Meredith Monk: On Behalf Of Nature (ECM New Series 2473)

2473 X

Meredith Monk
On Behalf Of Nature

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble
Sidney Chen, Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Meredith Monk, Bruce Rameker, Allison Sniffin
voices
Bohdan Hilash 
woodwinds
John Hollenbeck percussion
Allison Sniffin piano, keyboard, violin, French horn
Laura Sherman harp
Recorded June 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 21, 2016

Since 1981’s Dolmen Music, Meredith Monk has contributed an integral DNA segment of ECM’s evolution as a label. But at no time in history has she felt as poignant as in On Behalf Of Nature. Tracing echoes of relevance to today’s social, spiritual, and terrestrial climate, the album is a mouthpiece for those who are voiceless, epitomized in the lone wooden flute that opens “Dark/Light 1.” As a call born of its own will to be heard, it flowers by nourishment of an egoless sun. Such can be also said of Meredith Monk and her vocal ensemble, whose own voices shape that same will selflessly, dutifully, necessarily—because opportunities to do so are dwindling more rapidly than can be articulated by breath and touch. By these signs is established a grammar that lives beyond codification, yet which is felt in the body even as it wanders into our dreams.

While the 19 offerings placed on this altar of creative sacrifice belong to the same ecosystem, Monk seems to link them to three distinct streams of consciousness. The most visceral of these is accessible in three pieces titled “Environs,” in which the fearful heart trembling at the core of a scarred earth sheds both light and darkness on injuries in which we would much rather never admit complicity. Deep yet delicate, these are about as honest as music gets.

A second stream is heard flowing through the album’s largest forests, which acclimate themselves in the prepared piano of “Ritual Zone,” the prophetic violin of “Memory Zone,” and the joyful cries of “Harvest.” Further gifts emerge in “Duet with Shifting Ground,” “Evolution,” and “Water/Sky Rant.” The latter’s harp-infused anthem of abuse, recovery, and hope is perhaps the most powerful statement Monk has ever committed to record. Each of these is a chamber of truths that have existed since the dawn of humanity, reminding us that harmony must be chosen, not expected. As by the ligaments of “Spider Web Anthem,” cohesion requires patient work and purpose by which to cultivate it.

Such connective tissue is the mantra enlivening interlinear pieces throughout. Through them flow the base elements of all life, whether natural (“Eon”) or human-made (“Pavement Steps”). Therein beats the heart of a question that cannot be spoken yet whose answer is so clear as to be anxiety-inducing. It is not the planet itself but those on it without the means to communicate their traumas across electronic signals or paper who sing. On Behalf Of Nature, then, is their stage: an album so relevant as to be worthy of beaming into outer space in the hopes of clearing a path to salvific inner spaces.

Meredith Monk: Piano Songs (ECM New Series 2374)

Piano Songs

Meredith Monk
Piano Songs

Ursula Oppens piano
Bruce Brubaker piano
Recorded April 2012 at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts
Recording and editing engineer: Jody Elff
Assistant engineer: Jeremy Sarna
Project coordination: Peter Sciscioli
Score preparation: Allison Sniffin
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Meredith Monk and Allison Sniffin

This 2014 release marks the third instance of “songs” in a Meredith Monk ECM album title, following Songs of Ascension and Volcano Songs. And yet, aside from the occasional rhythmic chant, you will find no voices here. Even so, these pieces for one and two pianos sing with as much viscereal power as any of Monk’s more well-known ensemble projects.

Representing a 35-year period from 1971 to 2006, the program seems to ask: What does a song embody? The root of the word is incantation, and the magical, ritualistic functions that meaning implies. And certainly, few descriptors could describe Monk’s output (and input) so well. Hers is a continent of generative design, an environmentally aware space in which the tactility of melody fades in deference to its intangible worlding. The real question is, then: What does a song disembody?

According to Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker: everything.

