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Interview with Gordon Monahan, Canadian Composer and Sound Artist

Music from nowhere

eContact! 21.2 — Dematerialization of the Sounding Object: Conceptual approaches to sound-based artistic practices (July 2023)

Gordon Monahan is a Canadian sound artist, composer and pianist. Born in Kingston (Ontario), he began performing in various rock bands in Ottawa in the late 1960s and early ’70s, eventually developing a career as a concert pianist. His experimental approach to the piano and interest in electronics transformed his practice toward sound art, and today he creates experimental performance works, multimedia installations, and avant-garde concert music. His work often engages with and reveals naturally occurring acoustic phenomena, interfaces with natural forces and the environment, as well as media technology and architecture. His work finds its home in an enormous variety of contexts, from galleries and concert halls around the world to underground venues and public spaces. He lived for most of the 1990s in Berlin, where from 1992–93 he was a DAAD Artist-in-residence, and lives today in Meaford (Ontario), where he also directs, in collaboration with Laura Kikauka, the Electric Eclectics festival of experimental music and sound art.

[James O’Callaghan] So I thought I would open by addressing the theme of this issue, which is “Conceptual Approaches to Sound-Based Artistic Practices.” I was curious how you identify with — or don’t — the idea of conceptual art or conceptual approaches in your own practice?

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Video 1 (0:32). Excerpt of a performance of Gordon Monahan’s Speaker Swinging (1982) by Daniel Áñez, James O’Callaghan (pictured) and Félix-Antoine Coutu (loudspeakers), and Gordon Monahan (composition and live electronics) at Silent Green in Berlin (Germany) on 5 June 2022. Video © Luke Nickel.

[Gordon Monahan] Yeah, sure, it’s very important to me, actually. Sometimes it can be more important than the actual resulting sounds, or traditional musical or sound results. Oftentimes, if something is based more on concept, it might imply the deconstruction of how one might view sounds in particular different contexts. It may incorporate the idea of process so that processing a situation and then accepting whatever result comes out of that is the important part. So, in that way, sometimes it can be that the quality or the resulting sound is somewhat secondary; it’s the process of getting somewhere and producing results that’s important.

Though maybe we could make a distinction between the experience of the sound itself, or listening to the sound itself, versus what it makes you think of, or how it makes you think, from a listener’s perspective.

Or what it represents. I guess I could give you an example.

Music from Nowhere

I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the documentation of an ongoing piece I’ve been doing for many years, called Music from Nowhere. I take loudspeaker cabinets and remove the speakers, and then put sound-making devices inside the cabinet. So that one looks at the speaker cabinet and assumes there’s audio. If you remove the speaker, of course, you’re removing the audio, but I’m replacing it with a sound (that is produced through mechanical means). It wasn’t so important, necessarily, what that sound was; it was important that there was a sound coming out of the speaker.

It’s also like the frame of the speaker sort of tells you how to read and what to expect the thing to do.


And you’re playing with those expectations to say, “Okay, you’re listening for this as a sound production device,” and it is, but somehow you’re playing with that mystery — the black box, or the sort of Mechanical Turk thing — behind the speakers.

Exactly, it’s kind of a one-liner, kind of a joke in a way, obviously there’s a silly, humorous aspect to it. But then there is this more serious question: “Is a loudspeaker audio just because you’re looking at a speaker box, or a speaker cabinet?” And I’m just using that assumption to fool people into thinking they’re listening to audio when they’re actually not. And then there’s this whole idea of the fakeness of audio itself, because audio is, obviously, the electronic representation of a sound that may have been recorded in another space at another time; you’re listening to the playback of the sound (which is inherently a representation of the original sound).

And I suppose a lot of your works really try to shed a light on the more invisible or mysterious aspects of sound production that reinforce the detachment with the physicality and the engagement, and the idea of how the sound is being produced itself. Normally, when we listen to something on the loudspeaker, we’re not thinking too much about the fact that it’s a loudspeaker and how the sound is being made. We’re listening to the thing, again, the sound itself, right? Or the experience of listening to it.

Yeah, and it comes out of this idea of using the speaker as an instrument. As you say, we usually ignore loudspeakers. You don’t look at a loudspeaker the same way we watch a television or look at a photograph or video, even though it’s reproducing the same as those other mediums reproduce. It’s twisting that process around, or it’s reversing the perspective, let’s say, toward paying attention to those things. And then once you pay attention to it, it takes you to some other places that you wouldn’t get to necessarily. Well, you could, in other ways…

Concept and Embodiment

One of the ways that I parse out the idea of conceptual art, or conceptual sound art, is in a distinction between something that engages with intellectual activity (as in thinking about concepts) versus a more embodied approach. But I think that to call your work purely “conceptual” sort of discredits that very embodied experience. And you have this piece, Sound of Mind and Body 11. This 2020 collaboration between Bill Coleman and Gordon Monahan uses brainwave sensing technology to produce sound, music and movement. that really looks into exactly that sort of Cartesian dualism — where these things are supposed to be separate. Certainly embodiment is a big part of your works. We met in 2022 when I stepped in at the last minute to help perform your work Speaker Swinging, and I have to say, as a performer, that was an incredibly embodied experience (Video 1, Video 2). And I’m sure for the listeners as well there is this huge sense of embodiment. So I was wondering if you could speak to that?

