Meredith Monk

[Composer/Vocalist]

“I Trust Sound, for Itself.”
The itinerary of Meredith Monk’s ideal day:
Meditating
Physical exercises
Vocal exercises
Piano exercises
Lunch
Sitting down and trying to compose work

Meredith Monk is a fourth-generation singer, but the astonishing, otherworldly quality of her vocal music is a product of fifty years spent assiduously evading tradition. Her vocal techniques bubble up from her insides, she says, and are not extracted from influences or classical repertoire or the countless international folk traditions that her curious timbres sometimes recall. She yodels and croons, yips and caws, growls overtones and spits avian trills—a panoply of mouth sounds, all classified under the broad umbrella of “extended vocal technique,” a term Monk is at least partly responsible for defining.

Monk’s sensibility was born at the same time and in the same place (’60s and ’70s, New York) as minimalism and punk, and her music oscillates between the pristinely executed trance of the former and the grunting, primal abandon of the latter. Since the beginning, her composing has been married to movement, and her wordless songs often pair musical phrases with gestures and dance, a multisensory, artistic language that approaches timeless universality. Her films, operas, and site-specific performances are similarly interdisciplinary and, at their best, approach what the Germans call a Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork.

In 2008, I attended Monk’s performance of Songs of Ascension, an evening-length piece written specifically for a unique cement silo in Sonoma County, California, built by the artist Anne Hamilton. Under an open-air roof, Monk and her ensemble moved up and down a pair of winding double-helix staircases, voices rising and dipping with their steps, as if the singers’ throats had fused with the cylindrical, resonating tower. I interviewed Monk briefly on the day of that performance, and, six years later, I was able to speak with her again, at her loft in lower Manhattan, a few days after an intimate concert she gave at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, in the West Village.

Monk’s apartment is at the top of a five-story walk-up, a climb requiring wheezing endurance that speaks to the tenacity and agility of her voice, body, and art at the age of seventy-two. Inside, one of the rooms was a spacious dance studio containing her bed, a piano, a modest recording studio, and an ornamented, cushion-filled area she calls a shrine. For the last three decades, Monk has been a practicing Buddhist and has studied under the ordained Shambhala Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. In 2003, she took her refuge vow, and, later, her Bodhisattva vow, a Buddhist commitment to benefit all sentient beings. She and I spoke for almost two hours, during a period in which she was preparing a series of shows for her residency at Carnegie Hall. We discussed the difficulties of being a female composer in the 1970s, the neuroses of meditation, her daily work habits, and the ethics of emailing.

—Ross Simonini

I. A TOUGH, YOUNG, FIERCE THING

THE BELIEVER: The room back there: you called it a shrine.

MEREDITH MONK: And a rehearsal space. A lot of pieces have been born in that place.

BLVR: And you record in there?

MM: I record when I’m working, because I still work with a four-track tape recorder when I’m laying parts down before my ensemble comes in to rehearse. I make the music by recording my voice four times to work out the counterpoint aspects.

Ross Simonini is interviews editor for the Believer, a founder of NewVillager, and a visual artist who blogs at roosshamanana.blogspot.com.

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