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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Songs Without Words

by Marina Harss

If one believes in the notion of destiny—or even in its more prosaic cousin, genetic predisposition—it’s clear that Meredith Monk was bound to become a singer. Her maternal great-grandfather was a cantor in Tsarist Russia; her grandfather, Joseph Zellman, an operatic baritone who emigrated to the US in the late 19th century. Here in New York, he and his pianist wife Rose Kornicker founded the Zellman Conservatory, on Lenox Ave. Monk’s mother, Audrey Marsh, sang popular songs and jingles on the radio. “My childhood was a lot like Radio Days,” Monk told the director Anne Bogart (in the book Conversations with Anne, 2005), “every single day at one o’clock she would sing the DUZ Soap commercial” during the radio drama Road of Life.

Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Unsurprisingly, Monk began singing at a young age, even before she was able to formulate words. Perhaps this pre-verbal immersion in music helps to explain her lack of interest in setting words to music, even now. Like the Dadaists, she believes that language can become pure sound, a direct conduit to deeper truths. “The voice itself is a very eloquent language,” Monk has said. In her compositions, the voice has been restored to its role as a kind of ancestral, perhaps pre-historic human utterance, beyond language, a sound capable of forming multiple timbres and textures: yelping, keening, clucking, moaning, ululating. Through her exploration of the voice’s potential—known as “extended voice techniques”—Monk has produced music as rigorous as a medieval motet and as stirring and unfamiliar as the call of a wild animal from another planet.

After training in operatic technique (as well as in dance and theater) at Sarah Lawrence in the early 60s and moving to New York to create her own multi-disciplinary work, Monk experienced a kind of revelation. As she told Bogart: “I realized in a flash that my voice could be a instrument… It could be any age. It could be animal, vegetable, mineral… It could be a landscape.” Boundless vistas of sound, timbre, volume, and texture opened up to her. This aural terrain could be made even more variegated and rich by adding more voices, layered in contrapuntal harmonies or organized into minutely varying rhythmic patterns. To this end, she created Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble in 1978. She has spoken of the radiance of her collaborators, and of the utopian spirit that the ensemble represents: “Singing together is very intimate… You’re so in tune with each other. It’s such an amazing template of the possibility of human behavior, of generosity and… being sensitive to the environment and to the other people.”

Photo: Julieta Cervantes 
From the beginning, the traditional separation between dance, theater, film, and music-making made little sense to her: “Who says that dance is this, and who says that music is this, and who says that a play is this, and who says that a poem is this?” In 1968, she formed The House, a playground of ideas that welcomed artists of every denomination. Monk’s performances have ranged from quietly intense solos in which she accompanies herself on the piano, to operatic spectacles with multiple moving parts, costumes, cascades of movement, and a cast of, if not thousands, at least scores. She has carted the audience across New York from one location to another; she has brought them into her home to watch video installations and sort through discarded costumes. She has made surrealist films, including one set in the ruins of Ellis Island (pre-renovation), a space redolent with past lives. And through it all, she’s never lost her sense of wonder. But beneath this creative freedom lies a strong armature of rigor: “You don’t realize how much structure is there until you start trying to pick it apart,” a singer recently told the music critic Anne Midgette after working with Monk.

At 72, Monk hasn’t stopped moving. This fall she is marking the 50th anniversary of her first New York concert with a flurry of performances, including the presentation of her newest music-theater work, On Behalf of Nature, at the BAM Harvey (Dec 3—7). Inspired by her Buddhist belief in the oneness of the universe and by the ecological writings of the Beat poet Gary Snyder, On Behalf of Nature has the feel of a meditation and a call to consciousness. With six singers from her Vocal Ensemble plus three musicians playing pitched percussion, wind instruments, and violin—all of them sharing the stage—it is one of her sparest, most intimate works. The singers/dancers/musicians form a kind of community, or better yet a flock, moving and breathing together. Bird calls, chants, hisses, and pure, choral harmonies recall the balance and interconnectivity of nature, but also the imbalance and disruption that threatens to destroy it. “I think of it more as an offering,” Monk said, a kind of ritual to “make people aware of what we’re in danger of losing.” In her own profound way, she is channeling the voice of nature.

Marina Harss is a freelance dance and culture writer and translator in New York. Her dance blog, Random Thoughts on Dance, is at

Reprinted from Nov 2014 BAMbill.

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