Video 2. Documentation from 1987 of a performance of Gordon Monahan’s Speaker Swinging (1982) by Oliver Kellhammer, James Kidnie, Gordon Monahan and Gordon W. YouTube video “Gordon Monahan — Speaker Swinging” (4:37) posted by “Gordon Monahan” on 7 March 2008.

Like you say, that’s more addressing the “tactileness” of sound and music. And then, of course, there are many layers to the Speaker Swinging piece. It’s very physical for the performer, almost on par with an athletic challenge, and then there’s the physicality of the sound in the space. Ultimately, the thing that is most compelling about the piece is the way that the movement creates the sound in the architectural space. That moves to a different level of physicality of sound than what you would normally notice or pay attention to in another piece using more conventional methods. That’s all tied into this physical challenge that the performers are dealing with. So it’s a very tactile experience, even though there is this conceptual level to it. But you did mention there are certain pieces I do that are based on more conceptual ideas, and others that are less. I just try to take as much of a variety of approaches as I can.

Brainwaves as Control Data

The piece I do with Bill Coleman, the brainwave performance Sound of Mind and Body, is totally a physical thing, even though it’s using something that we generally think of as being invisible, the brainwave activity. And also, the fact that we’re doing that piece, we’re stepping into this very important field of mid-20th century experimental music, starting with Alvin Lucier’s famous piece Music for Solo Performer in 1965. 22. A key experimental work that sonifies the performer’s brain waves to cause percussion instruments to sound. And then David Rosenboom and Richard Teitelbaum and a number of other composers and artists have used brainwaves. So, when you start playing around with brainwaves, you have to deal with that baggage, the weight of importance of those groundbreaking pieces — and then, of course, being compared to that. I was very reluctant to actually start working with brainwaves in the beginning, but then once we started working with it, it was very interesting to see that you could do things with it that perhaps others had not been doing. There’s certainly a lot of people working in that field now; I’m not familiar with even a fraction of what people are actually doing out there.

What I thought was quite interesting and unique about that piece, talking about this kind of mind-body split was that the brainwaves are controlling an aspect of the sound production. But, for instance, in the section where Coleman is tap dancing, he’s not really activating too much of that. And when you have this concentration on the more physical performance, there is this sort of shift that happens. And I thought it was really interesting in the work that that occurs, period.

Yeah, for sure. We’re dealing with it in a non-meditative way. Well, there are meditative parts in the piece, as you saw in that video. In particular, there’s one very meditative section where he’s concentrating and then controlling stage lights as well as the sound output. But then he starts moving around (Video 3). You can still control alpha waves, even though you’re moving and you have your eyes open, which is contradictory to the standard understanding from the neurological sciences, as far as I know. They say once you open your eyes you stop producing intense alpha waves. We found that even while moving with the eyes open he can actually still control his alpha. Well, he can move and then he can close his eyes and produce a burst of alpha. And then in between, you’re still getting all this ongoing flow of data.

I mean, there’s so much noise as well.

Yeah, a lot of times, it doesn’t matter. It depends on how the programme is designed, right? It’s all done in Max/MSP obviously. And so, regardless of whether you’re getting intense alpha, or random alpha, you’re still getting a stream of data that you can assign to various functions. So that’s kind of the way that we deal with that part of the performance.

Video 3. Documentation of a performance of Bill Coleman and Gordon Monahan’s Sound of Mind and Body (2020) during Mois Multi at Recto-Verso in Quebec City (Canada) in February 2020. Vimeo video “Sound of Mind and Body” (4:04) posted by “Gordon Monahan” on 24 February 2020.

There’s the control part and then there’s the out-of-control part. When it’s the out-of-control part, I’m using the programme to determine specific things. So we have two ways to control things: we have the way for the performer to control it by controlling his alpha intensity, as well as the way for the programme to control it by making choices about what to do with the data stream. And there are different ways to manage that. We’ve just been working (the last few weeks) on developing a more sophisticated approach to the piano control by brainwaves (until now we’ve generated quasi-random sequences of notes within chosen pitch and dynamic ranges). What we’ve been doing more recently is playing back MIDI files — pre-recorded MIDI music, I’ve got some Chopin, Beethoven — but then we’re manipulating them so that they are recognizable and then unrecognizable, depending on how they’re being processed. One way that we’re doing it is, once he gets over a certain threshold of alpha by controlling it, he starts triggering a timer that cycles around a certain amount of impulses that are counted as long as he maintains alpha control beyond that threshold. And he’s in that threshold and he can drift in and out. So it’s the accumulative count that then loops around and pushes either “play” or “pause” on the MIDI file, and that will hold notes and keep them going just to sustain and then come back and play and then change tempo and do random transposition and harmonization. It’s just a stream of data and as long as you construct a logical way to process that, you can then do all of this manipulation to arrive at something that is quasi-controlled and quasi-not controlled.

And so in that work — because there is again this sort of black box idea: how does it get there? — is there a certain didactic quality, where you want to show how the brain controls the piano? Or do you want to decouple these things a little bit, playing somewhere in the space between?