Monk session

Piano Songs is an album in the second person. It tells the story of your lives and mine, of anyone willing to join Monk’s sacred circle and hear the sonority of a biography unfold. In this respect, “Paris” (1972) is a highlight, for it represents the composer’s return to the piano after an intense period of concentration on the human voice. It begins innocently enough but throws canvases from windows and watches them crash to the streets below, thus breaking through an amnesic barrier toward the shedding of earthly possessions. It’s one of two solo pieces played by Oppens, who for contrast navigates the snowy streets of “St. Petersburg Waltz” (1993) as might a bird its most familiar patch of bramble. Brubaker plays two solos of his own. The 1981 “Railroad (Travel Song)” is among the more overtly programmatic selections. You can feel the metronome of the tracks beneath you. “Window in 7’s” (1986), on the other hand, is a nowhere-specific tessellation of heptatonic arpeggios.

Among the pieces written for two pianos, 1996’s “Obsolete Objects” makes for an evenly balanced introduction to this skeletal yet emotionally multifaceted soundscape. “Ellis Island” (1981) is another descriptive wonder, in which properties of water and hints of ocean brine shake the global web of personal histories as if it were an instrument. Here is the terrible yet beautiful mystery of it all, where the only life preserver you have left is the wreath of memories around your neck. “Folkdance” (1996) digs to the base of the self, clapping and chanting as if to confirm the illusion that is your body. And so, you stomp your feet on the ground, bridging traditions of an untouchable past and the immanence of an unknowable future.

And then there are three pieces arranged for two pianos by Brubaker: further transformations of impulse into form. From the triangle-turned-pyramid that is “urban march (shadow)” (2001) through the pagoda of “Tower” (1971) and on to the intimate “Parlour Games” (1988), each brings you face to face with open interpretations, each a picture connected to the next until together they mimic reality like a film.

Part of the appeal of Piano Songs is that its titles are virtually interchangeable. Not because they all sound the same, but because there is something of each in the other. For example, the synchronicities of “totentanz” (2006) might work just as well under the title of “Phantom Waltz” (1989), while the latter’s dissonance might likewise signal a dance of death. Whatever we may choose to call them, they are fragments of Monk’s soul, spun from essence to object, and from object to open breath.

If you are new to Monk, I would suggest that you start with Dolmen Music and Book of Days, if only because it is good to first love the soil, so that the diamonds will seem but one of its infinite treasures.

(To hear samples of Piano Songs, click here.)

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.

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.

Meredith Monk: mercy (ECM New Series 1829)

 

Meredith Monk
mercy

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.

Meredith Monk: Volcano Songs (ECM New Series 1589)

 

Meredith Monk
Volcano Songs

Meredith Monk voice
Katie Geissinger voice
Allison Easter voice
Dina Emerson voice
Harry Huff piano
Nurit Tilles piano
Recorded July 1995, Clinton Studios, NYC
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Tina Pelikan

The Random House Dictionary defines volcano as “a vent in the earth’s crust through which lava, steam, ashes, etc., are expelled, either continuously or at irregular intervals.” In spite of human fears, the volcano is vital to the earth’s formation, sculpting the very landscapes we inhabit. For Meredith Monk, it would seem more importantly a source of fertility, and it is from this fertility that she opens herself to the generative spirit that infuses the world as a living organism. In this sense, she vocalizes a point of continuity between herself and listener, between the illusions of recorded sound and the illusions of physical bodies.

Like their referent, Monk’s Volcano Songs (1993-94) reveal the earth’s hidden forces, at once violent and graceful, as they are embodied in the human form. Fissures in the great cosmic wheel release their breath in chant, foregoing the detriment of words in search of untinctured expression. Therein lies the great irony of this music, and of the earthly condition that engenders its existence: namely, that in order to express detachment one must hold steadfastly to the ephemeral utterance as a point of departure. Hence the uncanny splitting of the self we find between Monk and Katie Geissinger in the duet portions of the Volcano cycle (for indeed, were I unaware of the album’s personnel, I might have thought that Monk was overdubbing herself). Undulating breaths open into distant cries, like shepherdesses reaching deep into their lungs to lure their spiritual flocks out into the open. For all their microtonal friction, grunting expulsions, and sustained laments, these songs cut through the darkness like lightning bolts in slow motion. Of note are the guttural “Boat Man” and the playful “Skip Song.” In these, Monk’s mimicry is at its most humble, fleshing out evocative characters and histories with the most minimal of palettes. And how can one resist the siren-like ascents and delicately applied throat singing techniques of “Old Lava,” with its appropriately languid crawl, dripping like molten rock?

