Interview with Meredith Monk

[Meredith Monk]


BBC Music Magazine, May 1996 pp 36-38

David Patrick Stearns tracks down one of the world's most innovative composer/performance artists

Just as Meredith Monk's familiar but elusive music lies slightly outside the fashionable minimalist mainstream, so her West Broadway address is hardly the neighbourhood of Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard. I find her in a jumbled, cheek-by-jowl, downtown warehouse district where her neighbours are the Nancy Whiskey Bar and the American Thread Company.

Hearing the doorbell, Monk pops her head out of her sixth-floor loft and tosses the key down to me in a tiny red sock. Slim and intense, the 52-year-old is a warm, outgoing presence who, since 1972, has lived in her own self-styled laboratory for combining music, singing, dance and film into her own distinctive style of theatre.

One huge room doubles as a bedroom and rehearsal studio; large mirrors help her monitor her physical movements, though sometimes she covers them when she needs to feel the movement rather than see it. In one corner a bed is populated by a herd of stuffed animals. In another corner is a nest bordered by two pianos and lots of video tapes and cassettes. There's also a four-track tape recorder which she uses to dub vocal polyphony in her three-octave voice.

By no means is it cutting-edge equipment, which seems oddly appropriate. Though Monk was once considered avant-garde - a term she hates - her exotic, archaic-sounding scales prompted Gregory Sandow to describe Monk in the Grove Dictionary of American Music as sounding 'as if she might be singing echnic music from a culture she invented herself.' In a way, she resists modernity. Her new music theatre piece, The Politics of Quiet, is about that.

'The title came from my pondering how society is getting faster and faster. Now we have computers with instant information and instant gratification. At what point do we have too much stimulation? Where does patience come in? Or appreciatlng the moment?' she asks.

Her quiet comes from staying in rural artists' colonies,nd pursuing a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice. With the resulting mental clarity, she has ideas ambushing her from everywhere. Sometimes she is inspired by a place: last summer's American Archaeology came from the history of Roosevelt Island, which is just offshore from Manhattan and once housed tuberculosis and mental hospitals. Sometimes she's inspired by concepts, for example in Monk and the Abbess, which juxtaposes her music with Hildegard of Bingen's - two highly spiritual female composers from different centuries.

Entire pieces can grow from an old melody in her neatly kept notebooks: New York Requiem, which will be on her forthcoming ECM disc, came about after a friend, who often sang at AIDS-related memorial services, asked Monk for a piece. An eight-bar snlppet from her notebook fitted his voice and seemed emotionally appropriate. She declined to use the standard requiem text; though most of her music is vocal, she prefers 'phonemes', syllables with no specific meaning. 'Words point to a particular meaning,' she says, 'I like image or gesture that's evocative but which is more poetry of the senses. I'm trying to bypass discursive thought, which is verbal. I'm trying to get to an essential communication.'

Thus, explaining her pieces when making grant proposals can be impossible: 'One of my big things has been to start from zero with every piece. I'm tossing and turning with major anxlety attacks because I'm completely and utterly going into the unknown. It's really hard for me to verbalise something I don't know. But as one of my teachers at Sarah Lawrence College said, "If you can talk about it, it's not worth doing."'

She isn't any more at home with the commissioning process. The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble in New York has been waiting patiently for a piece from her. She's stalling for time by digging out some of her old choral works for the group's next concert so that she can hear the group in her own idiom and get to know the individual voices more personally. Her art, in fact, is often passed on as much by demonstration as by notation - not unlike the practise of medieval church singers. This doesn't always fit well with modern, industrialised music-making.

'In the last few years, I've had the experience of other people performing my music. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't,' Monk says. 'I'm struggling with how much I have to be here to pass it on, and how much another generation will understand when they're trying to get this information from a page. With my work, what you see is not what you get.' Even some of her recordings are unrepresentative, she feels.

No doubt, Monk will give future generations of musicologists lots to puzzle over. 'Thinking about it gives me a migraine,' she laughs. 'But it's okay to leave without a trace. Or, like the Buddhists say, "Don't leave with any foot- prints behind."'