It would be interesting to show as obviously as possible how it’s being controlled, but that’s very difficult to convey. The audience is watching it and going, “I don’t believe this,” or “I do,” or “I’m assuming what they’re saying is what we’re looking at, or listening to.” There is this whole part to it, which is just unconvincing to the general public, who might be thinking: “Yeah, right, how do I know that they’re actually controlling this the way they say they are?” It would require us to just stop and do a half-hour introduction before we begin, showing: “You can see now the waveform is going like that. And then you can see that’s resulting in this action being manifested in the sound or the lights (or whatever).” You can demonstrate it to be correct. But we haven’t really tried to do that, and I’m not sure if I would want to — you’d have to do this whole demo session, before you even begin, which kind of takes away from the performative aspect of the piece.

That’s a challenge. But it would be interesting to find a way to make it more demonstrative and therefore more convincing, if only for the purposes of, on the one hand, proving that this is what we’re doing, but on the other hand, also demonstrating for those interested in how it is working. We haven’t done that many performances of the piece yet, but when we do, we often have a little workshop the next day or something, and there we can actually demonstrate to a smaller group of interested people how it actually worked. So that solves that issue, I suppose.

The Physicality of Sound

And I suppose that’s an aspect of a number of your other works like Resonance Reappearing, where the point is to make physical or unveil the process behind some physical phenomenon that we don’t see and that we experience more sensorially. And so to have this whole system of mechanisms that simulate or recreate through other media, or more literally, the process of how sound travels through space.


There’s that aspect of the work, where you’re putting the magnifying lens, if you like, on a real-world phenomenon and steering the attention in a semi-didactic way toward understanding something or learning something through the work. But at the same time, you create this kind of immersive environment. So again, you have this idea of immersion and — talking about physicality again — there’s this tension between the way that this work and others steer your attention toward an intellectual exercise, but the actual experience of the thing in space is something that can be more felt.

Yeah, and as well, it’s a demonstration of the physicality of sound, and it’s a way to process sound into a physical dimension that is not normally done.

Back to the loudspeaker idea, we’re processing digitized analogue sounds into loudspeakers that are vibrating and physically moving, but we don’t usually acknowledge that. In this case, I found a way to amplify the audio into motors. The way that’s done technically is that the motors are in groups of three, and the combined impedance is approximately eight ohms. So it then becomes a matching impedance to what a loudspeaker would be. That’s technically how it works. But then suspending them on these long, amplified strings causes them to bounce around and move around, and the sound becomes processed through that as well (Video 4). It’s a physical sound-processing system that is also producing this somewhat chaotic movement as the sound processes into it, and then that becomes this immersive sound sculpture environment. It’s like finding a way to multi-layer the experience into this physical reality.

Video 4. Documentation of Gordon Monahan’s Resonance Reappearing (2018), exhibited in the Isabel Bader Centre for Performing Arts in Kingston (Canada) 2018. Vimeo video “Resonance Reappearing” (1:42) posted by “Gordon Monahan” on 9 February 2019.

If I could just go on to one other idea, it’s that it’s an electronic piece. So all of those recordings that I used were done on an analogue synthesizer (a Buchla 200). We’re listening to pre-recorded playback, combinations of synthesized sounds, which is dealing with that whole problem in electronic music that has been around since its beginning. In the old days, you used to just watch a tape recorder in a dark room; now you watch laptops, or people playing laptops. So, as you know, from your own projects dealing with electronic music, there’s this problem with the lack of a performance aspect; an ongoing problem that can, at the same time, produce the challenge to find another way to manifest the sound. The way Resonance Reappearing is dealing with that is one way of trying to solve that problem, which is to position the electronic sounds in another physical dimension that then becomes integral to the experience of listening to the piece. So I guess conceptualizing electronic music, which is sort of the theme that we’re talking about, is dealing with not so much a concept but a problem: the (ongoing) highly reduced performative aspects of electronic music itself.

“Reduced” is an interesting word, because, of course, if we’re talking about early electronic music and acousmatic music, and listening to music from loudspeakers in the dark, “reduced listening” was Shaeffer’s term for exactly what happens when you take away your attention from the thing that’s producing the sound or the performative aspect. And so just like with alpha waves turning on when you close your eyes, something that’s always attracted me to that medium was how much the imagination turns on and kind of fills in the gaps or makes its own personal relationship between how you’re listening and what you hear when you can’t see how the sound is being made. But I think there is really interesting tension in your works where, for instance, in Resonance Reappearing, you have this exposé of how the sound has been made, but it’s a very environmental thing. And so the listener invests their own time and decides individually how they navigate through the space (as it’s an installation), how they build their own relationship with those sounds. There’s this kind of tension between what Marshall McLuhan would call a “hot” and a “cool” medium, where you have something that really asserts itself and gives you huge sensory information, that sort of tells you how to engage with it. But at the same time, you have this freedom to be playful with it…


The Piano… In Its Many Forms

And I mean, talking about the conspicuousness of the object and how much it asserts itself, maybe this is a good segue to talk about the piano. Like the loudspeaker, something that maybe historically has this pretense toward invisibility, the piano is supposed to be able to reproduce any sound you can imagine. And again, with that word “reduction”, we have the example of the “piano reduction” that suggests you can somehow capture the whole orchestra on just the piano, in the same way that a loudspeaker can play any sound. Yet, it is an object that has its own identity, history and associations. So I’m interested in how you relate to that with the piano in particular, as you yourself are a pianist and also have a performance practice. This object shows up again and again in your works. And so always, it seems to me that the piano — or “this piano thing”, as you call it in one of your works 33. Listen to Gordon Monahan — This Piano Thing (1989) for solo, amplified and prepared piano in four movements. — asserts itself, and is never something invisible. But we really want to get into how much history there is there.

