so you wanna get into... meredith monk
"Old and futuristic is exactly what I’m trying for. I’m after a circular sense of time."
|Mar 23, 2020||1|
(photo by massimo agus via npr)
welcome to issue #10 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every second and fourth monday, and on the first and third mondays i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.
in this issue we’ve got a guide to meredith monk’s discography—14 albums (+1 work in progress) of extended vocal technique and modern classical composition that are all politically and artistically timely and politically and artistically engaging. and also politically and artistically important.
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one thing i’ve found out while being cooped up due to this plague that’s been going around is that humans, left to their own devices in a silent space, will just intuitively start making music. since we don’t have instruments in the apartment this manifests for me (to my wife’s chagrin) in two ways—good old-fashioned hamboning and singing lil extemporaneous songs. my songs are pretty great. one is that i take weezer’s song “buddy holly” but replace the words “buddy holly” with “bernard sanders.” another is i replace the “jitterbug” line from the beginning of wham!’s “wake me up before you go-go” with any other dactylic phrase like “banana bread” or “dirty socks.” feel tree to try it yourself!
anyway, meredith monk, the great vocalist and composer, also tapped into this primitive need to make lil songs, except the similarities between us end there because she did it in the 1960s and then expanded it into one of the most important careers in vocal music of the 20th and 21st centuries. she describes how she wrote a recent song by just recording a phrase that popped into her head: “OH-oh i’m a hap-py woman / i’m a hap-py woman.” her genius lies in following these little phrases or bits of melody like breadcrumbs until she’s explored the entire sonic world that they suggest. as a buddhist, she refers to this process of composition as “beginner’s mind,” approaching every new piece as an amateur open to possibility (as opposed to “expert’s mind,” which shuts down exploration in favor of static knowing).
monk came up in the avant-garde arts scene of 1960s and ‘70s new york, making theater and dance and video pieces. then in 1965 she had a revelation about the voice. it could be treated like an instrument, divorced from words, and explored in the same way as, say, a prepared piano. she then began creating extended vocal techniques. as she describes in the liner notes to a reissue of her first album Key:
Some time in late 1965, as I was vocalising in my studio, I suddenly had a revelation that the voice could have the same flexibility and range of movement as a spine or a foot, and that one could find and build a personal vocabulary for the voice just as one makes movement based on a particular body. I realized then that within the voice are myriad characters, landscapes, colors and textures. From that time on, I began working with my own instrument—trying to discover the voices within it. I explored different ways of producing sound, various resonances, ways of using the breath, lips, cheeks and diaphragm. I also worked with the extremes of my range and quick changes from one vocal quality to another so that my voice could be a flexible conduit for the energy and impulses that began to emerge.
her voice is absolutely unique and covers something like four octaves and she’s spent 50+ years perfecting these techniques, but still they suggest the universal experience of playful vocalizing like when you were a kid and just started yipping and yawling for the fun of it. in this way her music hearkens back to a sort of timeless past wherein people made music with what was at hand. at the same time, it sounds incredibly futuristic, breaking as it does from the contemporary distinctions between composer, composition, and performer—she seems to be gesturing us forward into a new era of music-making, but the gestures she’s using are themselves ancient.
research her a bit and this cyclical idea of time comes up again and again. she told frances morgan of wire magazine in 2013 that “i like to have a very ancient and very futuristic feel simultaneously.” then in 2016 she told robert enright of border crossings that “old and futuristic is exactly what I’m trying for. i’m after a circular sense of time.” then in 2018 she told paul schmelzer of the walker art center that “i am mostly interested in fundamental energies and human behavior that repeat in cycles through time.” she also refuses to move her own career forward according to common notions of “trajectory” or “progress,” choosing to resurrect pieces according to whatever historical cycles happen to recur. for example she recently decided it was an opportune moment to revisit her anti-fascist theater piece “quarry” on account of all the, you know, fascism that’s been running rampant these days.
an incredibly important part of monk’s work is her interdisciplinary mixing and matching of music, theater, video, and dance. she learned music by studying “eurythmics,” which is not the ‘80s british pop duo but rather an approach to music through the rhythms of the body in motion. here she is describing it to ross simonini for the believer:
That was created by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, who was a Swiss composer at the end of the nineteenth century, and he was very interested in Swiss folk music—the way [Béla] Bartók was interested in Hungarian folk music. He composed pieces and he taught at a music conservatory, and he was having a hard time teaching one particular student rhythms—the student just didn’t understand how to read or do rhythm. But he noticed that the student was walking in a very graceful and flowing way, so he just had a revelation that he could teach that student rhythm through his body because the student had a very good sense of his body. So he started developing these physical exercises. I started studying eurythmics when I was three, that was the beginning of my studies, and it was a wonderful way to begin, because it was an integration of the body, the ears, the voice, and space.
“the body, the ears, the voice, and space.” she integrates all of these in her performances, and to understand her you have to watch her perform. she likes to find artistic practices that fall between the cracks of traditional disciplines, and really the proper term for much of her work is the nebulous “performance art.” so you’re missing the point if you just focus on her music as music. buuut that’s what i’m going to do. because, while there are quite a number of youtube videos of her performing and of her video work (like this great performance for the library of congress and this excerpt from her film Book of Days), the most ready way that most people have access to her work is through her recordings for ecm. she has said that she dislikes the finality of the recording process, but especially now when we’re all cooped up, her albums are the closest we can get to hearing her live.
the good news is that her albums are really very incredibly quite good. below i’m going to go through 14 of them, plus talk about her current work in progress. i’ve divided her work into three categories: Vocal Pieces, which are pieces that focus mainly on solo or group voice; Vocal and Instrumental Pieces, which are pieces that combine voice and instrumental music; and Contemplation Pieces, which are themed pieces that she began writing at the beginning of this century. note that these are not hard and fast categories—sometimes there’ll be an instrumental piece on a mostly vocal album (like “st. petersburg waltz” on Volcano Songs), but the categories are intended to guide you through her rather intimidating discography according to your interests. it ends up almost being chronological but not quite.
