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Meredith Month, Still Cooking

May 8, 2007

Composer-performer Meredith Monk is a bit like a master chef who makes a career of combining seemingly outlandish ingredients, like veal and tuna, and coming up with a superb dish like vitello tonnato. Monk has been coming up with similarly inventive ideas in music, dance, acting, film, and staging since the 1960s. Outlandish combinations? Consider Monk's 1969 cantata Juice, an imposing composition for 85 solo voices, 85 Jew's harps, and two violins.
Along the way, she's garnered just about every major award a creative artist can achieve. Among her prizes have been the MacArthur Fellowship in 1995, three Obies, two Guggenheims, one Dance Magazine Award, and no fewer than five honorary doctorates. That throws a spotlight of anticipation on her solo performance on May 16 at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. Audiences should be prepared for things they never dreamed could be accomplished in a solo recital.

Monk has ceaselessly found new things to do with the human voice, extending both its range and colors for herself and the group she founded in 1978, Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble. They inhabit a modified minimalist world that includes production of assorted sounds not usually associated with singing: hiccups, barks, groans, whining, whistling, and laughter. She has pushed barriers as no one else since perhaps Harry Partch, whose wild musical contraptions were built from found objects.

Many biographies say that Monk was born in Lima, Peru. Were her parents diplomats there? "But it isn't true," she said with a chuckle during a recent telephone conversation. "Someone got onto that idea that I was born in Lima years ago, I don't know how. The rest of the music world grabbed at it and ran with it, even the last Harvard Dictionary. True, I had some relatives living down there, but I was born and raised in New York City. All those Peruvian listings are simply wrong. I've pretty much given up on trying to have it corrected.

"My musical interests began early on," she says. "My mother was a singer, mostly for radio commercials like Rinso White, and cereal commercials. Back in Russia, my grandfather had been a cantor, so I grew up with a natural fascination with music, and singing in particular."

Monk's education in the basics began at Sarah Lawrence College. She graduated in 1964, having majored in voice. "But I was also in the dance department and doing some acting," she says. She went through all the usual rigors of school vocal training, getting into lieder ("mostly, it was the French lieder, and you know, Purcell"). She also appeared in operas and some theater pieces. On the side, she earned a bit of cash singing and playing her guitar at children's birthday parties and in churches. She did some folk singing and even sang with a few rock and roll groups. This breadth of exposure brought her to a vision of what she calls "composite theater."

For Monk, no terrain, physical or aesthetic, is off-limits. Her 1994 American Archeology #1: Roosevelt Island, for instance, took place outdoors amid the ruins of an abandoned hospital, with singers, dancers, and musicians performing in a driving rainstorm. The audience was not permitted to put up umbrellas; most of them stayed anyway, through the entire show and downpour.Monk's music is equally innovative. "The first ideas for my new techniques came to me while I was playing a Jew's harp. You're controlling the notes, overtones, and colors largely by moving your lips and tongue. It then occurred to me that this concept might be applied to singing and instruments, as well.""From there, it became obvious that I could also color the traditional concepts of texture. Using choruses, for example, I like using the men singing in falsetto, while dipping the women's voices into their lowest registers. I had one soprano once complain that she couldn't possible sing a low F below the staff. But she found that she could do it with a bit of help. I just don't think in terms of traditional registers for women and men, and that can produce some amazing sonorities.

"All the while I've tried to give myself freedom, and that's led to constant discovery," Monk says. "People sometimes think that I picked up these ideas traveling around the world, but it's not true. As soloist and as composer, I like to give myself liberty, as I have an aversion to rigid forms.

"I'm really a perfectionist. I feel that the voice is basically a healthy instrument that can do every new thing when we try. On the other hand, I give my ensembles a certain amount of slack. Unless you do that, there's no joy of performance for them," she says. "We all need to learn when to let something go. I think, for instance, that Callas would have made a fantastic mezzo-soprano. But she refused to let go of her big soprano roles once the voice had begun to age. I think that's what destroyed her voice more than anything."

Monk denies, though, that at the self-described age of 62 (64 in many published sources) her own voice might be feeling the strain of all her activities and unusual techniques. "Not really," she says. "Singing is really about breathing. As I've gotten older, my voice has gotten warmer and darker, but the range is still there."
Expect the Unexpected
A major challenge for Monk was the Houston commission for her first opera, Atlas, which premiered there in 1991. "It required 15 singers, and I prefer to work with fresh people rather than professional opera singers, as I don't like operatic vibrato. I spent six months on the auditions alone, and nearly used up my budget on those," recalls Monk. "Atlas went quite well when Houston staged about eight performances. Then there were two or three performances in Philadelphia, before Berlin, Paris, four or five in Brooklyn, and one in Minneapolis. So it got around, which is lucky for any new opera. It had a life. Perhaps there will be more, but the demands are too unusual for traditional casting," she says.

"For my ensemble, I need people willing to move to new ideas, often people just out of their musical schooling. That's part of what Michael Tilson Thomas has done with his New World Symphony in Miami, taking on young players fresh out of Juilliard or the like. He can then prepare them for a professional career in major orchestras. Wonderful!" MTT, in fact, commissioned Monk's Possible Sky for the New World Symphony. Her first piece for orchestra, it premiered in Miami in 2003.

The upcoming JCC concert will be entirely her own. "The first part of my Sunday performance will be solo singing, a cappella. For Part II, I plan to use piano and perhaps other instruments. Possibly a folk instrument from another culture, like India," Monk says. "I plan to give another Bay Area performance soon, in Sonoma County. Ann Hamilton," a contemporary artist, "has built an acoustic tower there on the Steve Oliver Ranch near Geyserville. The ranch contains a number of special art objects, thanks to its owner. I'm writing a new piece for the opening of the tower, and importing five of my ensemble for the performance.

"But it's tricky. The richness of resonance is so high in the tower that if I were to write an arpeggio, it would come out sounding like a chord. Still, it's a challenge like that which has produced much of my best work, be it in films, theater pieces, dance, or music. It can give rise to new forms of rhythmic play, which is what I most look forward to."

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.