Meredith Monk: Facing North (ECM New Series 1482)

Meredith Monk
Facing North

Meredith Monk voice, piano, organ, pitch pipe
Robert Een voice, pitch pipe
Recorded April 1992, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

While working on her opera Atlas during a residency in Banff, Meredith Monk found herself drawn to the Canadian wilderness just outside her window. Perhaps inspired by the stillness of snow and the silent steps of animals pressed into it, Monk developed Facing North out of a desire to evoke that same profound stasis, an opportunity to reconnect to something taken for granted. “As I worked,” she writes, “I tried to evoke the elemental, bracing clarity of the northern landscape. I realized then that ‘north’ is also a state of mind.” Monk’s multilayered compositions are always a state of mind, but Facing North is especially potent in this regard. The piece is distinguished by its dual landmarks. Two “Northern Lights” sections are played on pitch pipes and seem to function as invocations. Acting as artificial threads, they translate the breath into a vocal sound, substituting tracheae with factory-honed tubes and vibrating metal plates. Like the ritual sweeping of a temple, every strand seems to clear the stage for arrival, leading a modest procession into sacred space. The two “Long Shadows” sections, however, are vocally dominant, describing the ending of one journey and the beginning of another. These both upset and grant structure to the piece as a whole. Other movements bristle with creative fervor. “Chinook” is a medley of voiced postalveolar fricatives that circles around itself like two flies in the morning light, unable to figure out who is chasing whom. “Keeping Warm” is sung in short bursts. We hear movement, implied footsteps, some slapping of the body. It is rhythmic but not a dance; it is survival amid the elements. Sure to please is “Arctic Bear,” an open game of cries and hiccups, darkened by Een’s distant howls. In spite of its icy atmosphere, Facing North is equally about arid interiors drenched in endless daylight, illuminating the delicate cartography of the body and its relationship with the life-giving (and death-bringing) earth.

Two shorter selections round out the disc. First is a scaled-down version of Vessel: an opera epic. At its center lies the story of Joan of Arc, while at its periphery spreads the story of a landscape divided by human contact. Though it may not seem like it when caught up in the moment, Monk roams through a great number of techniques throughout this piece. An organ provides a lush backdrop to her gallery of overdubbed stuttering, fluid calls, playful cries, dirges, lullabies, overtone singing, flying leaps, and ululations. Last but not least is “Boat Song,” excerpted from the opera Recent Ruins. This is one of those quintessential Meredith Monk moments that is at once familiar and mysterious. It is the enigma of what lives and breathes inside us, veiled in darkness and in silence, yet given voice in the outer world.

Like so much of Monk’s music, everything on this album was conceived for the stage. As such, it is rife with spatial possibilities, limited only by the listener’s imagination. The melodies are extremely organic, following a path that existed long before there were feet to press it into being. Stepping into this album is like stepping into another dimension in which the same objects exist around us, seemingly unchanged, yet from which we can never completely extrapolate a sense of purposeful belonging. We may find a piece of ourselves floating above the voices of an entirely descriptive universe, yet even as we fly off into those lands where the sun shines brightest and longest, we can never find ourselves without listening to the endless nights of what our hearts prefer.

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