Meredith Monk: Do You Be (ECM New Series 1336)

Meredith Monk
Do You Be

Meredith Monk voice, piano, synthesizer
Robert Een voice
Ching Gonzalez voice
Andrea Goodman voice
Wayne Hankin voice, keyboards, bagpipes
Naaz Hosseini voice, violin
Nicky Paraiso voice
Nurit Tilles piano, voice, keyboards
Johanna Arnold voice
John Eppler voice
Edmund Niemann piano
Recorded June 1986 and January 1987, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg and Clinton Sounds, New York
Engineers: Martin Wieland and James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The appearance of words in Meredith Monk’s work can be rather jolting, as it is so easy for one to get used to the lack of semantic footholds. Like few other vocalists (Elizabeth Fraser comes to mind), Monk grinds the surface of what is being conveyed to such a fine patina that quantifiable meaning is often no longer necessary. Her vocal ramblings are mimetic, purposeful. Monk ably switches between registers and modes with lightning precision, creating a veritable conversation in and through a single body, gazing in multiple directions in the same breath.

Do You Be is a Meredith Monk hodgepodge culled from an assortment of operas and theater pieces. As such, it contains more in the way of quantifiable semantics.

We open with four selections from Acts From Under And Above. A synth ruptures the silence that precedes “Scared Song,” in which Monk’s immediately recognizable voice furls and unfurls itself across a text that blurs the line between confession and innocent recollection. And just when we have been primed to embark on yet another wordless journey, we recognize the emergence of narrative from its constituent parts as she sings:

And a runnin’ and a skatin’
and a runnin’ and a skatin’
and a runnin’ and a skatin’
A runnin’ and a skatin’    A runnin’ and a skatin’
A runnin’ and a skatin’    A runnin’ and a skatin’    A run, oh I’m scared
Oh I’m scared, oh she’s scared, oh she’s scared
Scared, oh he’s scared, scared    Oh, oh, oh, oh

This rondele of sorts is self-contained, and as such bars its own interpretive cycle from completion. Enter piano, coloring the sound with a somewhat harsh and underlying urgency, and a series of fragmentary commentaries. “I Don’t Know” continues pianistically, now in quieter accompaniment. Against this faded backdrop, Monk squeals and dips, sounding veritably bird-like as she hops among the branches of her scant libretto:

So what, what do you know?
What, what do you know?
I don’t know, I don’t know

and variations thereof. She seems to inhabit the edges of these words, picking at their scabbed edges until those membranes join the dust of countless expelled breaths. “Window In 7’s” comprises a brief interlude, a linear narrative upon a road that is freshly paved, yet which also retains all the old potholes and cracks that its travelers remember so well, and along which we proceed with the regularity of a printing press. “Double Fiesta” abounds with sublime vocal reflections. A second piano joins the first, playing a staccato note that becomes almost indistinguishable from Monk’s voice as it punctuates the audio landscape like a Morse code signal. Monk laughs, but musically—that is, in accordance with a predetermined time signature. She lowers herself, only to rise higher with each recapitulation. Amid a series of motives, she leans back and laughs. And with this the pianos build to a crescendo and release.

The next piece is our title track and is excerpted from Vessel: An Opera Epic. “Do You Be” ululates and runs around in frantic circles. As with much of her earlier work, Monk plumbs the depths of communication.

This is followed by a representative selection from The Games. “Panda Chant I” works in a round, tracing its center with the throat and coloring it in with air. Unpretentiously built around the syllables “PAN-DA,” an a cappella ensemble provides its own rhythm and direction. “Memory Song” lays down a delicate Casio ostinato, over which women’s voices skip like stones across water, jumping octaves with beautiful ease. They narrate from a space in between German and English:

Ich vergesse, Ich vergesse, vergesse, vergesse
Ich vergesse, vergesse, vergesse
(I forget)
Ich vergesse, vergesse, vergesse
Ich vergesse

Trees, trees
Oh trees, birds
Oh trees, birds, coffee, coffee, coffee
Do you remember, do you remember, do you remember…

as a violin comes and goes, arising in solo at last as if to mourn while also paving the way to resurrection. The voices speak through their song:

Trees, birds
Champagne, champagne, champagne
Football, football, football
Cherries, cherries, cherries

After a sylvan cacophony, there is a litany of memories:

I remember mushrooms
I remember candlelight
I remember early morning coffee
I remember fish
I remember newspapers
(Ich erinnere mich an altes Großsteinpflaster)
I remember a black Suzuki
(Ich erinnere das Tischgebet)
I remember aspirin
I’m thinking about Shakespeare’s garden

As Monk so brilliantly demonstrates time and time again, after the rather startling aphasia that lulls us into this unusual sense of communion, when hearing language in its more standard form, even the most innocuous asides take on fresh meaning. “Panda Chant II” is another a cappella round. Perhaps a distant cousin of the Ramayana Monkey Chant, it similarly recreates the chattering of lush forestland.

