Meredith Monk: Impermanence

For a long time now I’ve been quite a fan of Meredith Monk‘s work. I had first come across it while in college, listening to many of her recordings and checking out scores from the library and the American Music Center (I was a student member at the time). I’m not even sure how I came across her work–perhaps through some books mentioning Minimalists?–but I do remember spending much time listening to her recordings (one of my favorites is a recording called Monk and the Abbess, a recording of pieces by both her and Hildegaard von Bingen). I was also found quite a lot in a book of interviews and essays on and by her (especially her Mission Statement), though it’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to read them again; this book seems to be it, but I can’t remember if that is the one or not though I can’t seem to find any others).

While I’ve had quite a joy in listening to her music and engaging with her thoughts and works, I never really understood what it was really about her that really resonated with me. Feldman, Barber, Crumb, Lutoslawski… while I can’t quite articulate in words everything I feel about them, I to some degree feel that I understand what it is about their work that I am engaged with and what draws me back to them time and again.

Tonight, Lisa and I had a chance to attend a performance of Impermanance by Meredith Monk and her Ensemble at Yerba Buena, the first time either of us have had a chance to see her perform live. I was excited to finally be seeing her perform in person, though it was also somewhat of a shock to my system in many ways, as I had not really spent too much time with her music in a while, focusing very much on a different sound world in my own musical work, as well as having been quite busy at my day job the past couple weeks. But what an absolutely pleasant shock it was to be there and to see the performance unfold, just so beautifully done.

Tonight I saw many other composer’s work showing up in Meredith Monk’s work, as well as qualities very much her own. As is usual, musical time has been on my mind, and today I had just finished reading an article by Lutoslawski on the Symphony while riding the F-Line to work, discussing the qualities of limited aleatory in how performers are in their own times, and in being so are able to focus on their musical lines and be expressive in them. That struck me in a number of her pieces tonight, especially in the vocalists, whether it was prewritten out or not, it had that quality of naturalness and freedom to breathe.

Of Feldman, in one piece I heard qualities of his “Three Voices”, perhaps since there were three vocalists singing in mostly repeated measures of material. In another, at the end were a piano and vibraphone playing the same material though seemingly in their own free time, reminiscent of Feldman’s middle period of notation of notated pitches but free durations.

In he choreography I was reminded very much of a work by Merce Cunningham, especially the repeated gestures by performers, each in their own time. Also, the aspect of playfulness and seriousness and beauty in the gestures reminded me of a passage I had read in a book with interviews with some of Cunningham’s former dancers, and how one couldn’t understand how pretending to play jax was dance until Cunningham demonstrated and sure enough it was dance and it was beautiful.

Perhaps I see these things in Monk’s work because I am familiar with these things through these other artists; I do not know Monk’s history and the context of her and the times to know what is truly hers and what may be influences by others. But I think that these things are inconsequential and that she truly uses the many techniques that are available to her with the full intention and effectiveness as anyone else has ever done with the same techniques.

Lisa and I were talking at the break and we were noticing how wonderful the pace of the works were: slow and thoughtful. I think Lisa said it best in saying that the performances were both completely full with intention as well as attention. Another amazing aspect of her work was how no matter how difficult the gestures, there always seemed to be a real sense of control. I have seen other performers do similar types of work but were never nearly as relaxed, often taken up by the spirit of the moment and losing a sense of what was going on around them. Tonight however, the group seemed intimately aware of not only what they were doing but what everyone else was doing as well.

(This leads me to a bit of an aside: I found myself a bit annoyed by the gentlemen seated to the side of us. At times they giggled at the works, and the part that got me was at the break when in conversation they said that “they could do that!” and that they “had done things like that before!” with the sense of either “what’s so special with them?” or “we’re just as good.” It struck me how superficial those comments were, that they were looking at the surface and seeing techniques and not seeing the spirit which was underneath it all, and if that they really *could* do what the ensemble was doing that night, they wouldn’t be of the quality of character to make such statements as they did. Perhaps I’m wrong about these gentleman, but maybe not…)

In the end, the performance left us both very satisfied and grateful for having been able to attend. Thinking at the end, I think it’s not necessarily the technical capacity which really got me, but the strength of the performance, and that seems very much tied to the quality of character and spirit of Meredith Monk. Not having ever met her, she seemed on stage as a person who was tapped in to the spirit of her art work at all times, that she probably carries herself the same way when performing than when waking up and going about her day. That is what I think has been what I have been so attracted to in her work: the seriousness of her intention and the spirit and character of the person who is behind it all.

