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Meredith Monk
03 Apr 2015

Voices, voices in space, and spaces: Thoughts on 50 years of Meredith Monk

When WNYC’s John Schaefer introduced Meredith Monk’s beloved Panda Chant II, which concluded the four-and-a-half hour Meredith Monk & Friends celebration at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, he described it as “an expression of joy and musicality” before lamenting the fact that playing it on his radio show could never quite compete with a live performance.

Voices, voices in space, and spaces: Thoughts on 50 years of Meredith Monk

A review by Rebecca Lentjes

Above: Meredith Monk


Ms. Monk’s music, which has torn down boundaries of communication and genre during her fifty years of composing, often incorporates visual and architectural structure rather than the more conventional linguistic or musical structures. During Panda Chant II, a few dozen vocalists lined up side by side and moved, as a single unit, from right to left, stomping and clapping and singing in a raucous and euphoric unison. The short crowd-pleaser, usually around two minutes long and written as part of Ms. Monk’s 1984 work The Games, quickly becomes layered with rhythmic divergences and escalating exclamations before coming to an abrupt end. It was the perfect way to bring the celebration to a close.

The program had begun in similar fashion, with Ms. Monk’s work in progress Cellular Songs illustrating how important movement and space are to her works even now. During the first of three Cellular Songs, Ms. Monk, Katie Geissinger, and Allison Sniffin stood in a row on the stage, facing outwards towards the audience and clicking out sounds and rhythms in staccato patterns. Then Ms. Geissinger and Ms. Sniffin turned inwards, facing each other in front of Ms. Monk as if their bodies were three sides of a square (with the audience forming the fourth side). Their sounds now slid together in legato slurs and currents, still wordless but evoking an entirely different mood. For the third Cellular Song, all three women faced the audience again before they began breathing and gasping in swift strands of “hey-ho-hey” before their delightful derailment into a rapid rainstorm of these same syllables, which clashed and clattered against each other in bickering rhythms. The three women managed to enthrall the senses with only their bodies and voices, with no instruments and virtually no words to enhance this perception.

After glimpsing this work in progress, it was fascinating to hear Ms. Monk describe her compositional process during an on-stage interview with Mr. Schaefer. She explained that she still sketches out her ideas sonically rather than visually, using a 4-track cassette player to record her ideas rather than scribbling them onto staff paper or into notation software. Apparently, Ms. Sniffin has tried to teach Ms. Monk how to use a computer, but “all those windows” that pop up prove too distracting and delay her artistic impulses. Plus, there is the concept of meter to wrangle with: Ms. Monk does not conceive of her ideas in 4/4 or 5/4 time, but rather in much more complicated and nontraditional temporal structures, and having to answer to computer prompts about barlines before she can even get the notes down is a nuisance. After she works through her sketches on the cassette player, Ms. Monk works through them with her network of vocalists, only eventually recording them in score form. Instead, they evolve as a community effort, with an emphasis on rhythm and the unique possibilities of each individual voice. Mr. Schaefer commented that she “strips music down to the elemental”; later, while he talked with DJ Spooky, it was stated that she “builds cathedrals of voices”.

The process of tearing structures down, yet creating new structures in their place, is the fundamental wonder of Ms. Monk’s music. During the Young People’s Chorus of New York City’s performance of Ms. Monk’s 1992 composition Things Heaven and Hell, words were spun out and around as the young singers themselves spooled across the stage in choreographed whorls and waves, their feet prancing about beneath matching polyester skirts. Throughout the eight selections from Songs of Ascension, a 2008 composition performed by Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, the M6, and an ensemble of instrumentalists, the musicians’ voices pulsed and glowed, flickering like candles flames as the string instruments sang celestial streaks and strobes around them. As during the selections from ATLAS: an opera in three parts, the layers of meaning and symbolism became clear not through words (which were mostly indiscernible), but through gestures and movements across the stage. The physicality of the singing and of the performance—the standing and sitting, the waving of arms and legs—constructed not just a cathedral of voices but a new world, stripped bare of pretension and convention, consisting only of the elemental: of sounds in space.

Rebecca Lentjes

Related articles:

Voices in space: Meredith Monk & friends construct musical cathedrals at 50-year anniversary concert

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