by Pete Petrisko
It’s not often that Phoenix is privy to the national premiere of an experimental music composition, but that’s exactly what it’ll witness when internationally-renowned sound artist Gordon Monahan unveils Sauerkraut Synthesizer during a special First Fridays After Hours show, at the .anti_space venue, on February 4th.
The composition, previously performed in Toronto and Kitchener, Ontario, uses naturally-occurring voltages in fruits and vegetables “to control parameters of a software synthesizer designed in Max/MSP”.
Monahan will also be performing his seminal piece Speaker Swinging, in which loudspeakers, attached to cables while broadcasting simple sine tones, are swung in a circular fashion by three performers. It’s the trajectory of the speakers through the performance space that sculpts the sound, and causes the audience to hear a dramatic Doppler effect.
Below, Monahan answers some questions for us about his work and upcoming performance.
AzK: Will you briefly explain the concept, and aesthetic, of “irritainment”?
GM: In a literal way, it’s irritating entertainment, but there’s a little bit more to it than that. It comes about through the idea that, as an artist, it can be a valuable thing to embrace the idea of failure - not intentionally, but when you fail to do something the way you initially envisioned it, you often stumble upon some other very interesting things as a result. On the other hand, there can be things where other people have failed in the past that can be inspiring in a postmodernist way. So you can take, say, music from the 70s, that was poorly done in a B-quality manner, and listen to it nowadays in a whole new light because several decades have passed, and aesthetics and technology has changed - so what would happen if you had an event where people only played that music for eighteen hours? That’d be an irritainment event.
I also do enjoy occasionally coming up with pieces where the end result can either be annoying for some people to listen to, or interesting for other people to hear, and may require some kind of extreme use of sound that I recognize as being “irritaining” because I sought to render that aesthetic. I know it’s irritaining because I’ll get a lot of people either complaining about it or loving it.
AzK: Can you give us some insight into your compositional technique - from inception, to development of elements used, into actual performance - using Sauerkraut Synthesizer as your example?
GM: In that particular case, it’s essentially based on a technical set-up that I then use to derive the end sonic results. To explain what I mean, I was working with a movement-based performance group in Vienna last year, and the director wanted to do this new piece using lemons as a thematic element. I said, “You get very small voltages out of lemons, perhaps we can try using those as control-voltages in a software synthesizer.”
While I didn’t go through with them on the lemon project, they did it themselves, I decided to use this same technical phenomena, with a variety of different fruits and vegetables - including a jar of sauerkraut.
Basically, I use six different fruits and vegetables, putting a copper terminal and galvanized terminal into each, to get approximately one volt coming out of that. I send that into the inputs of an arduino board, attached to a computer USB port to bring in real world sensing data, so the variable voltages are assigned to different parameters of the synthesizer. I set up a few different patches to create interesting sounds, but it’s not so much the sounds but more the methodology used to create those sounds that’s most important.
I don’t do electronic music that often, and when I do I want a good reason to do it. I tend to want to have very specific concepts to base my pieces on, and not just play an instrument to make sounds. I want to have a reason to be playing that instrument. It’s not out of any kind of elitist attitude, it’s just the demands I put on myself as an artist.
AzK: How’d you choose the fruits and vegetables used in the piece?
GM: I started with experimenting to see if, indeed, you do have different voltages from, let’s say, a tomato or an apple or banana, and would they be less or more than a lemon. I found that they’re all basically consistent, which was kind of a surprise to me. You have to have a fruit or vegetable that has some kind of moisture content, so, an apple or orange, or dill pickle, would work.
I chose six, and tend to use the same six, because there’s an aspect to the synthesizer that shows the visual read-out of the voltages on a screen that’s put up on a monitor projection so people can see that in real time. I built it so that number one would be an apple, number two a potato, number three a banana, and so on.
AzK: The visual aspect of your work seems less a complimentary element and more a specific means used to immerse the audience into the aural experience. How do you incorporate visuals into your work to heighten the experience?
GM: About half my work is not performative-based, but sound installation, so you’re already dealing with specific physicality of materials or objects, which have a visual element to them. So that influences my performative-based work.
Specifically in Speaker Swinging, I realized the visual component was very important because the sound being produced is because of the physical process taking place. Namely, the swinging around of speakers on cables and rope, which thereby creates the Doppler effect.