Well, it’s also the physicality of the instrument, right? Returning to that whole idea again of the physicality of sound, and then the deconstruction of the medium — in this case, the medium being the instrument itself, the piano. And then, in the same way of approaching a loudspeaker and deconstructing that, and then manipulating how we view that particular device or medium. I was trained as a pianist and played different styles, from classical conservatory to pop and rock. But it wasn’t until I gained enough maturity [laughs] in my young adulthood to realize it’s not about how well you play the instrument, it’s how you approach the use of the instrument or the manipulation of the instrument that can change your perspective on what that instrument can do, and what it means. As a musician, you get trained to try to play well. And it’s all about playing your instrument as good as or better than someone else does — this is the competitive aspect of traditional music. A lot of people understand early on that music is the experience, the interaction between the social purposing of music and its function in society and culture. But traditionally, in the training of learning to be a musician, a lot of emphasis is put on perfecting your technique.

As a tool for reproduction, almost.

Yeah, exactly, you have to turn yourself into a reproducing tool, becoming one with your instrument, to achieve this. And some people are amazingly good at that, and impressively so. I’m not putting that down at all, it serves its purpose. But it can also overwhelm, and the whole process of that, which takes many, many years in someone’s life — we’re not talking about a short period of time — it’s like your entire career of being an instrumentalist is based on this idea of achieving perfection, and higher technique and learning and getting better and improving. And then you are completely disregarding such questions as: What about the instrument? What does it mean? What can it do?

Extended Techniques and Electronics; An Instrument That Plays Itself

So anyway, I had this revelation when I was younger. It wasn’t on my own, I got that revelation by seeing other people perform, and I guess it came out of being exposed to what is termed “extended technique”. So that’s a fairly typical approach that came about in the avant-garde music of the mid- to late 20th century, this idea of extended technique, finding ways to play your instrument to produce unusual sounds that could then be applied in compositions or performances. When you get exposed to that, you just think, “Oh, I didn’t know that the instrument could sound like that. Okay, I’m going to try to learn some of that.” Or maybe you get a piece you have to play from the repertoire that requires you to learn certain extended techniques. So on face value, it’s like a legitimate way of, again, learning more about how to play your instrument better, in this competitive sense.

But then, after dealing with this for a few years, I suddenly had this revelation: “Well, wait a minute, the instrument could become the performance.” And I could then become a facilitator for the instrument to perform, looking at the piano as a machine to generate tone and resonance, in a similar way to the way a synthesizer works. A synthesizer is just a mundane, inert device sitting on a table, and you plug it in, and you learn to manipulate it for it to create sounds that you are then interfacing with some level of control. If you apply that idea to the piano, then you’re throwing away all of that other stuff. You still need technique, of course. So, the technique I learned to play the piano I was still using, but I was completely reconceptualizing the instrument, what the purpose of the instrument should be. Whereas prior to that, it was: I have to try to play this instrument as well as I can. And that becomes: I have to find ways to get this instrument to play itself.

Super interesting. So, more or less, this is the path that you charted from pianist to sound artist, going from one pole to the other of your practice?

Yeah, it was very much at the same time. In fact, those two early pieces I did — Piano Mechanics and Speaker Swinging, that have become these important pieces in my work — were both started at exactly the same time and within the same year, 1981–82 (but they took several years to complete). I was reconceptualizing both the electronic sound and the non-electronic instrument of the piano, but dealing with them in very similar ways, conceptually. So, when I say, “get the piano to play itself,” an example would be just to play the same note over and over again. The most obvious way of doing it is in the low register: choose a note — in Piano Mechanics it’s the lowest E on the piano — and hold the pedal down. And you can create these waves of resonance in the instrument, producing harmonics — it changes with every piano you do it on, as well. But it’s setting up these wave resonances in the long strings of the piano that kind of undulate and take over. And then that creates this resulting sound process, which then you have to sculpt compositionally: to get louder, add more clusters, take them away, have the waves come and go in this way.

And a lot of the way that I conceptually arrived at those simple ideas was realizing that while other pianists, who were really virtuosic in their playing, played many, many, many notes all the time, what if I only played one note? Right? What I have to do is make a radical departure from what other people are doing. So just play the one note. Of course, that had been done with minimalism, in the ’60s, but it was taking the idea of minimalism a step further away from what you could call “pattern minimalism”, which is typical of Philip Glass and Steve Reich and so on, to an Alvin Lucier kind of minimalism.

Pretty big distinction, I would say!

Right, exactly. But both are minimalism. In fact, when one says “minimalism” you pretty much always think of pattern minimalism, but there are obviously at least two kinds.

And the second kind, I think, shares more with what we think of as minimalism in visual art, the Donald Judd kind of thing, where you’re really drawing attention to the object. And I think something that’s interesting when you’re talking about the piano playing itself is that the object and its identity — its agency, if you like, if we’re getting into a more ontological kind of thinking — reinforces itself and speaks for itself. It was interesting for me to hear that you kind of came toward this through thinking about extended techniques, because I have a similar reaction to extended techniques that sort of reinforces the instrument and reminds you of its physicality, rather than what it’s designed to do, which is to transport you away into some other imaginary realm.

