Massey Hall, the grand dame of Victoria Street, was transformed during Toronto’s Nuit Blanche into a sound installation and performance art work. This transformation was care of the composer-sound artist Gordon Monahan, the pride of not only Meaford, Ontario, but also of Berlin, Germany. Judging from the size of the crowd and by the attentiveness of the listeners once they were safely sitting in the hall, Monahan’s work was evidently one of the hits of Nuit Blanche.
Gordon Monahan’s original instrument was the piano – and he works with it still, deconstructing its sound, its body, and its performance techniques in various ingenious ways. No less a piano innovator than John Cage once commented that Monahan (in his Piano Mechanics,1981-86) was the first composer to do something new with the piano since Cage’s own invention of the prepared piano. Monahan has not rested on such accolades but deftly segued to employ loudspeakers, video, kinetic sculpture, and computer-controlled sound environments in his installations which themselves span various genres ranging from avant-garde concert music, to multi-media installation, to sound art. His Massey Hall event started off by reversing staging traditions. Monahan used the stage of Massey Hall as the audience seating area, while the orchestra and balconies served as the performance space.
As the lights dimmed, we were greeted by disembodied piano string sounds. (Were they prerecorded?) We all watched with fascination as an elegant dancer from the Coleman-Lemieux Dance Co. began to move slowly up a ramp built atop the central orchestra isle. She coaxed thwanging and other spring–loaded sounds out of the suspended piano wires which stretched high and clear across the large interior space of Massey Hall. The ever-shifting harmonics elicited from the piano wires were produced by pulling vibrating electrical coils attached to the strings; these vibrations were then diffused through a surround-sound speaker system. I counted nine speakers encircling us, through which an engineer sitting at a central mixing console broadcast a shifting weave of sound – sometimes thin, yet at others a thick mass swirling around us in the dimly lit space.
Monahan himself played that granddad of electric instruments, the Theramin, toward the end of the set. And did I also detect some processed classical orchestral music far back in the mix? Was it perhaps meant to evoke the echo of the ghosts of Toronto Symphony Orchestras past?