When you see the piece live, which goes on for about 25 minutes, the physicality of doing that action becomes an athletic event as much as a musical performance. In fact, there are different elements to that piece. It’s a sound performance. It has a sportive action to it. It has a performance art part, which is this sense of threat to the audience as speakers swing around, potentially hitting something, which it doesn’t but it’s implied - which creates tension. Then there’s the performance aspect of endurance, swinging those speakers for 25 minutes, so there’s this sweat and struggle involved with it. These are all different layers, none of which dominates over any other, but are all there mixed together at the same time.
I realized there’s this threatening part to it, that I’ve enhanced by adding more lighting. On the one hand to mark the orbital trail of the swinging of speaker but, at the same time, switching to pitch blackness and turning lights on and off, which would then create more tension by enhancing the threat element. When you do that, you’re automatically bumping up the visual aspects of it, which are very much tied with the physical action and with the reason for doing it - to create the Doppler effect and making a sound piece out of it.
AzK: What role does the architecture of each physical space play in your work?
GM: Architectural elements play a very large role and, in some ways, it can play a very subtle role. Naturally, architecture defines the acoustics, which, in a place that has natural reverberation, with a lot of concrete surfaces, you’ll tend to have a hard edge. It may not be good for some kinds of music, but it’s particularly good for Speaker Swinging.
Architecture plays an important role in a lot of my work. Once I began to realize how important it is to music, I’ve always tried to create pieces that incorporate architectural elements that help to structure the piece.
AzK: To what extent are your sound pieces pre-planned and how much of a role does indeterminacy (or randomness) play?
GM: Sometimes indeterminacy is built into the piece, it depends on the piece I am doing, and in some cases it’s all extremely planned out.
So, for instance, Speaker Swinging is all pretty much planned out, because I’ve done it so many times. For the first few years it was a question of exploring and developing it but, once the piece evolved to a certain point, I’ve always sort of maintained it in that way. I know what the piece is, it’s not written out in a musical score in any way, but more like a procedure of how to tune the oscillators I’m using. On the other hand, I do it all by ear as well, so there is a somewhat indeterminate element to it, in that I never repeat the same frequencies. So there’s a site-specific element to it that way.
With Sauerkraut Synthesizer, there’s pre-planned progress from one position in the piece to another, but how I get there changes every time, and how long each section might be changes every time. So there’s variables to it, but I wouldn’t say it has the indeterminate chance element in the same sense as (John) Cage’s music.
AzK: How do you view the role of the listener in a sound art performance?
GM: It’s the third element. There’s the composer, the performer, and the listener - the triangulation of the aesthetic experience. It’s a key process in creating of music because, if you don’t have anybody to listen to it, then you’re the only one listening.
Then the listeners play a role in the sense that they interpret what they want to interpret out of the piece. You don’t the deliver the piece of music and say, “This is what the piece is about and you’re going to get this out of it.” The piece is delivered to them, and I expect them to get whatever they want to get out of it. I might get ten completely different responses, from ten different people, from exactly the same performance - depending on what they’re thinking, or what their aesthetic background is, or where they were in the space, or the mood they were in or whatever. But if you recognize that’s going to be the situation, then you accept it’s part of the process.
AzK: What kinds of responses have you gotten from audience members after experiencing Speaker Swinging?
GM: A range of experiences, but my favorite kinds of responses are conceptual or intellectual. My least favorite would be emotional. The reason I say that is I think people put too much emphasis on emotion in music, and not enough on the conceptual and intellectual aspects. I’ve had these discussion with other musicians I’ve collaborated with, where you’ll have the extreme case in which the musician will say, “Music is all about emotion, it’s all about my expression”, and I’ll say, “Yeah, well, there’s a long list of things music is about, and emotion may be one of them. But music is concept, music is religion, music can be sacred or secular, music is lifestyle, music is science, music is acoustics, music is philosophy, music is many things and one of those things on the list is that music is about expression.”
So I prefer it when people get more than just emotion out of my performance. I like to see them get a wide range of things and, as I said before, ten different audience members will come up with ten different reactions to the performance even though they were in the same space at the same time.
AzK: We’d consider so many different reactions to be the sign of a successful performance…
GM: I’d consider that to be successful, yeah.
In addition to Gordon Monahan, the evening’s Elektrostube bill includes Laura Kikauka, Barry Schwartz, and Elektrobahn (Dayvid LeMmon/Scot McKenzie), with abstract architectural projections by Hugo Ross.
anti_space (715 W. Buchanan St) / Friday, Feb. 4 @ 9pm / $10 at the door
(photo 1 from Monahan website; photos 2 & 3 courtesy of sccarts.org; event photo illust. from Elektrostube)