Although New York Requiem (1993), for piano and voice, profoundly intersects with the AIDS epidemic and is, says Monk, “really about all kinds of loss,” for me it is also about gain: of awareness, of situatedness in one’s sociopolitical surroundings, and perhaps even of silence. By the latter, I mean to imply that, through the art of wordless singing (for what requiem is without a text?), Monk has caressed the contours of mourning with a uniquely feathery touch so as not to disturb the memories being circumscribed. It is a slogging, diaphragmed journey in which narration must be forged rather than found. A truly heartfelt composition matched by an equally committed performance.

St. Petersburg Waltz (1993) is a solo piano piece that peers back into Monk’s genealogical roots. Falling with the solemnity of snow on wide streets and narrow alleys, its columnar gestures and understated motives were “inspired by the idea of a place rather than the place itself.” Thus is the complex web of genetics and circumstance delineated only vaguely, a ragged film reel on its last revolution, its swan song fading like a credit roll in the throes of this digital age. We find in its preservation an archival quality that speaks of a history beyond the confines of personal reflection.

Three Heavens and Hells (1992) sets a poem of the same name by an 11-year-old Tennessee Reed. In a humble quartet of voices, Monk and her sistren unravel a rather brief splash of words into a vaster ocean of implications. They open with an invocation:

There are three heavens and hells

Every breath seems to revel in the words, underscoring the unity of the flesh that binds them in worldly care. Over a precise macramé of chants and variations, the voices continue:

People, heaven, and hell
Animal, heaven, and hell
Things, heaven, and hell

Reed tellingly uses the word “animal” in the singular, thereby planting the text into a more unified field of impression and evocation. A deeper exploration of each word ensues, where “People” are mournful, pitying; “Animal” abounds with calls of the wild; and “Things” become externally convoluted yet internally ordered. Latched as we are onto the lure of meaning, a single question hangs over us:

What do the three heavens and hells look like?

This unreachable dilemma constricts our understanding of the piece’s thematic core, and renders any possible answer a barrier to enlightened solutions. In the end, we are left with:

Heaven, heaven, heaven
Hell, hell, hell

And as we flounder in the wake of our own attentions throughout this 21-minute piece, we come to realize that the act of listening doesn’t always mean being a receiver, that it can just as easily suspend the mask of the questioner from our attentive ears. On a side note, the strong rhythmic breathing throughout this piece plays a role not unlike beatboxing in modern hip-hop, and puts me in mind of Björk’s Medulla-era vocal menageries—which makes me curious as to the contemporary shadows that might be hovering at the edges of either artist’s ever-evolving craft.

The album ends intimately with two of Monk’s Click Songs (1988). These self-styled “duets for solo voice” further expand upon the refracted aesthetics through which the album’s opening seeps, thereby calling our attention to the finality of subjecthood and the selfish desires that are its attendants.

Compared to Monk’s six previous ECM New Series efforts, Volcano Songs is perhaps the most intimately recorded. Microphones seem fully embedded in these voices, subtly processed for reverberant effect. Ultimately, I feel that one gets out of this music only what one is willing to lay at its feet. It is both the beauty and the tragedy of the human voice: in pulling at the threads of our emotions, we must undo one thing to communicate another, so that by the end we have forgotten where we started, inhaling an idea that may very well outlive us. And just as a volcano spews forth its scalding breath into the atmosphere, so too must we eventually exhale, licking the fragile layer that separates our survival ever so delicately from the blank space beyond. The magic of Monk’s music is that it offers a glimpse of that other side, in terms that we can relate to.

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.

Meredith Monk: Atlas (ECM New Series 1491/92)

