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Spinning on an oversized LP in space

September 28, 2012

Some people roll their eyes at the avant-garde, but I think it’s because they’ve lost their inner child or their sense of humour.

Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain,” a porcelain urinal that launched Dadaism, should’ve been a clue from the very start. (A 2008 article in the Telegraph suggests it was intended as a practical joke.) Not that everything avant-garde is supposed to be humourous, but it should cast the world in a slightly different light, make things even just the slightest bit askew.

Recently, I had the chance to check out a local exhibit called Seeing Sound by Canadian composer and sound artist Gordon Monahan. I knew nothing of his work before the show, but it was a real ear opener.

The local exhibit was one of nine sites across Canada as well as in Berlin that, between 2011 and 2013, is presenting different works from throughout his career.

Even before I entered the gallery at the U of S, I was struck by the weather-beaten upright piano propped outside the building. It was connected by wires, which looked like enormous guitar strings, to some of kind of transmitter on the roof, and if you listened closely to “A Piano Listening to Itself,” you could hear music recordings being transmitted along the lines.

A Piano Listening to Itself

This was simply the introduction to what lay inside. In one room, there was a series of found objects, “Sounds Objectified,” each with recordings of themselves inserted into their bodies: a photocopier, a VCR, popcorn maker, spare tire, even an old door. To put it another way, each object, in effect, becomes a package for its own sound.

I almost missed the downstairs portion of the exhibit, which would’ve been a shame. Once there, I was attracted by some ambient noise and started wandering down a tunnel to another part of the campus, realizing after I turned a corner that this was not some installation piece but simply a tunnel. Again, one must have a sense of humour about these things.

I made a U-turn and entered the actual lower portion of the exhibit. There was a video, “Piano Airlift,” of an old installation piece in Newfoundland, where Monahan and team move an old piano by helicopter to a hilltop. For its duration, the winds activated the piano strings to produce sounds along the lines of an Aeolian harp. The piece literally came to a crashing crescendo when the piano was given the heave-ho over the cliff.

At the other end of the space, in a blackened room was “Theremin Pendulum.” (If you’ve don’t know what a theremin is, cue up the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for that aha moment). The shrill beast inside was covered in blue lights that swung on a pendulum in the dark, as it let loose its cry. For some reason, the thing reminded me of a deranged planetarium projector or maybe the monster in Alien. I admit the thing was a little creepy.

The residual noise from it almost ruined my experience of what was my favourite piece, “A Very Large LP Constructed in Acoustic Space.” Once the theremin quieted down from its thrashing about in the next room, I could appreciate the “LP” installation fully. I should point out it did not involve any large piece of vinyl. Rather, Monahan arranged eight loudspeakers in a circle around the room. I sat back on the seat at the centre, closed my eyes and absorbed the sounds of scratches and snatches of old easy listening records (Mantovani, if I had to guess) fading in and out, as they travelled from speaker to speaker in circles, alternating between clockwise and counter-clockwise directions. As the artist said of the piece, “I immediately felt the illusion that I was sitting in the middle of a very large vinyl LP that was constructed in acoustic space.”

This is exactly what it felt like, and honestly I probably could’ve sat there for an hour or two, tripping out on these sound collages as they wound their way in space around me.

Feel free to dismiss all of this, assume it’s ivory tower elitism, but you’d be wrong. Think of these artists as kids experimenting with their own box of crayons to see what will come out. (If you ask me, it’s pop stars like Madonna that take themselves way too seriously.)

You may also ask yourself, “What does this noise have to do with me?” The thing is some of this crazy stuff has a way of working itself into the mainstream. If you don’t hear the musique concrète in Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or Stockhausen’s electronic work throughout the Beatles’ more experimental efforts, you need to do some homework. (While I’m on my soapbox, can we give Sir Paul some love? Macca is one underrated bass player, has an ear for melody rare among rock songwriters and was the real workhorse who pushed the Beatles to go in so many new musical directions.)

As far as Gordon Monahan’s works, who knows? Maybe some buzz band out there will check him out and let his creations seep into their own songs. Seriously, the avant-garde isn’t all that scary, “Theremin Pendulum” being the exception. It can provide a fountain full of interesting ideas, though I doubt that this was, in fact, Monsieur Duchamp’s intent concerning his famed piss pot.

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