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The Pathfinder

October 14, 2008

We tend to think of composers in groups, whether by era, country, school, or style. Meredith Monk, however, has always stood apart from the crowd. Now nearly half a century into her career, this extraordinarily wide-ranging artist continues to occupy a singular space in contemporary music.
Since the mid-1960s, Monk's work as a composer, vocalist, choreographer, director, and performance artist has yielded dozens of new works, from the groundbreaking opera Atlas (1991) to intimate theater pieces for her own Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble. A pioneer in the use of interdisciplinary performance, she incorporates into her work music and movement, voice and silence, light and image. Distinguished by keen musicianship and a bold sense of theatricality, imbued with a poise derived from her practice as a Zen Buddhist, her works are as unforgettable as they are hard to classify.

This week, Monk makes one of her infrequent visits to the Bay Area with a new work. Songs of Ascension, a multimedia production featuring a score by Monk and visuals by Ann Hamilton, makes its world premiere on October 18 in Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium. Commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts, the performance features Monk and her ensemble, as well as the Todd Reynolds String Quartet and members of the Pacific Mozart Ensemble.

Meredith Monk and Ann Hamilton

After Stanford, Songs of Ascension will be performed at Redcat in Los Angeles; future performances are planned at the Guggenheim Museum and Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

The single-movement, evening-length production promises an enveloping experience, if one that defies easy description. Lively Arts Artistic/Executive Director Jenny Bilfield, who attended a workshop preview of Songs of Ascension last June at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, calls the new work "a transcendent musical movement theater oratorio."
Prayer in Motion
Monk completed Songs in 2007, but traces its genesis back to 2001 and a conversation with Norman Fischer, a poet and former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. "He was talking about the poet Paul Celan, who was writing about some of the Psalms from the Old Testament," Monk recalled in a recent phone call from her home in New York. "It has to do with people coming to Jerusalem to worship at harvest time. There were 15 steps at the temple of Jerusalem, and at each step, they would sing a different psalm.

"This idea of walking and worshipping was fascinating to me, and I thought, 'What would it sound like?' I somehow intuitively felt that this would be my next project."

Over the next few years — a time when she was creating Mercy with Hamilton, and composing her first string quartet, Stringsongs, for the Kronos Quartet — Monk visited Northern California, where Hamilton was constructing an installation on a private ranch near Sonoma. Despite her fear of heights ("my knuckles were white," she says) Monk ascended the interior of the cast concrete structure, designed by Hamilton in the shape of a double helix.

"I was very inspired by the space of the tower," says Monk. "I started thinking how I could make music that has that spiralic structure, with material that might come back in a different context, but really is like one long strand."

The tower is a resonant acoustic environment, and Hamilton, who had worked closely with Monk on Mercy, remembers that first visit well. "Meredith stood inside the tower, and she sang," says the sculptor. "I was outside — it was still under construction — and we were all in tears. The power of her single unamplified voice — it's that basic, amazing thing that she can make happen." Monk and her ensemble performed at the official opening of "The Tower," singing a cappella selections from Atlas, Facing North, and other early works.

Afterward, Monk says she continued to meditate on aspects of ascension. "I was wondering, 'Why is up heaven and down hell?' I started thinking about all the cultures that have these kinds of processions or some kind of worship that goes up. Then, in Buddhist tradition we have circumambulation, which goes around. It's the same in the Muslim tradition, where they go around and around in Mecca. Then I started thinking of it in a more sculptural way. The tower lends itself to vertical relationships, but there's also the 'around' dimension. All of this became a sort of contemplation for me."
A Breathing Art
All of Monk's interests — music, voice, movement, and visuals — came together in the piece, which, in addition to voices and strings, features the shurti, an Indian drone instrument.

