June 2008

Gordon Monahan, Olivia Block & Joda Clement
part of Suoni per il Toronto
June 26, 2008 The Music Gallery Toronto
Electro acoustic ecstasy
Report and photo
by Tom Sekowski
When one thinks of electro acoustic music, visions of abstract nature sounds and electronics automatically pop into one’s head. This was not necessarily the case at this performance. Curated by Toronto-based experimental music artist Joda Clement, the evening was a triple bill, featuring Clement, pianist/composer Olivia Block and Theremin-guru Gordon Monahan.

Both of the first two sets of music were brief — running in the gamut of 30 to 40 minutes in length. Clement and Block thought this was ample enough time to curate their own musical visions. Traditionally, I would describe a concert in a logical, order-of-appearance order, but this time around, I’ve chosen to do things a bit differently. For reasons described later on, I’ll give mention to the first and last performers in that order. I’ll then follow that up with the second performer — Olivia Block.

Clement was high on recorded environment, filling our heads with sounds of urban landscape. A train whistling by was amplified at considerable volume to provide for an effect of being smack alongside the train tracks. Water sounds and oscillating, metallic vibrations put the eardrums on high alert. Landscapes that he created were rough around the edges, their forms being more blurred from one minute to the next. While cohesion was present, for some reason, I found the narrative lacking. More emphasis could’ve been placed on an actual storyline that provided a logic beginning and an end. Then again, who am I to argue on finer points, when creativity was running at overkill level?

Highly acclaimed Canadian composer Gordon Monahan doesn’t perform on such regular basis in these parts, which is why his appearance here was all the more reason to celebrate. Though he’s probably best knows for extensive use of Theremin in his works, tonight he was also celebrating the forceful nature of the piano. Monahan’s performance started off with a piece called “Layered Lines Fading Away”. As he stood in front of the Theremin [which was hooked up to his laptop], with his hands moving slowly away and towards the Theremin, he began to control the radio airwaves being channeled in from outside the church. The wobbly waves included a variety of radio stations. At one point, I clearly caught a glimpse of Chilliwack with their 70’s hit “Fly at Night”. Spooky factor was heavily at play. If you’ve never heard the Theremin, imagine the sound that many old radio dramas used to indicate a ghost. When he sat down at the piano, I was expecting an improvised session of sorts. What occurred was something else entirely. Physicality of the instrument was at the forefront of Monahan’s mind. In forcing elbows on the keys and pounding the piano with his fists, Monahan was able to force visceral and primal sounds out of the instrument. Here was the piano unlike any piano that you’ve ever heard before. Enrapturing and void of any grace, Monahan’s performance was a stark reminder of how much exploration can still be done in the realm of both of his favourite instruments.

The reason I wanted to keep Olivia Block’s performance until the last part of this review is two-fold. Firstly, it was the personal defining moment of the night. Secondly, with the exception of a solo performance by Keith Tippett nearly two decades ago, I can’t recall a piano piece that has moved me as greatly as this one. While this Chicago native used some field recordings [mostly sounds that were soft static-rumblings] at the beginning of the piece, when she finally settled comfortably in front of the piano, the magic began. Tuning forks were used inside her instrument to capture a forceful ambience, while a thin sheet of metal was a conductor for the half-an-hour blast of energy.
Olivia Block

What happened throughout the next thirty minutes is difficult to put into proper words. Using the piano as a feedback source and pounding a mish-mash of throbbing hits on the metal sheet, which was placed on top of the strings, she played a succession of notes on the keys while also plucking the strings. The sound became so forced, so violent, yet so organic; one could spot a certain unheard beat deep inside the notes. A succession of blatant, over-the-top, powered-up layers was produced. With each minute, the notes merged into a completely feasible mass. There was no stopping this train from running everyone present from the tracks. I was stunned. I was mesmerized. I bloody had tears running down my cheeks — not as a sign of sorrow, but of the joy this music gave out. My only regret was that the performance did not extend past its thirty-minute mark and that the composer could’ve given a greater opportunity to unravel her thought process. Otherwise, there was nothing that was less than perfect in any single nuance, in every single sound that was made within the confines of the piece.

Olivia Block gave a sort of a performance that others can only dream about. It was whole, with a self-contained purpose and mastered with a pure clarity of mind. This was her Toronto debut, I can only hope that she will be back in town sometime soon. For lack of better words, an absolutely ecstatic show!

We welcome your comments and feedback
Tom Sekowski
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