Meredith Monk: Songs That Defy Time and Country

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Sitting at the crossroads of installation art, extended vocal technique and non-score-based rehearsal processes is one of America’s late-20th century masters: Meredith Monk. And while certain aspects of her biography – 1970s loft performances in New York, the creation of her own ensemble – may allow her to be (too-) easily grouped alongside other early minimalists, the idiosyncratic sound of her work allows for important distinctions to surface, and quickly.

Monk’s talent for using aspects of vocal traditions that span the globe – from Tibetan to Native American styles of singing – gives much of her music a rare arsenal of sounds from which to draw. Whether Monk and her collaborators warble from one part of an instrument or are shooting clear-yet-light beams of sound from another, this overall diversity has few equals in the traditionally “classical” sphere. If grasping for a point of comparison, you might have to venture out to the jazz world, and a composer like Henry Threadgill (also a '70s-era innovator), in order to locate a similarly masterful approach to the synthesis of as many different timbres.

Though an obvious fan of the ostinato, Monk’s music is not riff-based. As she once told the critic and scholar Kyle Gann, “the repetition in my music I think of as being like folk music: you have your chorus and your verse. … It’s like the freedom of a jazz singer, it’s not a patterning impulse.”

After a run of early pieces that were meant to accompany dance or film projects, the pure-album Monk discography begins in earnest with Dolmen Music, from 1979. Two short pieces – Fear and Loathing in Gotham and Education of the Girlchild – precede the title track: a 24-minute suite for Monk’s vocal ensemble, which, when not pivoting from solo ecstacies to clattering group play, trades off with strings that alternately bow short ostinatos or else deal out col legno slaps. And yet the second movement of Girlchild might have as much to do with Monk’s legacy as anything else on the record; the track titled The Tale takes the consciously naïve quality of Yoko Ono’s vocal performances, adds a wealth of technique to the style – and then more or less points directly to the alt-pop career of Bjork. (Iceland’s most famous pop export told me in an interview that Dolmen Music was one of the first records she ever loved, and that she could “probably” sing the whole thing from memory.)

An non-narrative opera of Monk’s, Atlas, sounds like a masterpiece on its ECM release – and is in desperate need of a revival in the composer’s hometown. At least ECM has stood by the composer, releasing another winning chamber group-and-vocal ensemble disc – titled Songs of Ascension – in 2011.