Chopin… Cowell… Lachenmann… Aeolian Pianos…

But you have Helmut Lachenmann, who is really known for championing the idea of the extended technique. I was always really struck that in the instructions for his solo cello piece, Pression, he says that the piece has to be memorized, or at least the score has to be positioned in such a way that it doesn’t obscure the instrument. On the reverse of this idea of acousmatic music, music concrète, where you don’t see the object — Lachenmann calls his work “musique concrète instrumentale” — you have this music that is all about the object and says, “Well look at this cello and think about how it’s a cello,” right? I mean, it makes sense to me that you’re talking about Chopin and Beethoven and all these works that you use as materials in your pieces, because they are so evocative of the instrument. And you know, in Chopin you have that reference of the piano as an instrument that can play a lot of notes, right? But the other source material that you have, for example, in Frozen Piano on Lake Nipissing, is Henry Cowell, a very early example of the piano’s extended techniques. I wonder if you can speak more about that in terms of the materials that you engage with and how they connect to this object and its history and its self-reinforcement through those things?

Well, there’s a reason for those choices. It’s based on an earlier work, Long Aeolian Piano, that used a piano as an aeolian resonating amplifier for long piano wires. I was working on that and thinking of ways to deal with the problem of when the aeolian effect doesn’t work — when the wind is not blowing in the right direction… which happens a lot! So that’s how I started using motors as audio transmitters. Because I realized I could activate motors to transmit audio signals: if I attached those to the long piano wires, I could transmit audio into the wires. And then when the wind isn’t blowing, there can still be some sound happening, to make the piece a 24-hour experience.

That was the reason I started to transmit audio into the piano wires. And then once you attach the motors to the wires, what are you going to transmit into it? And it just so happened, right at that time, that I was contacted by the Warsaw Autumn festival, in Poland. This was in 2010, which was the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth (Chopin was Polish). They asked me to do an installation piece using Chopin’s piano music. So, I proposed this whole piece with the long strings and the motors. That’s the reason I started using Chopin’s piano music: out of a request from the festival curator.

And did you have a personal relationship or feeling about Chopin, as a trained pianist yourself, as I’m sure a lot of pianists do?

Yeah, that I couldn’t play them very well. [Both laugh]

But for a lot of people, I think it’s the music that exemplifies this idea of virtuosity and being a perfect “reproducer” of the music.

Absolutely, yeah. I suppose that’s a side reference, which is true, but I wasn’t necessarily paying attention to that. And I don’t just play the Chopin pieces, I use MIDI files. There are MIDI files readily available for free on the Internet of pretty much all the classical repertoire, so I downloaded all of these MIDI files of the complete Chopin piano music. I reedited that in Digital Performer, a MIDI editing software, and then deconstructed all of these pieces to then create new “decompositions” of these Chopin pieces that were stylistically similar in that they used many notes, but they weren’t recognizable specifically as Chopin pieces anymore. Most often, I would begin by playing all the MIDI versions of the Chopin pieces in reverse, so you maintain the tonality of the composition, but you don’t recognize it anymore as Chopin. And then starting to remove parts, you know, so then I might only use the right hand, and then I’ll change the tempo and double it, or have it transposed and do various edited manipulations to arrive at a new version. The results are based on Chopin’s work, but they become new pieces in a way.

And then you have this extra layer of interaction with the aeolian aspect, where it’s further transformed by its environment.

Yeah, yeah. And then, of course, you are using the piano as a sculpture, so the piano still becomes the resonating, amplifying body for all of the sound and whatnot. So that was in 2010, and then in 2013, a curator in Brno (Czech Republic), Jozef Czeres, contacted me asking me if I would do a version in Brno. And would I please use Henry Cowell and Czech composer Janáček (because Janáček had lived in Brno, a city in central-eastern Czech Republic)? There’s this villa there, the Villa Tugendhat, which is a Mies van der Rohe-designed, privately owned villa that was then donated by the original owners to the city (Fig. 1). It’s a city cultural venue and park in central Brno. I had one piano playing Janáček-derived compositions, also produced using the same method I was describing for how I processed the Chopin pieces, and several Henry Cowell compositions playing on a separate piano — there were two pianos in this park. So, that was how I came about playing Henry Cowell. The interesting thing is that you can’t find Henry Cowell MIDI files on the Internet!

I guess not, right?! [Laughs]

You know they’re really, really hard to play. I played them on my home piano, an electric MIDI piano. But I played one hand at a time.

Right, right, and then multi-track.

Figure 1. Gordon Monahan — A Piano Listening to Itself: Brno Variation (2013). Presented during the Exposition of New Music at the Villa Tugendhat in Brno (Czech Republic) in June – August 2013. Image © Gordon Monahan. Click image to enlarge

I didn’t actually have to learn how to play them with both hands together. That’s the really complicated part, you have all these crazy time signature changes, constantly. Everything’s really fast and it’s all super virtuosic. I was able to play them at a slow tempo and then you just speed it up and get them all lined up. So, this time signature of, you know, 7/5 or something, you could line it all up in MIDI editing and then reproduce the whole performance on a software piano. It sounded pretty convincing. So that was how I made those Henry Cowell MIDI files.

