Meredith Monk voice, piano, organ, mini-moog, casio
Andrea Goodman voice
Paul Langland voice
Robert Een voice
Julius Eastman organ
Steve Lockwood organ
Collin Walcott organ, didjeridoo
Recorded June/July 1982 and January 1983 in New York and Ludwigsburg
Engineers: John Kilgore, Thomas Lazarus / Howard Kaufman, Phil Lee, M. Monk, M. Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Collin Walcott
The shell of Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams is, like that of its eponymous animal, of cellular design and impenetrable strength while also housing a fragile heart within. This turtle’s heart is the album’s rhythmic center, represented through the regularity of the organ that opens the title track. The instrument is stripped of effects, direct and without pretension. We meet a voice that might be described as eerie, yet which with a few deep listens reveals its sobering honesty. A second vocalist mimics these incantations. Their combined syllables feel precisely notated and yet free, as if passed down orally rather than through the written page. Eventually the voices rise into mechanical sirens, becoming protracted and devoid of the regularity that has spawned them, until they bubble and froth. The organ stops suddenly, leaving vocal trails to flash and fade like shooting stars. Notes ululate and dance, congregating like insects—dispersed with the wave of a hand, only to return in greater chorus. The first movement ends with return of the two voices, only now slightly askew and in freefall, as other voices rise in countermeasure before fading against the organ, which continues its commentary before deciding on a contentious chord.
The second movement, “View 1,” introduces a sharper pianistic sound. The music is so precise and so cyclical that it almost resembles that of video games, which must also be open-ended so that it can be looped seamlessly (and potentially endlessly) to match the imagery for which it was composed. A single voice comes in, post-processed with a shallow echo, presaging a similarly processed keyboard that slathers the music with nostalgia. Against Monk’s private songs, two voices interject like teasing children. The electric piano then signals a shift in narrative. No longer is the human voice responsible for telling us the tale, but is instead co-opted by silence, reminding us that the same realm which guards our cherished past is the same realm from which arises the most hurtful things. A modulated synthesizer shows its face before bringing the movement to a close.
Next is “Engine Steps,” in which timed silence breeds an unusual industrial rhythm, like a conveyor belt carrying things to be stamped and shipped out into the universe.
A diminutive voice laces the following “Ester’s Song,” a brief peek into the mind of a child at play.
“View 2” signals the organ’s final return, carrying upon its back the same choral cargo. The single voice, the narrative voice, becomes divided, speaking of ancestors, each of whom casts a single lure into Ester’s mind. Her hair grows, but her face stays the same.
The title of the album as a whole, aside from being rather evocative, also might just be the most accurate description of the mood contained therein. For what is a turtle, if not a living being whose body is its home, whose life is lived in and near water, and whose dreams must also be liquid, submerged, and full of the sounds of the marsh. As with much of Monk’s compositional work, what we get on this CD is only half the journey, complimented as it is by dance and imagery. The brief clips available online don’t seem to do justice to the overall shape and feel of what I am sure is a far more inclusive live experience. Nevertheless, the descriptive power of Monk’s wordlessness is staggering, and albums like this one continue to enlarge the scope of linguistic possibility. I can only hope it might do the same for all who listen.