Meredith Monk: Do You Be (ECM New Series 1336)

Meredith Monk
Do You Be

Meredith Monk voice, piano, synthesizer
Robert Een voice
Ching Gonzalez voice
Andrea Goodman voice
Wayne Hankin voice, keyboards, bagpipes
Naaz Hosseini voice, violin
Nicky Paraiso voice
Nurit Tilles piano, voice, keyboards
Johanna Arnold voice
John Eppler voice
Edmund Niemann piano
Recorded June 1986 and January 1987, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg and Clinton Sounds, New York
Engineers: Martin Wieland and James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The appearance of words in Meredith Monk’s work can be rather jolting, as it is so easy for one to get used to the lack of semantic footholds. Like few other vocalists (Elizabeth Fraser comes to mind), Monk grinds the surface of what is being conveyed to such a fine patina that quantifiable meaning is often no longer necessary. Her vocal ramblings are mimetic, purposeful. Monk ably switches between registers and modes with lightning precision, creating a veritable conversation in and through a single body, gazing in multiple directions in the same breath.

Do You Be is a Meredith Monk hodgepodge culled from an assortment of operas and theater pieces. As such, it contains more in the way of quantifiable semantics.

We open with four selections from Acts From Under And Above. A synth ruptures the silence that precedes “Scared Song,” in which Monk’s immediately recognizable voice furls and unfurls itself across a text that blurs the line between confession and innocent recollection. And just when we have been primed to embark on yet another wordless journey, we recognize the emergence of narrative from its constituent parts as she sings:

And a runnin’ and a skatin’
and a runnin’ and a skatin’
and a runnin’ and a skatin’
A runnin’ and a skatin’    A runnin’ and a skatin’
A runnin’ and a skatin’    A runnin’ and a skatin’    A run, oh I’m scared
Oh I’m scared, oh she’s scared, oh she’s scared
Scared, oh he’s scared, scared    Oh, oh, oh, oh

This rondele of sorts is self-contained, and as such bars its own interpretive cycle from completion. Enter piano, coloring the sound with a somewhat harsh and underlying urgency, and a series of fragmentary commentaries. “I Don’t Know” continues pianistically, now in quieter accompaniment. Against this faded backdrop, Monk squeals and dips, sounding veritably bird-like as she hops among the branches of her scant libretto:

So what, what do you know?
What, what do you know?
I don’t know, I don’t know

and variations thereof. She seems to inhabit the edges of these words, picking at their scabbed edges until those membranes join the dust of countless expelled breaths. “Window In 7’s” comprises a brief interlude, a linear narrative upon a road that is freshly paved, yet which also retains all the old potholes and cracks that its travelers remember so well, and along which we proceed with the regularity of a printing press. “Double Fiesta” abounds with sublime vocal reflections. A second piano joins the first, playing a staccato note that becomes almost indistinguishable from Monk’s voice as it punctuates the audio landscape like a Morse code signal. Monk laughs, but musically—that is, in accordance with a predetermined time signature. She lowers herself, only to rise higher with each recapitulation. Amid a series of motives, she leans back and laughs. And with this the pianos build to a crescendo and release.

The next piece is our title track and is excerpted from Vessel: An Opera Epic. “Do You Be” ululates and runs around in frantic circles. As with much of her earlier work, Monk plumbs the depths of communication.

This is followed by a representative selection from The Games. “Panda Chant I” works in a round, tracing its center with the throat and coloring it in with air. Unpretentiously built around the syllables “PAN-DA,” an a cappella ensemble provides its own rhythm and direction. “Memory Song” lays down a delicate Casio ostinato, over which women’s voices skip like stones across water, jumping octaves with beautiful ease. They narrate from a space in between German and English:

Ich vergesse, Ich vergesse, vergesse, vergesse
Ich vergesse, vergesse, vergesse
(I forget)
Ich vergesse, vergesse, vergesse
Ich vergesse

Trees, trees
Oh trees, birds
Oh trees, birds, coffee, coffee, coffee
Do you remember, do you remember, do you remember…

as a violin comes and goes, arising in solo at last as if to mourn while also paving the way to resurrection. The voices speak through their song:

Trees, birds
Champagne, champagne, champagne
Football, football, football
Cherries, cherries, cherries

After a sylvan cacophony, there is a litany of memories:

I remember mushrooms
I remember candlelight
I remember early morning coffee
I remember fish
I remember newspapers
(Ich erinnere mich an altes Großsteinpflaster)
I remember a black Suzuki
(Ich erinnere das Tischgebet)
I remember aspirin
I’m thinking about Shakespeare’s garden

As Monk so brilliantly demonstrates time and time again, after the rather startling aphasia that lulls us into this unusual sense of communion, when hearing language in its more standard form, even the most innocuous asides take on fresh meaning. “Panda Chant II” is another a cappella round. Perhaps a distant cousin of the Ramayana Monkey Chant, it similarly recreates the chattering of lush forestland.

“Quarry Lullaby” is our only selection from Quarry, and opens with a plaintive male voice, joined in unison by a female one, and still by others in counterpoint. The piece builds to a fine display of extended vocal techniques. As the dirge ends, it lays itself bare to a strange animal rhythm, the complexity of which lies in the open spaces that it leaves unbreathed upon.

We close with two more selections from The Games. “Astronaut Anthem” inhabits, as its title would imply, the depths of outer space, reaching us only through a sort of dynamic motionlessness, like that of a comet in the sky. It unfolds with the resonance of medieval polyphony and is certainly the most “atmospheric” piece on the album. Its resplendent harmonic twists and soaring sensibility; its confluence of title and musical expression; its closing sirens that hurtle themselves into the ether with the force of rocket propulsion—all of these elements make for a mystical experience. For the final “Wheel,” the listener is fed on bagpipes and a linear vocal line. It is a fitting closing that proceeds like end credits rolling over characters’ faces in freeze-frame. Memories still move among us, but we know the story must end. Accepting this end, we find great beauty in the solace it promises. The bagpipes summon shrill breath, even as the vocal after-effects linger with the assurance of something that will outlive us all.

Listening to this music we might swear we’ve heard it before, for it may very well tap into something familiar but hidden, something intimately touched by the promise of singing and sealed by the taste of mortality.

<< Steve Tibbetts: Exploded View (ECM 1335)
>> Norma Winstone: Somewhere Called Home (ECM 1337)

4 thoughts on “Meredith Monk: Do You Be (ECM New Series 1336)

  1. Excellent review, and I greatly enjoy this album, but it is no longer available on Spotify in the US. What gives? Please bring it back.

    A couple of corrections to the above transcription of the text:

    “Ich versessen” should be “Ich vergesse”

    “Chairs, chairs, chairs” should be “Cherries, cherries, cherries”

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