the dancers were expected to enter into another space. Caroline Carlson was a magnificent magician with her body and her mind, and her principle was that a dancer's mind has to defy the laws of the universe. That was an inspiration to me as I had to try and do music for that, and so this style started growing where I would have to continuously create a curtain of sound for these dancers to work to, and that was the start of that music and the technique. I also found that the sound of the piano was infinitely interesting, and I remember hearing different rows of sound in space, all coming out of the piano. It started doing funny things to my body, my tendons came alive. There was this beautiful energy coming from the instrument, I could feel my flesh becoming like the elements that I was channelling.

DC: How long after this breakthrough before you started to record?

LM: a long time. It took me a two year period of playing before I felt I was good enough to perform in public with continuous music, but nobody came. All the concerts I did in Paris there would be five people, maybe four. I think once there was only one person who came, you know it was dismal.

DC: Were you playing the Jazz clubs?

LM: No not specifically, I would be playing wherever I could. I did a concert at the American centre, I'm not American, but they'd have all sorts of artists play. I just kept trying and trying and it wasn't until the last year that this music has actually found an audience.

DC: That would be through your work with Erased Tapes, how did that come about?

LM: That was through Peter Broderick, who heard and met me at the Ambient Festival in Cologne two years ago. He responded very warmly to the music and called me up about possibly doing a recording with him. It was the start of a beautiful thing that I didn't even know existed; I didn't know that this younger generation was so heavily involved in music. You need to understand, from the very beginning I was convinced that the classical music world was going to respond with wonder and happiness to my music and to what I could do. I thought they would see this as a natural progression from Beethoven, that this was a new Chopin that had come to them(laughing) the messiah returned. They didn't want him (laughs again) I laugh now but that did hurt me so much and I was crying the blues over that for years and year until this generation opened there heart and soul to this music. I'm not interested in being adored at the Carnegie Hall with 1000 people applauding. What I'm interested in is what this generation is giving me. These young audiences aren't just sitting there listening and going 'oh this is really nice' 'oh he's really good on piano' blah blah blah. They enter into it, the music takes them into a whole new universe, and it's touched their souls. This music is meaningful to them, and I don't think if you bought classical music people into this hall they would hear it, their souls are closed, they don't hear Verdi, they don't hear Mozart, all they hear is pretty.

DC: it's almost like you're a man out of time. If you listen to the works of Nils (Frahm) and Ólafur (Arnalds) and perhaps even some of Peter's solo material it's like they are coming from a similar idea to yourself, and the audience just wants that now where as you were channelling this aesthetic out on your own for so long. Do you feel like a pioneer in that respect?

LM: yes, but I also think that it this generation that is right for the music. If Nils Frahm did exactly what he does now thirty years ago nobody would want to listen to it, it's horrible to think of that. When Beethoven arrived around 1790 to 1805, whatever he composed during that time, say we moved it back 1740... No way, no way he would been booed and beaten off the stage, they'd have hung him! Humanity needs to be ready to hear the art that the artists are giving them. It's because of this crowd that this music exists. That they're willing to hear it makes it possible.

DC: Do you find that this new audience has influenced your composition style? Has it given you fresh ideas?

LM: I think to some extent, I would say so. The audience does affect the music a little bit. Little bits creep in where I think 'this would be so nice for the people'. It's not that I'm trying to please people, but I want to give them something beautiful, it's like a chef wants to make something delicious, to make life beautiful for just that hour or two. That's all I've ever wanted.

Lubomyr Melnyk will playing shows around Europe in November and December of this year