I always like it when something opens up my ears in ways I hadn’t considered.
Monahan’s been creating compositions for years that force us to think about how we listen – he’s swung speakers around and he’s strung super-long piano wires in unexpected places, for example. I first encountered his work when I was producing the doc series, The Wire: the Impact of Electricity on Music. He had a lot of interesting things to say about how we interact with the sounds around us and about the influence of the composer John Cage.
This time around, Monahan has strung six piano wires from the roof of the Royal Castle Bell Tower in Warsaw, Poland, and attached motors to them to make them vibrate with an acoustic signal of piano music by Chopin. You can sort of see the setup in the photo he sent me.
The impression you get is of listening to the ghost of Chopin.
Now, that’s the impression I got just listening to a recording. I’m imagining that’s what it must have been like to walk through that square in Warsaw and come upon that piano by chance – to feel as though you’d stumbled on Chopin’s ghost.
I didn’t get to go to Warsaw, but I did have a chance to speak with Monahan for this Sunday’s edition of In Concert, a weekly classical music program on CBC Radio 2 that I guest-host every once in a while.
The thing that struck me most about his new piece is that it’s the amplification of an electronic signal by acoustic means (piano strings playing back an mp3 file via the motors attached to them). If you think about it, that’s exactly the reverse of how we usually experience music these days – well, at least, music that isn’t electronic itself in the first place.
My ears also got opened this week listening to the miraculous playing of Austrian pianist Till Fellner, who plays Beethoven piano concerti exactly the way I like to hear them. He is a master of precision, and listening to him is like drinking some kind of mind-clarifying elixir. On Sunday’s program, he plays Beethoven’s 1st along with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Kent Nagano. Just absolutely glorious.