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.


  1. Steven,
    I’m happy to see your response to Impermanence. We attended a performance last night at George Mason University (just outside Washington, D.C.). We had a ninety mile trip home afterwards to think about what we had experienced.
    Our responses were quite mixed. In many ways we found the ensemble work extremely accomplished, but “subtle” was not a descriptive term that came to our minds in responding to the performance as a whole. Actually, it felt to us very distanced and abstract to the point of disengagement — continuing in that vein to the serious mien of most of the performers at the curtain call. I had the sense that I had observed a perfomance, with illustrative (?) images, that took place behind a window — something distanced and quite mediated.
    Giving a work a title, even if it alludes to an instance within a larger concept (“The Impermanence Project”), is a bit provocative — it alludes to meanings that may or may not inhere in the work. (OK for “Le Sacre du Printemps,” perhaps, though not so good for Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major a/k/a “eroica”). So I probably spent too much time trying to figure out how everything related to impermanence, instead of attending to all the other relations that were/might have been sparked by the performance.
    And, impatient drone that I am, I found myself less entranced than fatigued by the repetition, repetition, repetition and predictable layerings of musical and physical interactions. Were there moments of difference? Of course! But much of the evening seemed careful and, if not constricted, restrained and conventional — as if the breath and body were constrained.
    Perhaps this performance did not have, in the moment, the same immediate qualities that you experienced at YB. I hope that is the case, for my wife and I have many reasons to rejoice in the long legacy of Monk and her colleagues/ensemble.
    Perhaps, on the contrary, the performance had those qualities and we were not, last night, able to participate in it with the presence and openness that it required.

    -john duffy

  2. Hi John,

    I didn’t find myself focused at all on the title and relating things or trying to find meanings, which may have influenced my experience. I thought the reservation/restraint to be a good thing, a sense of control and temperance which kept things in a realm of thoughtfulness rather than acting on emotions too impulsively and wildly.

    As for the repetition and predictability, I had just recently studied some canons and have been contemplating the technique of canon writing and found the work to be in line with what I had on my mind, so perhaps found myself interested in the interlocking of the lines and enjoying the harmonies and colors.

    Perhaps it was a difference of performance (being on one night and off another), or perhaps we had different things on our minds going into the performances. Either way, I appreciate very much hearing your thoughts on the performance at George Madison and I think now am even more curious to see how I’ll feel the next time I have the opportunity to see another performance by Meredith Monk.


  3. Steven,

    I think a couple of things didn’t quite work at the George Mason University performance, including my “breathing into” the performance. The spoken song titles were completely lost, although they may have served more to articulate, rather than to characterize what was to follow.

    I mentioned the “serious mien” of the performers at the end. Maybe there was something going on there — I expected a different engagement/rapport with the audience and, perhaps, with each other. That’s my story, though — no truth value in it beyond my response. When Ravi Shankar visited the US in the early ’60s his performances were characterized by 1) immense mutual respect and interaction among the performers and 2) great, freeing joy in the relationship with the audience — even if only an overflowing group of 200 at a fraternity at Wesleyan University where he was in residence. I wished to be included in this performance in a similar manner, I guess.

    If you are looking at canons and haven’t checked these guys out, you might be interested in some of the 15th- and 16th-century folks: Ockeghem, Busmois, Brumel, DuFay, Josquin. Bach, of course, and many others who are later than that first group. Your inner ear will become fantastically aware of possibilities. One of the most astonishing people I have heard recently is Stuart Hinds ( who is a voice teacher and harmonic (multiphonic) singer. How he does this, I don’t know how he does this, but he can sing in canon with himself, using harmonic singing. Quite astonishing!

    All best wishes with your music.


  4. Hi John,

    Thanks for the mention of composers; I’m not familiar with Busmois or Brumel, but do enjoy the rest a great deal, and have quite a fondness for Machaut (my girlfriend is quite a Marenzio fan, yet another composer who I haven’t spent enough time with!). I will take a listen to the composers you mentioned tomorrow when I’m at work and listening to Rhapsody. (I found an “Antoine Busnois” but not a Busmois there, I’m assuming this is who you meant?)

    I’ve heard of Stuart Hinds, but haven’t checked him out yet. When I was in college, a couple friends and I got into multiphonic singing. We didn’t get very good at it but had a blast trying to do it. I’ve always enjoyed the beginning of Stockhausen’s Stimmung when they’re going through the harmonics, and I used to drive around (back in college when I had a car) to a Monogolian throat singing CD. It’s been a while though since I’ve listened to any. Perhaps something else to cue up when I have a chance. =)

    Thanks for the well wishes and the enjoyable conversation!

  5. Meredith Monk is performing at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts as part of the Bang on a Can Marathon (the closing of the 3-week Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival) on July 29. Concert starts at 4 PM. MASS MoCA is in beautiful Berkshires of western Massachusetts. For more info visit

  6. Does anyone know if there has been a DVD of impermance that I can purchase or any video of hers that I can purchase?

  7. I’m not aware of any DVD of Impermanence available and did not see one on It looks like they are still touring the piece so might too early for something like that to be made. I noticed though that you have an NYU email address and that they are performing Impermanance at BAM on November 1-5 as part of the Next Wave Festival, so if you’re in New York then you might have an opportunity to see it live!


  8. So funny. I walked out of this performance at intermission, having been so exited to see it for weeks. I am a huge fan of Monk’s recordings. But I thought the performances were overly precious and stuck in the 70’s. Painful. Overwrought. Not free at all. I wanted to giggle, too. Maybe for the older patrons it was a moving experience since they were around when this kind of work was cutting edge. But I just wanted her and her ensemble to sing/vocalize, which is, ultiimatley, what she/they are best at. I was so excited to see an older artist still working, but then it ended up being doubly depressing since, in fact, her age, in some way, showed in the work.

  9. Hi Monica,

    Thanks for contributing your thoughts on the performance. I am most familiar with Meredith Monk’s works through audio recordings (CD’s) and when we went to see Impermananence it was the first time I had seen her live.

    It’s been some time now since the performance and when I first wrote those entry, and thinking back I get an impression that a lot of the things that I saw could be quite mundane and silly, but it was really *how* they performed it, the spirit behind it, that made it come alive.

    It’s strange for me to say all this too because I think normally if someone was to describe to me what was going to happen in this performance before I went, I might not have thought much of it, but having seen it first and without much expectation, I was really touched by the experience.

    Perhaps it was the performance that night or the space that made the difference? I haven’t been to BAM in a long time but from what I remember the hall was quite big, much more so than the one at Yerba Buena which feels quite intimate to me.

    Otherwise, sorry to hear you did not enjoy the performance. At least we can share in enjoying her recorded musical work!


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *