Meredith Monk: mercy (ECM New Series 1829)


Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk voice
Theo Bleckmann voice
Allison Easter voice
Katie Geissinger voice
Ching Gonzalez voice
Allison Sniffin voice, piano, synthesizer, viola, violin
John Hollenbeck voice, percussion, melodica, piano
Bohdan Hilash clarinets
Recorded March 19/20, 2002

I regularly have dreams about flying. Said ability never comes, however, without focused and sustained effort on my part. In order to achieve flight, I must push against the air with my arms, gaining height ever so incrementally—sometimes losing altitude on the downswing—until I am in a position to navigate obstacles such as buildings, trees, and power lines. If these dreams had a soundtrack, it might sound something like Volcano Songs, for here is a space in which the human voice soars, to be sure, but not without the utmost discipline on the part of its performers. The “rudimentary” nature of this album serves to accommodate its broader wingspan, thereby widening our view to that much greater distance. As the booklet contains no liner notes, we become integral to the narrative evolution of what passes through our ears.

Created in collaboration with artist Ann Hamilton (whose work I’ve always felt begins and ends with the body, in both its implicit and fully realized forms), mercy is as much a visual composition as it is an aural one. Its scoring is modest: anywhere from one to six voices are accompanied throughout by varied clusters of percussion, piano, and clarinet. In spite of the somewhat scattered programming, most of the pieces have a partner or can be grouped with others. The two “braids” and “leaping song” that open the album, for instance, form a tight weave of likeminded vocal information. Monk runs down their helical spirals with such organic potency that when a piano suddenly makes its presence known, its jazzy syncopation in the left hand almost comes as a shock. Throaty squeals meanwhile ascend toward an aphasic finish, leaving instruments to dance around a private ceremonial fire.

From gong-like meditation to whispered desperation, the psychokinetic interludes that are the three “lines” use more diffuse gestures to express miniscule things. These are not the artist’s marks seeking to define space against non-space. They are the projections of thoughts as vibrations. To “line 3” Monk adds a “prisoner,” whose voice is echoed from a variety of distances as the clink of knuckles on jail cell bars is heard, thus providing the album’s eeriest moments. “doctor-patient” is driven by piano and mallet percussion. Through a haze of illness and infirmity, the body’s internal condition resolves into focus. As the doctor-patient relationship stems from language, the former translates the latter’s internal melodies through external conjugations. In essence, the doctor mimics the ailment in question, hence his echoing of the patient’s literal cry for help. “woman at the door” transcends communicative barriers with the possibility of silence. Slight dissonances operate rather like a hearing test, eventually unwinding into an alluring cascade of voices, leaving us with a solitary invitation: “Come in, come in.”

As I listen to the final track, “core chant,” I am wont to ask myself: What chant? The core of what? Perhaps our first clue into either query is the seemingly abrupt ending, the incompleteness of which is rendered inconsequential, for without even the most basic morpheme at one’s disposal the pantheon of meaning begins to crumble in the face of more immediate auditory signatures. In the end, the performers’ humility is the most vital dynamic of the music in question, personal and steadfast in light of its possible resolution.

Monk’s is not a world in which the voice is primary but rather a voice in which the world is primary. Her centrality ensures that she is not alone, spared the burden of carrying the others, while also making her utterances the most visible. The variety of instrumental arrangements represented on mercy shows us some of the more tangible aspects of her compositional process, balancing beautifully with the voices’ less mechanical nature. “urban march (shadow),” for one, features an almost harp-like synthesizer, while its exuberant cousin, “urban march (light),” boasts enthralling percussion and ecstatic chanting. Just as the body remains unseen in the recorded voice, so too does the instrument betray its own biology through the unleashing of its sound. Of course, the voice is also an instrument, and nowhere more so than in the rhythmic mosaic of “masks,” where breath alone imparts the voice its defining shape.

My flying dreams typically end the same way. The fatigue becomes overpowering and I must seek solid ground. Yet I always seem to land in a high place. Rather than empowering me, this humbles me to the landscape I have just traversed, reminding me of its insurmountable vastness, which is always greater than the sum of my actions. So, too, do we end mercy on a higher place from where we began. And is that not one possible outcome of mercy? Does compassion always leave one elevated? Fortunately, we are given the freedom to answer such questions differently every time we listen.

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