Seeing Sounds: Gordon Monahan

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Gordon Monahan, Speaker Swinging

We’re not unfamiliar with the use of sound to shape or reshape a physical space. I mean, in a way isn’t that what Muzak was intended to do?  Infect psychological space, inner space, and have us respond by, say, spending more money in a carefully structured physical space set up to enable just that? And haven’t I read about the use of classical music piped into outdoor settings to drive off young people who might otherwise congregate there? Isn’t that physical space being aurally reshaped to make it less amenable to a select and specific few?

Those are, of course, really minor examples of much more extraordinary and insidious uses of sound to reshape space (like, of course, the military interest in the technique, most famously used, if I recall correctly, to drive former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from his chosen place of refuge after a US military invasion toppled him from power in the late 1980s – create an inhospitable, if not downright painful, acoustic environment).

But artists have long been at a forefront of aesthetic intentions that address (in a far more benign manner than that of military forces, though perhaps no less pointed) the sonic environment and how space can be (and is) aurally sculpted and re-sculpted anew. John Cage’s famous (or infamous) 4’ 33” is perhaps one of the best known examples of such work, bringing to individual consciousness the immediacy of the physical and sonic environments which constantly envelops us and to which we tend not to pay a lot of attention unless they annoy us. And Canadian composer R. Murray Schaffer has devoted much of his career to exploring and writing about what he terms the “soundscape,” and the damage that is done by aural pollution.

So it’s of course not surprise at all that visual artists have also long been interested in the shape of our acoustic environments. Amongst them would be Canadian artist Gordon Monahan (www.gordonmonahan.com).

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Gordon Monahan, Piano on Frozen Lake Nipissing

Monahan began his career as a musician and composer. I first encountered his work in the mid-1980s when he won the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s National Radio Competition for Young Composers and released an album of piano compositions, Piano Mechanics. John Cage thought very highly of his work, as do a lot of others (including, well, me). But Monahan wouldn’t be confined within music composition, and began creating works that physically and sculpturally interacted with their environments. As he put it in an interview, “making reference to space and architecture has become a major theme in my work,” and the consequence of this has been numerous exhibitions of his work around the world, and in 2011 a major retrospective entitled Seeing Sound organized by nine galleries in Canada and Europe.

Of course, much of Monahan’s body of work involves performance, as with perhaps his best know piece, Speaker Swinging, originally done back to 1982 and which involves performers (the number varies) swinging working audio speakers about them which are individually lit and trace out circular paths in the air, an aurally and visually compelling work absolutely response to specific physical and aural environments, a sculpture of geometry and paths and traceries.

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Gordon Monahan, Speaker Swinging

But what I think is the really interesting visual/aural work Monahan has created involve pianos and piano wires as primary visual elements. In an earlier blog, I wrote about Ice Follies, a site-specific exhibition held every two years out on the ice surface of Lake Nipissing, a large shallow lake in northern Ontario on the shores of which lies the city of North Bay. For the 2014 iteration of Ice Follies, Monahan installed Piano on Frozen Lake Nipissing, comprising an old upright piano, a rickety trailer installed some distance away on the snow and ice, and 200 foot-long piano wires connecting the two. In the trailer, recordings are transmitted along the wires courtesy small motors attached to each (piano works by Chopin and Henry Cowell that Monahan has “re-composed,” as he puts it), but the wires also respond to the immediate circumstances of their specific environment, acting as a kind of Aeolian harp, singing in the winds that scour the lake surface. Monahan reshapes this place, giving us to hear it anew, to see it as something other than background, as something other than Nature-as-wallpaper. He gives it another meaning, visually and aurally, displacing the status quo.

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Gordon Monahan, A Piano Listening to Itself – Chopin Chord

This general structure – piano and extended piano wires – comprises several other incarnations of this piece: in A Piano Listening to Itself – Brno Variation done in the Czech Republic in 2013; and originally in A Piano Listening to Itself – Chopin Chord, installed in the square of the Royal Castle in Warsaw in 2010, the wires connecting the piano in the square below to the top of the castle’s tower. In each instance, the wires responded to both pre-recorded music assembled by Monahan, as well as to the specifics of the physical environment in which they are located. The works are utterly responsive to site.

The point is that by sonically redefining a place, it can be re-seen, re-configured, transfigured, even. Its physicality is altered, seen as something other. Gordon Monahan is good at aesthetically displacing the status quo that accretes around a place by letting us see its sounds

Very good, in fact.

By Gil McElroy

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