That’s interesting to me, that the more traditional music is mechanized and played through MIDI, but then the more experimental music, somehow you have to go back to the physical action of making the sound on a piano in order to get it to where you need it to go.

Yeah, and when you think about the functionality of classical repertoire MIDI files, it is to play the music that would appeal to the greatest amount of people — classical piano repertoire — and play it at home on your MIDI Disklavier piano or on your digital piano, or whatever it is. But it occurs to me that there are not enough people out there wanting to do that with Henry Cowell’s pieces.

Not yet anyway.

Not yet, but pretty soon. Maybe I should post these on one of these MIDI websites…

Yeah, yeah, it would be a great service to the community!

Yeah, yeah. Right, maybe. I didn’t think about that, I should do that…

… and a Frozen Piano on Lake Nipissing

So what was the next step that then brought you to take a piano out into a frozen lake, and then combine all of these approaches together?

That came about through another presenter Dermot Wilson asking me to do it. It isn’t always like this, but a lot of times it’s people contacting me and asking “Would you do this?” In North Bay, there had been a biennial festival called the Ice Follies, with a bunch of art installations and performances taking place on the frozen lake in February on Lake Nipissing — North Bay is right on the lake, and obviously, it’s super frozen in the middle of winter. So they just asked me, “Would I do this?” And I said, “Sure.” We did it, and it ended up being a very dramatic location (Fig. 2, Video 5).

Figure 2. Close-up of Gordon Monahan’s Frozen Piano on Lake Nipissing (2014). Presented as part of Ice Follies (February – March 2014) in North Bay, Ontario (Canada). Image © Gordon Monahan. Click image to enlarge

Absolutely! Well, it’s so poetic, the concept of the work. A freezing piano really puts into relief this idea of history and preservation. I mean, we can almost think of mammoths preserved in ice, or mummies or whatever that are fossilized in this way. And so, to me it even further puts into relief this idea of the piano as something that carries with it all this history and has this weight to it.

Yeah, there’s also this element of getting the opportunity to do this in a very dramatic location. You don’t necessarily think of the location without the piano — it’s just a frozen lake, it doesn’t seem dramatic. But once you put a piano out there, it becomes dramatic. And so it’s all built into the location; I didn’t really have to do anything. There is a piano there with the long wires, it’s very minimal. I’ve done it in different locations, but this particular location was one of the most dramatic, just by its very nature. And so it’s also about being open to this idea of allowing nature and the environment to take over, when it has that kind of power available, which is not always the case.

Which is already a part of the work with the aeolian aspect, but then it just becomes so much more dramatic, as you say.

Video 5. Documentation of Gordon Monahan’s installation work Frozen Piano on Lake Nipissing (2014). YouTube video “Frozen Piano on Lake Nipissing” (5:42) posted by “Gordon Monahan” on 14 January 2016.

Yeah, and then the other part of it is that it’s not an urban location, it’s out in the middle of the lake. Well, it’s not very far from the city, but it’s far enough away: it’s only 200 metres away, but it’s really out there.

Yeah, you wouldn’t pass by it on your way to the bakery, or whatever.

And it’s only accessible at that time in the winter as well, unless you’re in a boat in another part of the season. But it’s not the same…

Yeah, so there is something so poetic about that tension between the piano as this kind of reproduction or recording device that is supposed to be about history and posterity, and yet it’s confronted with this very ephemeral situation, which ultimately is “music”, however much we try to reduce it and say that it’s eternal or something.

Yeah. And then, the upright piano used to serve a much greater function in our society, 100 years ago, than it does now.

As a Symbol of What the Piano Once Was (Memory Cycle)

In the early days of the 20th century, before recording technology became abundant, it was the piano that every lower- to middle-class to upper-class house had, and people learned to play it so that you could have music at home. So, it functioned in a much more predominant way 100 years ago than it does now. The piano symbolizes that, as well.

And that’s the subject of your work Memory Cycle, right?

Right. Yeah, sort of using that idea.

In that case, the work was a commission from the Guelph Civic Museum. And they had all these old Victorian pianos, and then you played back these recordings through them, and it really kind of, again, reified that historical function of the instrument.

Yeah, and it was happening in the City of Guelph. Guelph was an important piano manufacturing centre in Canada back in the day. The Bell Piano Factory was huge in the city, so a lot of Canadian pianos, if they’re not Heintzman instruments or Gerhard Heintzman instruments 44. Company formed by the nephew of the original Theodore Heintzman. they are Bell. Because they manufactured good-quality pianos and they made a lot of them. Anyway, so the piano was a big part of the history of Guelph — I didn’t know that before I did this project — and the pianos that I used were made in Guelph, locally; three of the four instruments were small Victorian square pianos (Fig. 3). In fact, these were melodeons. 55. Instruments that visually resemble square pianos from that era. I was familiar with the square piano, pretty much a museum sort of thing. But that predates the upright; it’s like a bridge between the harpsichord, clavichord and the piano. So as far as I know, the upright kind of came into dominance in the 1870s.

And I remember they had a bunch of different models, like the giraffe piano, which had the chamber going up… all these different solutions for trying to fit the piano in different kinds of smaller spaces.

