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AguidetoMeredithMonk'smusic|Music|TheGuardian

A guide to Meredith Monk's music


Monk's deeply personal compositions sound at once ancient and modern, like a folk music for the
whole world
Tom Service
Monday 19 November 2012 16.15GMT

It's one of the funniest moments on celluloid: Julianne Moore, playing performance
artist Maude Lebowski, is in her Los Angeles warehouse/studio/residence, strapped into
an elaborate pulley system. She swoops over the Dude and flings paint at a canvas, on
which is an image of a splayed and paint-spattered female form. Apart from the harness,
Maude is naked, leaving Jeff Bridges's Dude more bemused than ever at an unexpected
display of performance art in action. "My art has been commended as being strongly
vaginal," Maude says. "The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina."
American composer Meredith Monk told me that she wasn't annoyed with the Coen
brothers for using her Walking Song as the musical accompaniment to this scene, when I
talked to her for Radio 3's Music Matters. "I was laughing my head off", she said. I
thought that Monk could have been offended at the gender and culture stereotyping that
seemed to be going on in Carter Burwell (who wrote and supervised the music for The
Big Lebowski) and Joel and Ethan's imaginations as if Meredith's music was just the
sort of stuff that a pseud such as Maude would listen to but Monk, typically, saw and
heard only reasons to celebrate, and laugh.
And quite right too. Besides, all that was 1998 and this is now, and Monk turns 70 on
Tuesday. Not that you would know it to hear her voice today: that uniquely flexible
instrument that is at the centre of her work as composer, performer, producer, and allround unclassifiable artist. Listen to this, from her recent Songs of Ascension, and hear
what I mean.
Monk's roots as a singer and composer are in folk and rock; you can hear her singing
Greensleeves here in her early 20s. That was just before she began to experiment with
the possibilities of her voice, as you can hear in Trance on the same album, Beginnings,
out on John Zorn's Tzadik label. You'll hear her astonishing range, some extraordinary
ululations and incantations, vertiginous leaps, drops, cries and other wordless
acrobatics. They're all things that used to be called "extended vocal techniques" but
Monk makes them sound completely natural, central, and essential. What Monk
discovered, and what she went on to create with her own group of singers and
instrumentalists in New York throughout the 70s and 80s was a kind of performance
practice that was operatic in the truest sense of involving many different kinds of
practice: theatre, lighting, film, movement, ritual, myth, and avant garde performance
art. But descriptions like that can only take you so far: listen, watch and be entranced by
Dolmen Music, Book of Days, or Vessel.
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AguidetoMeredithMonk'smusic|Music|TheGuardian

But what's significant about Monk and her work is what makes her different from many
of the other composers who have appeared in this series so far: to talk of her only as a
composer would be to diminish what she does and how she works. Music is only one of
the elements she works in and with, although she has composed pieces for orchestras
such as the San Francisco Symphony and chamber ensembles like the Kronos Quartet,
even if she told me about her frustration that orchestras have so little rehearsal time, and
that the essential message of her music is something that needs time for its performers
to understand, appreciate and interpret. But for so much of her output, it's difficult if not
impossible to separate the piece from Monk herself, so integral is her voice and her work
with her singers to what you hear.
But you can talk about Monk's music, its use of repetition, its drones, modal harmonies,
its often wordless vocalising. All of that could align her with American minimalism, with
folk music, or even as a kind of cousin of the so-called holy minimalists of Europe. But
Monk's music is richer and stranger than any of those stylistic labels. It has always
sounded to me listen to this from Songs of Ascension simultaneously ancient and
modern. That's to do with the way she uses incantations that sound both like plainchant
and oriental melodies, and the placeless-yet-everyplace vowel-sounds of her singing.
But Monk's music isn't redolent of a nostalgic past, it is not an escape from today's
world. It belongs in the present, because, as she says, she wants her pieces to give her
listeners an alternative vision of concentration and attention amid the ever-diminishing
and ever-increasing speed of the world around us.
Monk's is a music of connection, a bringing together of many different art forms and
experiences (a process of fusion that she described as a deep "psychic need" for her to
accomplish). It's a vision that's radically opposed to the fragmentation and
deconstruction that so many of her contemporaries were up to at the same time, and the
result is music that is at once deeply personal and unlike anything anyone else is doing,
but which speaks simply and directly to those collective parts of our subconscious that
are the deepest and oldest. At its best, Monk's music sounds like a folk music for the
whole world.

Five key links


Dolmen Music
Vessel
Songs of Ascension
Biography from Education of the Girlchild
Walking Song
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