Meredith Monk
Atlas

Carlos Arévalo voice
Thomas Bogdan voice
Victoria Boomsma voice
Janis Brenner voice
Allison Easter voice
Robert Een voice
Emily Eyre voice
Katie Geissinger voice
Dana Hanchard voice
Wendy Hill voice
Meredith Monk voice
Ching Gonzalez voice
Dina Emerson voice
Robert Osborne voice
Wilbur Pauley voice
Radall Wong voice
Shi-Zheng Chen voice
Stephen Kalm voice
Susan Iadone violin
Darryl Kubian violin
Kathleen Carroll viola
Anthony Pirollo cello
Meredith Monk cello
John Cipolla clarinets
Wayne Hankin shawm, sheng, recorder
Wayne Hankin conductor
Steve Lockwood keyboards
Cynthia Powell keyboards
Thad Wheeler percussion
James F. Wilson french horn
Recorded June 1992 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Meredith Monk’s first opera Atlas received its premier at the Houston Grand Opera in February of 1991 and is by far one of her most beautifully realized works. Much of the opera came to the studio in sketches, only to be solidified through improvisation and the synergy of performing with a handpicked group of singers. Inspired by Alexandra David-Néel’s classic book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, the opera’s three acts trace the personal quest of its heroine, also Alexandra, through a life rich in material and spiritual experience. The libretto is so scant that it fits snuggly into this review in its entirety. And while the lack of words certainly challenges operatic norms, it is to no ill effect. If anything, it heightens the work’s profundity.

I. Personal Climate
A young Alexandra takes solace in the domestic comforts of her girlhood, all the while dreaming of what awaits her once she goes out in the world. A minimal overture opens into the comely “Travel Dream Song.” Keyboard arpeggios and a small instrumental ensemble cradle Alexandra’s yearning in a tender embrace. She looks skyward on her swing, running through the majestic details of a life lived in transit:

Mountains…cities…steamships…grass skirts…canyons…cinnabar.

After the haunting overtone singing of “Rite of Passage A,” we come to a crucial intersection in the opera’s crossroads. “Choosing Companions” presents Alexandra’s recruitment of the travelers who will help make her dream a reality. A knock at the door introduces each potential companion, who arrives with a résumé of attributes. The first knock reveals a man who speaks in Mandarin before continuing in English:

Wǒ hěn jiānqiáng.
I am strong.
My heart is broken.
I am a good cook.

The Chinese translates to “I am strong,” and the repetition in English opens a linguistic crack in the opera’s already fragile edifice. Another knock, and in walks a boastful, well-seasoned adventurer:

I own my own equipment.
I’ve got a strong stomach.
I’m good looking.

The last knock introduces the practical explorer:

I have desire.
I have a dry sense of humor, good hiking boots.

Each of these spoken lists is followed by a bit of singing meant to convey the constitution of each character, and takes a rather humorous turn when the egotist sings terribly off key despite his most valiant efforts. “Airport” is the most complex section of the opera, and builds to a fiery climax as a man intones, “Three, Four, One,” until silence overtakes him.

II. Night Travel
This central section features some of the most eclectic sounds in the opera. From the exquisite introductory melody to the apocalyptic “Possibility of Destruction,” we are treated to a sort of aural travel by which the listener is transported along with its subjects. Of note here are the working songs of “Agricultural Community,” and of course Janis Brenner’s brilliant banshee-like vocals and Shi-Zheng Chen’s fearful tremors in “Hungry Ghost.” A glass harmonica introduces a major climate shift in “Ice Demons,” carrying on with laughter and thematic resolution. “Explorer #5” brings more spoken text into the fray:

She can hear for miles.
She is very patient.
She has royal blood.
She drives both shift and automatic.
She has a green thumb.
She can read Sanskrit.

Soon after, the supremely evocative “Forest Questions” bubbles with turgid vocabularies, wailing sirens, and lupine howls. Here, the travelers happen upon the world’s oldest man, of whom they ask:

Has anything changed?
Can I find love?
But I still hear noise.
What is pain?
Will all this last?

If any answers are given here, they are lost in the music, for in being asked they are already gone. “Desert Tango” and “Treachery (Temptation)” provide the opera’s most frivolous moments. The latter in particular is an amusing, almost Heiner Goebbels-like gallery of fools that takes pleasure in drowning in its own vanity:

Finish by five, by five.
Finish by five.
By five, finish by five.
You know you have to, you know you have to do it.
If you put the first one here, and the second there, well then the third…

III. Invisible Light.
The final act is all about reflection, as Alexandra looks back on her life and recounts the ups and downs of her journey. This act works more as a cohesive whole, and in “Explorers’ Junctures” provides a detailed aural map of its entire musical landscape. “Earth Seen From Above” is the most divine portion of the opera, melting into “Rite of Passage B,” which leaves us floating in the upper atmosphere.

