Volume 18 • Issue 25 | November 4 - 10, 2005

Photo by Massimo Agus

Meredith Monk, as avant garde as she can be.

Breaking the barrier between sound and movement

By Michael Clive

Meredith Monk, who will be honored in concert at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden on November 9 and 16, is often called America’s coolest composer. She is justifiably famous—a household name, in fact. Now if only more people knew just what it is that she does.

Throughout her distinguished career, Monk’s unclassifiable performance pieces have won admiration from other composers and musicians, some of whom will perform selected Monk works at the Winter Garden as part of the Meredith Monk 40th Anniversary Concerts that began more than a year ago. The tour takes her to the U.S. coasts and points in between as well as Canada and Europe.

Despite continuing recognition from the cultural mainstream, including a 1995 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship and a three-concert retrospective at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2000, Monk’s work remains relatively unfamiliar outside hardcore enthusiasts. These listeners are, by and large, participants in the loosely confederated avant garde of serious music.

Times change, and the cutting edge is no longer so punishingly sharp as it was when Babbitt and Boulez held sway. Still, even neo-romanticism and the return of tonality do not foreshadow the sheer beauty and freshness of Monk’s work, which synthesizes and reinterprets sonic inspiration from an astonishing range of sources into new musical forms that seem as natural—and as necessary—as breathing.

There is pulsing, generative repetition, but without the numbing repetitiveness of Philip Glass. There is wordless choral singing with novel aspirations, hiccups and whining that transform the human voice, but not in the parodic manner of Bobby McFerrin. And there is physical movement that is integral to the sound.

As is often the case with visionary artists, biographical notes on Monk hint at her influences without fully revealing their impact. Born in Peru, she came to music early, studying piano and eurhythmics, with its inseparable melding of sound and movement. By the time she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, Monk’s artistic vision encompassed singing, filmmaking, choreography and acting, heedless of the boundaries between them.

Interestingly, when Monk began working as a performance artist immediately after graduation, her compatriot Yma Sumac was enjoying an international revival in her club and recording career. Both had a professional interest in music with extremely wide vocal ranges and non-verbal articulations, but for opposite reasons: Sumac, with her freakishly extended five-octave range, became known for “exotica,” an enjoyably kitschy brand of lounge singing with tropical sound effects. Monk, meanwhile, was transcending genre altogether.

In fact, Monk’s feverishly productive output bears closer comparison to that of Richard Wagner. His development of the Gesamkunstwerk—the total theatrical work uniting all the lyric art —changed the course of music history. It finds a direct parallel in Monk’s “composite theater,” in which the boundaries between dancer and musician disappear.

So far, a mere 40 years in, Monk’s catalog lists more than 100 major works ranging from vocal solo and ensemble concerts to opera, film, recordings and site-specific pieces. For a tantalizing sample, visit the website of music publisher Boosey & Hawkes (boosey.com), where you can download minute-long excerpts of two ravishing, highly contrasting works for á cappella chorus: “Astronaut Anthem” (1983), and “Panda Chant II” (1984).

The November 9 tribute at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center is billed as a “West Coast Salute,” featuring the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, noted minimalist composer Terry Riley and the AXIS Dance Company. On November 16, Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble will perform “Book of Days” and other selections. Admission is free; information is available at 212-904-1330 or www.meredithmonk.org.


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