“Quarry Lullaby” is our only selection from Quarry, and opens with a plaintive male voice, joined in unison by a female one, and still by others in counterpoint. The piece builds to a fine display of extended vocal techniques. As the dirge ends, it lays itself bare to a strange animal rhythm, the complexity of which lies in the open spaces that it leaves unbreathed upon.

We close with two more selections from The Games. “Astronaut Anthem” inhabits, as its title would imply, the depths of outer space, reaching us only through a sort of dynamic motionlessness, like that of a comet in the sky. It unfolds with the resonance of medieval polyphony and is certainly the most “atmospheric” piece on the album. Its resplendent harmonic twists and soaring sensibility; its confluence of title and musical expression; its closing sirens that hurtle themselves into the ether with the force of rocket propulsion—all of these elements make for a mystical experience. For the final “Wheel,” the listener is fed on bagpipes and a linear vocal line. It is a fitting closing that proceeds like end credits rolling over characters’ faces in freeze-frame. Memories still move among us, but we know the story must end. Accepting this end, we find great beauty in the solace it promises. The bagpipes summon shrill breath, even as the vocal after-effects linger with the assurance of something that will outlive us all.

Listening to this music we might swear we’ve heard it before, for it may very well tap into something familiar but hidden, something intimately touched by the promise of singing and sealed by the taste of mortality.

<< Steve Tibbetts: Exploded View (ECM 1335)
>> Norma Winstone: Somewhere Called Home (ECM 1337)

Meredith Monk: Turtle Dreams (ECM New Series 1240)

ECM 1240

Meredith Monk
Turtle Dreams

Meredith Monk voice, piano, organ, mini-moog, casio
Andrea Goodman voice
Paul Langland voice
Robert Een voice
Julius Eastman organ
Steve Lockwood organ
Collin Walcott organ, didjeridoo
Recorded June/July 1982 and January 1983 in New York and Ludwigsburg
Engineers: John Kilgore, Thomas Lazarus / Howard Kaufman, Phil Lee, M. Monk, M. Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Collin Walcott

The shell of Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams is, like that of its eponymous animal, of cellular design and impenetrable strength while also housing a fragile heart within. This turtle’s heart is the album’s rhythmic center, represented through the regularity of the organ that opens the title track. The instrument is stripped of effects, direct and without pretension. We meet a voice that might be described as eerie, yet which with a few deep listens reveals its sobering honesty. A second vocalist mimics these incantations. Their combined syllables feel precisely notated and yet free, as if passed down orally rather than through the written page. Eventually the voices rise into mechanical sirens, becoming protracted and devoid of the regularity that has spawned them, until they bubble and froth. The organ stops suddenly, leaving vocal trails to flash and fade like shooting stars. Notes ululate and dance, congregating like insects—dispersed with the wave of a hand, only to return in greater chorus. The first movement ends with return of the two voices, only now slightly askew and in freefall, as other voices rise in countermeasure before fading against the organ, which continues its commentary before deciding on a contentious chord.

The second movement, “View 1,” introduces a sharper pianistic sound. The music is so precise and so cyclical that it almost resembles that of video games, which must also be open-ended so that it can be looped seamlessly (and potentially endlessly) to match the imagery for which it was composed. A single voice comes in, post-processed with a shallow echo, presaging a similarly processed keyboard that slathers the music with nostalgia. Against Monk’s private songs, two voices interject like teasing children. The electric piano then signals a shift in narrative. No longer is the human voice responsible for telling us the tale, but is instead co-opted by silence, reminding us that the same realm which guards our cherished past is the same realm from which arises the most hurtful things. A modulated synthesizer shows its face before bringing the movement to a close.

Next is “Engine Steps,” in which timed silence breeds an unusual industrial rhythm, like a conveyor belt carrying things to be stamped and shipped out into the universe.

A diminutive voice laces the following “Ester’s Song,” a brief peek into the mind of a child at play.

“View 2” signals the organ’s final return, carrying upon its back the same choral cargo. The single voice, the narrative voice, becomes divided, speaking of ancestors, each of whom casts a single lure into Ester’s mind. Her hair grows, but her face stays the same.

The title of the album as a whole, aside from being rather evocative, also might just be the most accurate description of the mood contained therein. For what is a turtle, if not a living being whose body is its home, whose life is lived in and near water, and whose dreams must also be liquid, submerged, and full of the sounds of the marsh. As with much of Monk’s compositional work, what we get on this CD is only half the journey, complimented as it is by dance and imagery. The brief clips available online don’t seem to do justice to the overall shape and feel of what I am sure is a far more inclusive live experience. Nevertheless, the descriptive power of Monk’s wordlessness is staggering, and albums like this one continue to enlarge the scope of linguistic possibility. I can only hope it might do the same for all who listen.