Exactly. So if you go to these music instrument museums — there is an excellent one in Berlin, by the way, beside the Philharmonie, amazing music instrument museum, it’s worth checking out — you’ll see all of these. In any case, they just had these sitting around in their archive. I happened to be doing another piece at that museum in Guelph with a different project, which I was only participating in. And when I was there, I needed something from their storage space. So one of the curators at the museum took me up there to find something. We walked in and I said, “Oh, look at all these square pianos, wow! Hey, I should do a piece for you!” The curator, Dawn Owen, responded: “Okay!” That was how that came about, by chance, happening upon these square pianos. But I knew what these square pianos were, because I had seen others before, and I had played one.

Figure 3. View of Gordon Monahan’s installation Memory Cycle: Re-Sonified Artifacts (2021), exhibited in the Guelph Civic Museum (Canada) in 2021. Image © Gordon Monahan. Click image to enlarge

I composed these piano pieces that were diffused on four channels to four separate pianos, with reproducing tactile transducers concealed in each piano. It was very convincing to hear these pieces being played; it would have been hard to tell that they weren’t actually being played by the piano themselves — it was that effectively reproduced. And then interestingly, since I rendered it into four channels, the composition moved around you in the space. But then I wanted to take this to a slightly other level, because it’s very much based on David Tudor’s Rainforest, which perhaps you’re familiar with…

Yeah, also with transducers on instruments.

Exactly, reproducing sounds into objects, what could be termed “resonification.” You have sonification, which is the rendering of the sound of an object or a process, but when you transmit sound into an object, that’s kind of a reversal of sonification, there is resonification or you’re resonifying the object. That was pretty much pioneered by David Tudor with his Rainforest project, and I didn’t want to just do that. So I was in touch with some of the people involved in Composers Inside Electronics, the group that was originally founded by David Tudor, primarily working with the younger generation of composers in the 1970s. And one of the major projects they did, among others, was Rainforest, or the Rainforest series. In any case, I don’t know if you know Canadian composer Matt Rogalsky, he’s involved in that. I contacted Matt with a question I had: I wondered if Tudor had processed sounds through objects and then relooped them back and then reamplified them into other objects? So, using some physical elements in the space as processing devices, to then render additional resonances through those bodies and integrating the results into the piano music that would then be retransmitted over to the piano. I found out that they had played around with that idea, but they hadn’t actually done much with it. It was useful for me to contact some of the composers in the group doing Rainforest then and now 66. Matt Rogalsky, John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein, among others., to find out if I could make something that would be distinctively different. I didn’t want to copy, you want to avoid copying what other people are doing.

Video 6. Documentation of Gordon Monahan’s installation Memory Cycle: Re-Sonified Artifacts (2021), exhibited at the Guelph Civic Museum in 2021. YouTube video “Memory Cycle: Re-Sonified Artifacts” (2:21) posted by “Gordon Monahan” on 5 October 2021.

So that was something that I was able to develop, which then led me to this other conceptual part of understanding how to approach the piece: to imagine sounds that may have happened a hundred and fifty years ago in a house in Guelph (or in the Victorian era wherever) in the music parlour, where the pianos were and where people gathered and made music. And the idea of resonance transmitting into physical objects in spaces — which is happening all the time, you just are not usually focused on that phenomenon. But, as you know, when sound is projected into a space, it’s projected into all the objects in the space now at the same time, it’s just not necessarily a rendering that we focus on. But in using some of the furniture objects in the space, particularly metallic objects — there’s a crib, there’s a box-spring mattress, there are a couple of pieces of farm equipment, pieces of fencing — of course they resonate. Using one set of transducers to transmit audio into those furniture pieces, and contact pickups to pick that up, and then cycling it back in and mixing it with the original piano sound, and then having it come out of the piano was a way to allude to this idea of the transmission of resonance in the objects within the space (Video 6). So it’s one way to both technically achieve something like that but also to allude to this idea of how sound behaves in space and how it would have behaved in the 1860s, when these pianos were made and used — way prior to electricity and electronics and audio recording — or using modern electronic means to allude to this idea that perhaps this was something that happened back in the day.

We have these feelings with historical objects and perhaps one of the reasons why we give them so much attention in museums is that they do carry with them these memories of the time that they were a part of, and this kind of presentation puts into relief the idea that they physically resonated with other sounds that were also happening in that space, at that time. There’s this kind of real poetic activation — almost like the ghosts are coming back through the object, or those memories are somehow still contained in the object and they can resonate again, and we can have access to them. So, I find that quite beautiful.

Yeah. Yeah.

As you’re saying, there is kind of a dysfunction of the piano in that way. And in these music parlours, I suppose the reason that the piano’s status died out is because now we have loudspeakers. And so it makes perfect sense to me that, if I’m not wrong, these are the two objects or instruments par excellence in your work: you work with a piano and you work with a loudspeaker. And they seem to have so much similarity in the way that they have existed, in art and in life, that they have this capacity or affordance given to them to somehow capture everything of the aural experience. And yet they are ultimately so much defined by themselves and their own limitations.

