By Mark Swed
She has been a source of amazement in American new music for nearly half a century—a composer who is, in addition, a singer, keyboardist, dancer, choreographer, director, and film maker—and she has the accolades to prove it.
The first time I met Meredith Monk, she blindfolded me. As part of the downtown New Music New York festival in 1979, Monk offered a class in movement and awareness to critics looking for a thrill. With our eyes covered, she took us to the then mildly threatening Times Square and set us loose. Be alert, be vulnerable, live a little, she suggested, bemused by her power to effect amazement (and helplessness?)
Meredith Monk has been a source of amazement in American new music for nearly half a century, and she has the accolades that go with that—venerable publisher (Boosey & Hawkes), prestigious record label (ECM), MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, marathon retrospective concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, commissions from the San Francisco Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Kronos Quartet, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and Houston Grand Opera. Her wide-ranging influence has also reached pop (just ask Björk), jazz, and the visual arts. Yet, as you may gather by that class three decades ago, Monk is not exactly your grandfather’s Musical America Composer of the Year.
For one thing, she is the ultimate outsider artist, not only in the sense that much of her work has been outside of the classical-music establishment (which hasn’t stopped conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas from refusing to take no for an answer) but also because the impetus for her music is often part of an all-embracing theatrical concept. Being a composer who is, in addition, a singer, keyboardist, dancer, choreographer, director, and film maker, she produces performance pieces in which the impulse for music is often movement, innovative non-narrative storytelling, and exploration of big philosophical and historical themes. She even works outside on occasion, making the environment in which she performs an essential part of the artwork.
But Monk might just as well be considered the ultimate insider artist. It would be hard to locate another composer of her originality or spiritual depth in the Western classical tradition who has used her body to Monk’s degree, to make music. The heartbeat is the pulse, she likes to say of her pieces, and the blood, the melody. Monk, moreover, prefers to operate like a tribal musician, putting together her scores with the trusted performers in her company, Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, through a collaborative oral tradition.
On the surface Monk’s music has some of the deceptively simple character of Erik Satie, an early influence. Her accompaniments are rhythmically and harmonically basic and straightforward. Vocal melodies are instantly grasped. You might think them easily mimicked until you actually try to sing them yourself and discover hidden intricacies.
As an experimenter with extended vocal techniques and delver into extended emotional states, Monk can seem as uninhibited as a child for whom glee or gloom are expressed with utter immediacy. Nonsense syllables convey what words miss. She is at home in the cracks between meaning and feeling.
She grew up singing (her mother sang on the radio in New York), playing music (her grandmother was a professional pianist), and dancing (she practiced Dalcroze Eurhythmics movement exercises as a young girl). She studied voice at Sarah Lawrence. She sang folk music in the early ’60s before entering the downtown Manhattan avant-garde scene, where there was opportunity to cross-fertilize her many talents and interests.
From the start Monk thought big and broad. Juice (1969) is for 85 singers and Jew’s harp. Vessel (1971) was a three-part performance art opera that sent the audience scurrying to three different venues. With Dolmen Music (1979), Monk experimented with the same kinds of vocal overtones that appealed to such European avant-gardists as Stockhausen and Berio, but she placed these experiments in a downtown minimalist style and gave them an almost art-rock flavor (this is what first caught Björk’s attention).
In the ’80s, Monk moved into experimental film, with Ellis Island and Book of Days, stylized multi-media works on emigration and the Middle Ages. Then, a decade later, at the invitation of Houston Grand Opera, she made something resembling a traditional opera. In fact, Atlas, which is about explorer Alexandra David-Néel’s life in Tibet in the early 20th century, is pure, elaborate Monk. There is next to no text, but Néel’s complex character is nevertheless explored, ghosts are called up, spiritual questions are asked, an out-of-body experience is evoked, and a Bedouin chief dances a tango in the desert.
It took another dozen years before Monk produced a long-awaited orchestral piece. In Possible Sky, which Tilson Thomas premiered with his New World Symphony in 2003, arresting Monkian melodies, bittersweet and inexplicable but somehow immediate, percolate through the orchestra. Even more startling, though, is the physicality. Orchestra musicians, bolstered by members of Monk’s ensemble, sound as though they, too, make music from their bodies rather than merely following the directions of notes on a page. Next for MTT will be a new orchestral work for the San Francisco Symphony, to celebrate her 70th birthday in 2012 and the orchestra’s 100th anniversary.
Monk’s music is also reaching other ensembles and her piano pieces are finding their way into the repertory of adventurous recitalists. She has become a favorite of the L.A. Master Chorale, which has performed excerpts of Atlas in Walt Disney Concert Hall and which was a co-commissioner with the St. Louis Symphony of Weave in 2010.
Weave and most of Monk’s other mature pieces, especially those recently for her company—mercy, impermanence, and Songs of Ascension—are Buddhist inspired. The body is still the basis of song, and humor has not been forgotten. But increasingly they also have a theme of transcending worldly care, of bridging the down-to-earth with the spirit.
In 1999, Monk made a musical offering to the Dalai Lama in a Jewish synagogue in Los Angeles. A few weeks before the appearance, the Dalai Lama had spoken, during an interview in Indiana, about his uneasiness with music. Buddhism teaches the value of non-attachment, whereas music’s magnetic force, he explained, can have too much sway over people.
But Monk sat next to him and spiritually seduced him with song. The Dalai Lama smiled. His stern guards smiled. Everyone crammed into the synagogue smiled. When I asked if he had enjoyed Monk’s magical performance, a beaming Dalai Lama responded with the hearty laugh he uses for obvious questions that require no answer. •
Mark Swed is the music critic for the Los Angeles Times.