<< Denny Zeitlin/Charlie Haden: Time Remembers One Time Once (ECM 1239)
>> Bill Frisell: In Line (ECM 1241)

Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM New Series 1197)

ECM 1197

Meredith Monk
Dolmen Music

Meredith Monk voice, piano
Collin Walcott percussion, violin
Steve Lockwood piano
Andrea Goodman voice
Monika Solem voice
Paul Langland voice
Robert Een voice, cello
Julius Eastman percussion, voice
Recorded March 1980 and January 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Collin Walcott

Like much of Meredith Monk’s work, the atmospheres on this album are as foreign as they are familiar and comprise a vivid testament to the staying power of her compositional talents. When I first heard Dolmen Music as a teenager, I thought of it as folk music from lands that had yet to be discovered (admittedly, this interpretation was shaped by an oft-cited description to the same effect). Listening to it anew, I prefer to think of it as music that comes from a place so deep within, so familiar, that we tremble to hear it blatantly exposed. Monk’s music is all about the voice: it extends from the voice, begins and ends in the throat, reveling in its elasticity, its pliancy, its fragility.

Gotham Lullaby
Over a sparse layer of four-note arpeggios, Monk sings and squeals, tracing her swan song in the dust. Sustained tones hover in the background just out of reach as her voice ebbs and flows along a wordless coast. This is a lullaby of trees, if not for trees; a dream of darkness between branches and the decay of leaves falling past the city’s edge; a place where the wind can still be felt…

This little journey springs to life with a rollicking piano laced with ritualistic drumbeats. Monk carries full weight in her confident ululations. The emergence of a rain stick adds an air of ceremony, where the piano becomes our circle and Monk the medium who channels voices of the dead in a semblance of life. Words dissolve, wetted by the trickling of monosyllables, grunts, and cries. Monk converses with her self, as if the piano were not another voice but a landscape in which the voice has found purchase. She casts her lot into the chasm at her feet as one other voice takes up the call, floating like a severed head in the ether, its mouth agape to expel the song of its birth and its death.

The Tale
A thread of piano and mouth organ supports a series of vocal beads in which we get our first and only discernible words. Over this conformist backdrop, she proclaims:

I still have my hands.
I still have my mind.
I still have my money.
I still have my telephone…hello, hellooo, hellooooo?

And between these seemingly innocuous interjections, she riddles our attention with rhythmic laughter against the sound of breaking glass, the detritus of the living.

I still have my memory.
I still have my gold ring…beautiful, I love it, I love it!
I still have my allergies.
I still have my philosophy.

This is not the voice of the insane, despite what its many disjunctions might have us believe. It is the voice of a larger social body gone awry rather than that of a single individual corrupted by its oppressive infrastructure.

This is the most emotional composition on the album and makes me stop what I’m doing every time it comes on. It is a keen in reverse that scrapes the interiors of our lungs. Peeking out from the deepest recesses of articulation, Monk sings as if in mourning. Her utter abandon allows her access to divine control through the very lack of her desire to control. In doing so, she looses the strictures of emotional conduct, shedding the outer walls of her physical makeup. She cries as she sings, intoning and droning. Her register strays into animal territory, as if intent on communicating to any and all creatures that might be listening. She runs through this vocal catalog, as it were, as a way of rearticulating the nature of her supposed loss and the comportment of its breathing remnants. This piece in particular rests on a razor’s edge, seemingly content on lying back and letting the world press down until it is cleaved in two. She wakes and walks, a divided self, into the night.

Dolmen Music
The last 24 minutes of the album are dedicated to its title piece, and what an epic journey it is. Dolmen Music unfolds liturgically, as delicate as it is persistent. A cello breathes into our ears with soft harmonics: introit. Women’s voices evoke the fundamental phonemic underpinnings of language. This language is not primitive so much as formative, spreading its vocabulary across space and time. Male voices process, lilting with “Ahs” that degenerate into a sort of ritualistic aphasia constrained only by time signatures. The cello returns: communion. The congregation partakes of a musical host and drinks vocal wine. And in the ecstatic peace that follows, Monk’s voices gather energy and speed with evangelical fervor. The voices work in canon, floating even as they crash into the limits of meaning.

With this album Monk reinvigorated the linear song, the sole/soul singer, the monophonic performer. With the barest resources, she and her highly trained ensemble gave us an eternity of sounds. Dolmen Music makes a stunning addition to any music collection not only for its audible dimensions, but also as an art object, for it boasts one of the most perfectly suited covers in the entire ECM catalog.

<< Thomas Demenga/Heinz Reber: Cellorganics (ECM 1196 NS)
>> Steve Eliovson: Dawn Dance (ECM 1198)