Well, you know, a lot of artists tend to work with similar things over and over again, to just find new ways of implementing ideas. You learn techniques as you move on, and you keep reapplying those techniques… that’s one way of approaching it. But a lot of people only use loudspeakers, all the time. Whoever’s doing electronic music, every piece they do uses a loudspeaker. It’s just not always a focus of attention, let’s say. I guess in my case, I try to actually put the attention toward the speaker… sometimes. Touching on that actually, there’s this tension between the loudspeaker which produces the electronic sound and the acoustic instrument that may produce sounds that sound electronic. That was also one of the original ideas behind Piano Mechanics, or rather it was something that came about, and I realized, “Oh, this is what’s happening!” This is what I was talking about, trying to apply extended technique to the piano, but reducing it to playing the one note instead of many notes, and then allowing the instrument to play itself. Oftentimes, I would have people come up to me after a performance and say, “What kind of electronic processes are you doing?” And I would say, “I’m not doing any, there are no electronics in this piece.” And then I realized, “Oh, I’m making something sound electronic that doesn’t use electronics.” Nowadays, I amplify the pieces with a different result. But it began with this idea of imitating electronics.

So it’s interesting that you can come around to the same effect or the same change of relationship with the object through opposite means.

Exactly, but that is typical of many so-called “extended techniques” with other instruments, or any instrument. Because it’s an extended technique, it does sound different from the way the instrument was designed to sound. And one could suggest, “Well, there’s a way to do this with electronic synthesis as well, but you’re choosing to do it with an acoustic instrument instead, for the purposes of manipulating our perceptual interpretations of the original instrument.” There’s this perceptual tension between the acoustic versus the electronic, in terms of these kinds of renderings, where one can sound similar to the other.

Which I suppose is a through line in your work, whether it is purely acoustic or purely — what does it even mean to be “purely electronic”? But it seems to me that that engagement between acoustic phenomena and electronic or electromechanical sources or means is something that’s always kind of a tension in your works in an interesting way.

Upcoming Projects

I’m wondering if you would like to take this opportunity to tell us about what you’re working on next, or if you have any plugs for projects coming up?

Well, as I mentioned, Bill Coleman and I are still working with our brainwave project, that’s kind of an ongoing thing, it can just go on forever — there are so many things you can do with it. So, when we have the time, we’re working on that project. And I’m going to do another version of the Memory Cycle piece with the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound Ontario. We just started to develop that; that will happen in 2024, so I’m going to start working on that pretty soon. And that will be using artifacts of Tom Thomson, who is a local. I live in Meaford, Ontario, which is 30 km east of Owen Sound. The Tom Thomson Art Gallery is in Owen Sound, but he actually grew up in a small village called Leith, which is just north of Owen Sound and now part of the municipality of Meaford, where I live. So there’s this local relationship to Tom Thomson. They approached me because they had seen Memory Cycle in Guelph and were interested to have me do it with the museum’s collection of works and artifacts by Tom Thomson. They have a number of artifacts, aside from many of his paintings — and I’m not going to use the paintings per se; they might decide to put some paintings in the piece — but we’re going to use pieces of objects that were known to be his. There are various artifacts: some barn board with his initials carved in it, there’s a painting palette, there’s a mandolin. They have a limited amount of pieces that were collected and donated to them from the Thomson family, but there are also the historic archives here locally, based in Owen Sound, which collects farm equipment and furniture and mementos and artifacts from the period. I haven’t been there yet, but the plan is to go there to choose some furniture, pieces of the period from the 1870s through 1910s 77. Born in 1877, Tom Thomson died under mysterious circumstances just shy of his 40th birthday in 1917., to pick up on period pieces and then recreate the piece using them.

That must be a totally different piece, then. Are you still sending piano sounds to those objects? Or are you using those historical objects as sound production objects?

I’m still figuring this out, but there’s going to be musical instruments; he played the mandolin, the violin and the cornet. I don’t know yet what kind of music he played. His training was in the local church choir and stuff. And obviously, he learned to play these instruments and, I’m assuming, played both classical and popular music at the time. Although I don’t know much about that yet, so there’s going to be some research involved in trying to figure out what he played and what music influences he may have had. But he travelled, he spent a lot of his time in Algonquin Park painting and working as a hunting and fishing guide. So he’s really into nature. But apparently, he always travelled with this mandolin, so obviously he played music regularly. And then there’s this whole other part that I’ve been thinking about: because he was very much a kind of naturalist and he played music, he would have been aware of the sonic environment, obviously. And post-Murray Shafer, it’s obvious to us that the soundscape is this important part of contemporary music and electroacoustic and whatnot. But, obviously, prior to that sort of popularization of the idea — it existed too, obviously — people who were spending a lot of time in nature were hearing the soundscape. So I’ll be using some of those ideas and then doing a multi-channel rendering, using the objects and reproducing them in a similar technical fashion. And probably I’ll be doing more than 4-channel, probably like 16 channels, or something like that. There’ll be some musical parts, and there may be some soundscape parts.

That’s a really poignant way to be able to draw a relationship between two different artists who are working in different time periods. And so you have your own lens through your own training and the idea of acoustic ecology and sound art, and seeing reflections of that in somebody who lived in a completely different time and operated in different ways is a really nice way to be able to bring that through line in artists over history into relief. I wish you luck with that project, it sounds super interesting.

Thanks, it’ll be an interesting challenge.

I’m looking forward to hearing more about it once it’s finished!

Great, well I’ll let you know when that happens!

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