Meredith Monk: Songs of Ascension (ECM New Series 2154)

Songs of Ascension

Meredith Monk
Songs of Ascension

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble
Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Ching Gonzalez, Meredith Monk, Bruce Rameker, Allison Sniffin voices
Bohdan Hilash woodwinds
John Hollenbeck percussion
Allison Sniffin violin
Todd Reynolds Quartet
Todd Reynolds violin
Courtney Orlando violin
Nadia Sirota viola
Ha-Yang Kim violoncello
The M6
Sasha Bogdanowitsch, Sidney Chen, Emily Eagan, Holly Nadal, Toby Newman, Peter Sciscioli voices
Montclair State University Singers
Heather J. Buchanan conductor
Recorded November 2009, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineers: James Farber and Paul Zinman
Assistants: Nelson Wong and Sean Mair
Editing engineer: Paul Zinman
Location Recording Service: SoundByte Productions Inc., New York
Mixed at Avatar Studios, New York by James Farber, Manfred Eicher, and Meredith Monk
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher

These pieces grew out of inspiration from poet Paul Celan, whose “Song of Ascents” suggested heavenly upward motion, and by extension a project to explore the sacrality of directions. Fortuitously, composer Meredith Monk was asked by artist Ann Hamilton to perform on site in Geyserville, California, where an eight-story tower with staircases in the shape of a double helix awaited Monk and her dedicated musicians. The beauty of the image, despite its live-giving implications, is that a helix has no up or down—or, rather, embodies both simultaneously—so that divinity comes to be expressed through suspension of the body.

As Monk’s subtlest assemblage, Songs of Ascension births a masterfully realized bioform. I use the adverb not lightly, because only mastery could stretch such a stable tightrope between being and non-being and walk between the two as easily as falling. To her vocal montage Monk adds string quartet, percussion, and woodwinds, for an amalgamated effect of such intimate proportions that the seemingly massive roster only serves to compress the music’s molecules into a galaxy of interpretation: it holds its shape by strength in numbers, an ethereal note inked in long before the earth dotted it on the then-blank score of outer space.

Indeed, one might trace an evolution of global life in the album’s embedded structures. Four seasonal “variations” and three so-called “clusters” are its spiritual campgrounds, from which sparks fling themselves into the night sky as the firewood settles. Songs are intoned and invoked, touched by percussion and overlapping strings, and moving in unison renderable only through total corporeal commitment. Gatherings and inner psalms blur into one another until the topography changes into air. Whether in the pointillism of “cloud code” or the ricocheting pings of “burn,” the topographic circles of “mapping” or the piercing meditation of “fathom,” a consistency of vision prevails. The instrumental passages are just as vocal, the vocal just as instrumental.

Songs of Ascension brings the atmosphere down to soil level. It speaks a continuity of earth and sky, the elemental composition of which draws notecraft from the farthest reaches of the universe, which happen to reside between our ears.

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