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

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
, 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

image_description=Meredith Monk
product_title=Voices, voices in space, and spaces: Thoughts on 50 years of Meredith Monk
product_by=A review by Rebecca Lentjes
product_id=Above: Meredith Monk