Meredith Monk: impermanence (ECM New Series 2026)

Meredith Monk
impermanence

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble
Theo Bleckmann voice
Ellen Fisher voice
Katie Geissinger voice
Ching Gonzalez voice
Meredith Monk voice
Allison Sniffin voice
Sasha Bogdanowitsch voice
Silvie Jensen voice
Allison Sniffin piano, violin
John Hollenbeck percussion
Bohdan Hilash woodwinds
Recorded January 2007, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“War belongs to our souls as an archetypal truth of the cosmos…. To this terrible truth we may awaken, and in awakening give all our passionate intensity to subverting war’s enactment, encouraged by the courage of culture, even in dark ages, to withstand war and yet sing.”
–James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War

I start with this provocative comment from author James Hillman for two reasons. First, for the way it fogs its breath over an unsettling facet of creative expression: namely, that the shape of our singing is often determined by violence. Second, because Meredith Monk’s impermanence opens with “last song,” a piece inspired by Chapter 2 of The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life, also by Hillman, in which the author writes: “By putting closure to a series of events that otherwise could run on and on, the last time is outside serial time, transcendent.” Perhaps no other statement could describe Monk’s latest ECM project more astutely. To be impermanent is indeed to transcend time, shrugging off rules like so much weight from the proverbial shoulders. The core message of Character stresses the primacy of the body in the acquisition of wisdom. In saying as much, Hillman also recognizes the value of life in precisely the moment at which it fades. Hence his take on war, which dives into the rubble of our denial and emerges with a body that is nothing if not the human experience personified.

For those of us who place ourselves outside its shadow, war would seem an impossible ideal, a reality in which utter ruin can be the only outcome. What we are so often led to forget—and on that note, I can only speak for myself—is that war is a multivalent term. The crossing of arms over contested borders may be no more fraught with tragedy than, say, the equally unstable terrain of our emotional battlegrounds. That such language has crept into the vocabularies of our internal lives is proof positive of the power of language to mold human relationships. In light of this, the act of memorializing trauma may seem a primal and universal phenomenon to those who have no investment in its implications. And yet, the process of forging an immediate conveyance of meaningful representation in the wake of death is one filled with choices, and it is these choices that keep it from merely being filed in the annals of psychoanalysis as a narcissistic reflex against loss. For although this album grew out of perhaps the most profound of losses (that of Monk’s partner Mieke van Hoek), there is much to be cultivated from the wisdom of its traumatic seeds. The music throughout this emotional document, drawn from the voice of a life unhinged, marks an auroral trajectory with its own lungs. Although a six-year gap separates impermanence from Monk’s previous ECM effort, mercy, it is filmed with lifetimes’ worth of residue.

Condensed from the larger synesthetic composition of the same name, as we encounter it here impermanence is far from incidental to its source. Here, Monk branches out from her usual diatonic trunk into more chromatic foliage. The staples of her craft are dutifully maintained: cyclical patterns and semantic dissolutions, keyboard parts that lumber like human figures, and a suitable array of extended techniques. The ordering of pieces suggests a structure that may crumble at any time yet which is all the more resilient for its empty spaces. From the clattering metal of “disequilibrium” to the ethereal rounds of “passage,” there is a clear lingual flow to be distinguished. Some of the sounds, such as can be found in “sweep 1,” are organic and vulnerable, while others, such as the clattering of “particular dance,” are picked apart like ancient automatons. Ultimately, the reverberations of the digital recording process lend such music a parable quality. Rather than being didactic, the lessons to be learned have more to do with silence than with moral truths. Our habit of reading prescriptive meanings into the human archive is an endless circle, an offering of shadow in a realm without light. Here, at least, we can cast aside such shackles and take comfort in the liminal.

Monk humbles me with her consistency in engendering new experiences. This album is a fine example of her indomitable generative spirit. This may very well be her textually richest album thus far, though it has its fair share of gracious confusion and impossible-to-complete sentiments. Her aphasia is distinctly her own, and I believe its frequency serves to interpolate speech into the human body. As such, it is anything but narrative. As with so much of Monk’s (sub)textual work, every semantic concept is consistently wound and unwound, so that by the end the word’s immediate power is at once erased and underlined. Much like the disc upon which they have been digitally imprinted, these songs epitomize the album’s title. As concepts, they are dead the moment they are uttered. As utterances, they are reborn as concepts the moment they are silenced.

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