"For me, the voice is always primary," she says. "But with this piece, I'm really working with the connection between the voice and the strings. What's interesting is that the strings and shurti have the possibility of long sustained notes, because they don't have to breathe, whereas we have to do breath-linked phrases. But I like to think that the bowing is equivalent to breathing. This was true with the piece for Kronos, as well. In the third movement of Stringsongs, there's a section that sounds as if they are breathing in and breathing out with the bows."

For her part, Hamilton created a series of moving images — birds, animals, ships — that float across the stage and walls of the theater. "The images ellipse," says Hamilton. "They are circling through the space, intersecting in replicating relations. The relationships are never fixed, and the exact coincidence of how they pass each other in space is always changing."

True to its title, Songs of Ascension uses the entire theater — in Minneapolis, the chorus was positioned on three sides of the balcony. "I'm trying to get away from that kind of frontal, pictorial 'frame' kind of presentation, toward a much more immersive experience," says Monk. The work ends with a procession. "We sort of spiral around the audience and then we all lie down — even the string players."
Elemental Discoveries
Monk's interests in voice, music, and theater fused at an early age. A fourth-generation singer (her grandfather was a bass-baritone who emigrated from Russia to the United States), she began "singing melodies" before she could speak. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964, having completed a multidisciplinary performing arts program, and began developing the movement style and extended vocal technique that became her signatures.

"Very early on, I eschewed my movement training to try to find movement that was more fundamental, more primordial," she says. "I tried to eliminate what I had learned, to work organically from inside the body out. That's how I tried to work with my voice, too, from the mid-'60s on, using it as an instrument and exploring all the possibilities that the human voice has as a very eloquent language in itself."

She began composing and performing new works in art galleries and alternative performing spaces in New York City; early pieces included the 1969 theater cantata Juice and the 1976 opera Quarry. Even then, she says her music was hard to categorize. "When I first recorded for ECM, they didn't have a new music series. ECM was a jazz label, so I used to be put in the jazz bins. Later, I was put in the classical bins."

Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble

In 1978, she formed the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble, which has performed and recorded many of her seminal works. Artists from Björk to the San Francisco Symphony Chorus have performed her music. Monk has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a MacArthur "Genius" grant. In 2000 she was honored in a retrospective titled Voice Travel at Lincoln Center. She continues to expand into new territories — her first orchestral piece, Possible Sky, was commissioned by Michael Tilson Thomas for the New World Symphony, which gave its premiere in Miami, in 2003.
The Atlas Dare
Atlas, which premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1991, probably remains her best-known work. David Gockley, who commissioned the opera, remembers it as a groundbreaking — and polarizing — experience.

"It's a fascinating work, unique and otherworldly," says Gockley, now general director of San Francisco Opera. The opera, based on a young woman's exploration of Tibet, was perhaps too otherworldly for the Houston audience. "I remember standing at the back of the audience and experiencing the wrath of angry operagoers getting up from their seats midway through the first act. They were taken aback by it," says Gockley. Yet the opera was critically acclaimed, and went on to successful productions in New York, Paris, and Berlin. Today, Gockley says that Atlas was a strong choice. "It was worth it," he says. "I look back on it as a really positive experience." (The work has yet to be performed in its entirety in the Bay Area, though Monk gave a dazzling performance of excerpts as part of the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks festival in 2000.)

If Atlas was unlike anything that had come before, it was characteristic Monk. The composer takes risks, and seems never to repeat herself. Hers is a direct, primal kind of expression; audiences often come away from her performances feeling they've heard the human voice as they've never heard it before.

"With Meredith's music, you become aware of listening," says Hamilton. "I'm a much better listener now than I was when I began working with her. The work is so precise and so beautiful ... there's an enormous kind of calling in it. It's something very contemporary, and also very ancient."

As Monk prepares for the premiere of Songs of Ascension, she says the work is still very much in progress — as all of her works are, until the moment they're performed.

"As a live performer, of course, our art exists in time, while we're still on the planet. If other people sing my music after I'm gone, that's another situation. But so far, I'm able to be there for the performance, and the performance is part of the creation. I've always tried to start from zero with every piece."

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.