The Wire, Issue 264, February 2006, London, England

www.thewire.co.uk

 

Review of Piano Mechanics/Speaker Swinging CD

 

A composer and sound artist whose performances have incorporated elements

from the natural environment, scientific experimentation and electronic

media since the late 1970s, Gordon Monahan has a rare talent for taking

music to the mat.  As the physicality and dynamism of these two early

pieces, Speaker Swinging and Piano Mechanics (C3R CD), demonstrate, he has

little time for, or patience with, any of the conceptual niceties that can

encumber modern composition.  First presented in 1983, Piano Mechanics

dispenses with any notion of the piano as a cultural presence, and focuses

upon it as an industrial product: a standardised mechanism intended for

the making of noise.  Range becomes a matter of physical reach, as strings

are simultaneously attacked from both inside and outside the instrument's

body, allowing the repeated depressing of a single key to generate layer

upon layer of resonating harmonics.  By elevating technique to this

extent, he also invokes the piano's recent history as an unacknowledged

electronic instrument, from Cowell to the hands-on manipulation of musique

concrete.  Not surprising, then, that Cage praised the work in 1986,

saying of Monahan that 'without anything electronic he produces, in fact,

what one associates with electronics -- with actually the magic of

electronics.'

 

Speaker Swinging, from 1982, helps to reformulate that 'magic' as rite in

which three or more performers swing loudspeakers over their heads like

bullroarers.  To this primitive ritual is added an electronic dimension,

as each of the speakers relays a series of tones generated by nine

sinewave or sawtooth oscillators, their rapid motion through the air

creating complex overlays of effects, including phasing, vibrato, and

tremolo.  Range and physical reach are similarly presented as factors, but

where Piano Mechanics is all robust hammering and delicately contrived

scraping, Speaker Swinging is at once static and dynamic, muscular and

mechanistic, sacred and secular.  In such a stripped evocation of

opposites, music begins finally to confront itself.

 

KEN HOLLINGS