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.