Life having been a bit hectic for me lately, it was an incredible gift to have been able to attend tonight’s performance and to see not only beautiful works performed wonderfully, but also to see someone who has such an artful spirit. At the same time, I felt a real sense of concern for her work as well, wondering if years from now other ensembles will pick up her works and be able to perform them wih the same qualities that she has done tonight. I do not know, and perhaps the title of her work, Impermanence, may very well apply to the gem which is the work of Meredith Monk. After tonight, I think she is a much more subtle and refined artist than many would first see, and I hope that in time that more and more people will become engaged with her work. For myself, I hope that I can take the lessons of her vision and character into my own life, and hope I can learn to be tapped in to that best of myself at all times as well.


I’ve started to go the San Francisco Public Library on a regular basis, enjoying very much their CD and DVD collection as well as their fantastic music resources (books, scores). I can’t say enough how great it is as a resource.

I’ve been studying counterpoint on the side for a half-year or so now, not too deeply as I’d like, but here and there as time permits. I had been using Counterpointer for exercises and focusing mostly on looking at 16th Century style, but at the library I picked up Ernst Krenek’s Tonal Counterpoint in the Style of the Eighteenth Century, listed as an “Outline”, which read much like a set of notes. I enjoyed this text immensely as it was in this brief format. A very quick read but very thought provoking for me as well.

For some time I had thought that 16th Century counterpoint was more interesting, but in reading the Krenek text, I found myself drawn to thinking about 18th Century counterpoint and on a larger level, the progression of form, the concerns of material usage within the context of transformations of itself and other material, and treatments of musical time. I’ve long desired to to write a longer text on musical time as it has been the first major concern of mine and continues to this day to be what I meditate most on when contemplating music…

Now thinking about Counterpoint and how it relates to ideas of glissandi, masses of sound, and non-synchronized musical ideas (i.e. in varying tempi layers) amongst other things. A lot of thoughts on these matters lately, I think I’ll have to spend some time whenever I am finished with this piece I have been working on to write down these thoughts. Even if they are only in framents in my head now, it’ll be useful to get them down and to take a step back to see it as a whole. But first things first, and back to working on music…


(Sidenote: I think I understand now what Feldman was talking about when he said he was a melodist…)

Roy Harris, Samuel Barber, Feldman

I have been listening to a lot of Barber again, part of my personal management plan to begin listening and studying a lot music again; I’ve long been enamored with Barber’s colors, the way ideas can move a major 2nd and bring about a lushness and bitter sweet character, and now am finding myself once again very entranced. I find myself coming back to his First Essay for Orchestra, there’s just so much there in that piece.

I had never really given Roy Harris’s music much attention, no particular reason I guess, but today on Rhapsody I put on Roy Harris: Symphonies Nos. 7 & 9, currently listening to Symphony no.7 and am enjoying very much the colors. I don’t know what you call that era of American music, but the big harmonies and sound are always a draw for me. The character of the piece at times is perhaps too light for me, but the colors, there is something there that I am very interested in. I think will spend more time with his music, as well as other’s from that era.

The other day while listening walking down the street, listening to Barber, I got to thinking about Feldman’s music as well, and some relationship between the two. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic character, but thinking of late Feldman works, maybe there’s technical reason as well: open harmonies, major 2nd’s…

Towards a Different Kind of Unity

Having finished rereading Morton Feldman’s “Give My Regards to Eight Street” last week, I’ve now been engaged with Mark Rothko’s The Artist’s Reality : Philosophies of Art. The book is written in a very different than Feldman’s and I find I am taking a much slower approach to the text, but am finding it very thoughtful indeed. Today, in the section “Emotional and Dramatic Impressionism”, Rothko discusses individual and universal human experiences, and in discussing that which is a common binder of human experience, writes:

Suffice it to say that this is a trusim: that it is through the tragic element that we seem to achieve the generalization of human emotionality.

I had never thought of that really in such terms but can’t argue with it so much. We do tend to find ourselves uniting in experiences of the tragic, and less so otherwise. But what of the otherwise?

I remember a little more than a year ago, in writing “On the Sensations of Tone”, that I was (and am) very interested in much warmer colors. I was very much contemplating aspects of Messiaen’s colors and writings about him, thinking about a seriousness that could be warm, something akin to that review of Cage I read a while ago that mentioned him as “a happy existentialist”.

I think perhaps these ideas are part of a much larger shift in ways of thinking for me, of moving towards a different kind of unity than that offered in the tragic. It’s what attracts me to Scelsi, to later Feldman, to Scriabin’s music. It’s interesting to come across Rothko’s writing now as I’m at a point in this composition where there are many good moments but I’ve been waiting some days now, searching, wondering how it all works together, where it’s all going, listening on and on to understand its nature, its qualities. The sound world has cooled a bit since the initial brilliance of the opening moments of the piece, so now to experiment and see if these ideas aren’t what moves the piece, and myself, forward…

Organ Sounds and Pyramid Envelopes

I’ve always found that there was something to the weight of the sound of the Organ, yet, I rarely found myself engaged with much music that used it. More often than not, the more organ there was, the less engaged I was with the music. But that fascination…

Whenever I’ve tried to use organ-like sounds (additively built-up sine waves with Csound in my case), I never felt really at ease with the sound. In the piece I’ve been working on, I was at a point where I was interested to add more flavors into the dish, so to speak, and so went into my library of instruments and pulled out an additive synthesis organ I thought I would try. I had saved some presets from the last time I had tried using it in a piece but none of them really blended well with what was already there. So after adjusting the strengths of the partials to get a more hollow, square-wave-ish sound I found that it had started to blend in quite well… but something was still a little off.

I have been working with pyramid envelopes for quite some time now, where the sound starts from 0, rises to full value halfway through the note, then back to 0 at the end of the note. I’ve been using this in most of my electronic musical work for quite some time now as I find the sounds then to have a very gentle quality to it and that you can really taste the sound this way. This envelope type also has much more variety to it than a typical ADSR, as the rate of rise and decay in the pyramid envelope is really dependent on the duration of the note.

For the organ instrument I had been using, I had largely always been using a typical envelope for an organ, I guess what would be called an ASR (Attack, Sustain, Release). This envelope has a fixed attack time, then sustains for most of the note, then has a sharp release. This kind of amplitude envelope is very characteristic of real organs and how they work.

So, the natural thing for me to try was to use the organ sound with a pyramid envelope, and that ended up being what really brought it together with the rest of the sounds. Amazing! By applying that to the organ sounds, I really began to feel more understanding of the pyramid envelope and why and how it works very well for me, as well as understanding other aspects of instrument/sound design.

For a sound so pure as in additive synthesis, ADSR or ASR is not enough variety for my ear. Perhaps if the music has notes which change very quickly, or if the sound is mixed within a large variety of other sounds it would work for me, but as I’ve been very much into a much longer duration of note lately, this doesn’t work. On the other hand, if I should want to use that kind of envelope with this type of sound, I think I have a better idea of what the character of the music would have to be for it to work for me.

(Note to self: The pyramid envelope too doesn’t work in shorter durations unless short-enough to create a percussive sound, otherwise, it is too much change in sound.)

Again Lost in Feldman

When I was packing for my trip to Poland and was deciding which books to bring, looking at the many I had purchased but not yet read, I ended up bringing mostly those which I had read before but had wanted to read again. Amongst those were the collection of Feldman essays, Give My Regards to Eighth Street, an absolutely wonderful and deep collection of writings I return to every once in a while. It seems like every time I go through this book or the Zimmerman collection of Feldman’s Essays, it’s always exactly what I needed to read at that time. Never more than ever I think.

I came across this link from a website (perhaps the Sequenza21 wiki?) that is a search of for MP3’s of Feldman conversations. It is located
here and I have been enjoying listening to Feldman and Cage very, very much. After coming across these and putting them on my PDA to listen to, I put down the Tai-Chi book I was reading and picked up the Feldman book to read, and really haven’t put it down since.

Feldman has played an incredible part of my life–musical and otherwise–both in the sheer beauty of his music and also in his thoughts about music and the music world. I remember reading the Zimmerman collections of Feldman’s Essays in college and finding myself connecting very much with Feldman’s attitude on it all. Reading him now and listening to him speaking, I feel like a certain part of me has somehow really woken back up, as if I was just a little tired for a long while and now that I’ve yawned and wiped my eyes, I’m begining to wake up and see out into the world again.

So I’m lost in Feldman again, in his spirt for music, art, life… but don’t worry, I might be lost in Feldman, but I’m as here as ever, if not more so from it all.

Another Felman Interview I found, which I much rather enjoyed.