Although the staging of Atlas adds a vital component of movement, the “incidental” soundtrack is no less powerful here for its absence. This is motion personified in sound, the poetry of life’s easily forgettable details wrapped in a cloud of human contact. Behind closed eyes we can feel the primordial depth of these performances and of the final destination they seek to illuminate, so that by the time we open them we are already there.

Meredith Monk: Book of Days (ECM New Series 1399)

 

Meredith Monk
Book of Days

Robert Een voice, cello
Ching Gonzalez voice
Andrea Goodman voice
Wayne Hankin voice, großer Bock, hurdy-gurdy, bass recorder
Naaz Hosseini voice, violin
Meredith Monk voice, keyboard
Nicky Paraiso voice
Nurit Tilles piano, keyboard, hammered dulcimer
Johanna Arnold voice
Joan Barber voice
John Eppler voice
Toby Newman voice
Timothy Sawyer voice
Recorded June 1989 at Clinton Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“I work in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema.”
–Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk is generally described as an avant-garde artist of many talents. Of her many talents there is no question, but what exactly makes her “avant-garde”? The Random House Dictionary defines the term as meaning “of or pertaining to the experimental treatment of artistic, musical, or literary material.” This raises another question: What does it mean to be experimental? The same dictionary gives us: “founded on…an act or operation for the purpose of discovering something unknown or of testing a principle.” At the risk of reading too much into semantics, I would venture to say that Monk is anything but avant-garde, for she is interested neither in discovering the unknown nor in proving suppositions. Rather, she reveals that which has been obscured by, as well as changed by, history. She interrogates the subjective over the empirical and its effect on the flow of intercontinental relations. Thus do we get Book of Days (1988), a marriage of music and moving images that covers such broad yet related topics as nuclear holocaust, AIDS, eschatological wonder and trepidation, and the cyclical nature of time. The idea for Book of Days came to Monk one afternoon in the summer of 1984, when she was overcome by a black-and-white vision of a young Jewish girl in a medieval street. This same figure would become the locus for much of the film’s traumatic crossfire, amid which the girl has visions of her own, only for her they are of a grave and violent future. She soon encounters a madwoman (played by Monk herself) and discovers in her that one kindred spirit in a world headed for annihilation.

The film’s soundtrack was later reworked into the studio version recorded here and scored for 12 voices, synthesizer, cello, bagpipe, hurdy-gurdy, piano, and hammered dulcimer. The music of Book of Days also wavers between past and future, rendering the present all but graspable. These temporal concepts are accordingly reflected in the arrangements of each itinerant section. A triptych of monodies (“Early Morning Melody,” “Afternoon Melodies,” and “Eva’s Song”) mark the passage of the sun in the sky, the contrast of dark and light. This diurnal atmosphere is further underscored with the hurdy-gurdy-infused “Dusk” and the smooth braid of vocal beauty that is “Evening.” This chronology culminates with the delicate “Dream,” an all-too-brief reprieve from the threat of Armageddon, before opening into “Dawn.” The five scattered pieces that make up “Travellers” constitute time as diaspora, each its own lilting pseudo-canon of both hummed and open-mouthed syllables. The fourth section, subtitled “Churchyard Entertainment,” fleshes out the thematic core of the entire work in its most fully realized form. In a similar vein, “Fields/Clouds” unfurls an ethereal carpet of synthesized organ for a procession of contrapuntal voices, with Monk soaring above all like a predatory bird riding a thermal. Time’s fragility is expressed in “Plague,” a rhythmic chant of whispers, hisses, tisks, and heavy breathing: the universe in a pair of lungs. Encompassing all of this is “Madwoman’s Vision,” a masterpiece of composition and performance that flits nimbly from creaking aphasia to elegiac commentary. The album fades to black with “Cave Song,” alluding perhaps to Plato’s shadows and the illusory nature of our attachments.

The markedly instrumental approach to the human voice embodied by this ensemble lends itself beautifully to the subject matter at hand. In choosing to eschew words entirely, Monk peers more deeply into the oracular interior of her music. Relying on nascent phonemes such as “na” and “la” in lieu of recognizable vocabularies, she complicates the linearity of her effected nostalgia. Book of Days is all the more haunting for reducing that nostalgia to a liquid state and scooping up as much of it as possible before it seeps out of sight through those very cracks where her music is born.