at the end, i’ve also included a selection of her video pieces along with links to other documentaries, reading recommendations, and livestreaming concert series to keep you engaged and entertained during social distancing.
meredith monk is mainly known as a vocalist and creator of extended vocal techniques, although by my count her “vocal-centric” pieces actually make up a minority of her works. i believe this is because she first made her name in a big way in the 1970s, and as you can see she had three big albums (Key, Our Lady of Late, Songs From the Hill) in that decade that focused entirely or primarily on voice. however, voice has always played a prominent role in her work, and she has returned to it as the primary vehicle twice since, for her late-’80s film soundtrack Book of Days and the 1997 Volcano Songs.
Songs From the Hill / Tablet (1979): in terms of sheer vocal range, this is the place to start. monk eeexxxttteeennndddsss her vocal techniques here. i mean they are really extended. she wrote these songs while sitting on a hill out in the southwest, in new mexico i think, and you can easily imagine her sitting there hollering into the blank desert, especially on a song like “mesa.” “insect” is presumably an imitation of its titular creature but sounds more like the machine gun noise that kids make. the absolute best is “prairie ghost,” though, in which she explores every detail of one syllable (impossible to spell but “skya” comes close) and then ranges out from there to whisper and hiss and sigh and scream nonsense. there is a sort of learning curve here—upon hearing the mewling and meowing of the first track “lullabye” you may be put off—but this is also what makes this a great place to start. it teaches you the vocabulary of the strange new land you’re about to explore.
Book of Days (1990): Book of Days is a movie that monk wrote and scored and acted in and directed in 1988 which i can’t for the life of me find online. but anyway from what i’ve read it starts in color with a group of construction workers who blow up a brick wall, and behind the wall is a medieval town in black and white, so 20th-century folks clamber over the rubble and start interviewing like, i dunno, 14th-century folks. this album is the soundtrack to the film but monk always reworks any piece when she records it as an album, whether it be a movie or a play or a dance, so really it stands up remarkably well on its own. it has a medieval feel, certainly, which i can’t tell if that’s somehow inherent in the music’s modality or just i’ve been looking at stills from the movie too much. the best parts are the “travellers” tunes, which come up three times throughout the album and each present variations on a sort of humming melody that goes “a-hmm A-HMM a-hmm A-HMM a-hmm A-HMM.”
Key (1971): i struggled with where to put this one in my semi-arbitrary categories because while monk does use an electric organ here as backing and as a compositional tool, this, as her first album, is also where she showcases her vocal acrobatics to a new audience. she describes herself as “trying for a primordial musical utterance which would uncover shards of memory and feelings that we don’t have words for.” unsatisfied with the album format even from the very first, she conceived of this album as a sort of “invisible theater” wherein the audience imagines a sequence of characters entering and leaving a darkened stage. sometimes this is more distracting that helpful, as in the three “vision” pieces, but the fully formed songs here are some of her best.
Volcano Songs (1997): this is a sort of compilation of tracks written between 1988 and 1994, though the majority (nine tracks) consists of the Volcano cycle for voice. aside from these are included the aids protest “new york requiem” for piano and voice and the solo piano fantasia “st. petersburg waltz,” as well as what monk calls “duets for solo voice” in two “click songs” (an example is linked in the title over yonder). the real standout here though is “three heavens and hells,” a 20+ meditation on the nature of human, animal, and object as categories. the text comes from a poem by a then-11-year-old tennessee reed, who is the daughter of novelist ishmael reed. “there are three heavens and hells,” sing four female voices. “people heaven and hell / animal heaven and hell / things heaven and hell.” over the next twenty minutes these four voices descend into chaos and then at the end come back together to chant “heaven heaven heaven / hell hell hell.” anyhow at age 11 reed surpassed my own abilities at [age redacted] so i have to really lean on the “but her father is a famous writer” excuse to make me feel better.
Our Lady of Late (1973): the subtitle for this one is “music for voice and glass.” it’s a collaboration with percussionist collin walcott, who taps on a glass for the prologue and epilogue. in between, monk makes the glass “sing” by rubbing the rim like you’ve seen on those kinda cheesy youtube videos. she accompanies herself with her voice, creating little microtonal gaps that in turn create rhythmic “beats.” an interesting study, but not essential.
Vocal and Instrumental Pieces
from the early ‘80s through the early ‘90s monk turned toward larger group settings for her work, giving instruments a bigger place in her sound. the ultimate outcome of this is the opera Atlas from 1993, but you can trace her steady progress in this direction from the piano, violin, cello, and percussion included on tracks as early as Dolmen Music in 1981.
Atlas (1993): Atlas is monk’s first (and only) proper opera, with acts and actors and a plot. it’s mostly wordless, except for a few key terms that hint at the setting or action: “mountains,” “cities,” “steamships.” its plot is based on the 19th-century explorer alexandra david-néel, though monk takes some liberties—maybe more than liberties, as david-néel and her cohort encounter characters like the “hungry ghost,” the “ice demons,” and the “lonely spirit” on their way to “the ringing place.” musically it’s reminiscent of steve reich with its obsessively repeated figures, but blows apart reich’s determined minimalism in favor of something much weirder. if monk’s works are going to be performed after monk herself has left the metaphorical stage of life, this is the one likeliest to continue—already, the l.a. philharmonic has staged it without her participation but with her blessing.
Dolmen Music (1981): Dolmen Music might be the most famous monk album for a certain set of music fans because dj shadow sampled its title track in “midnight in a perfect world” (that’s her going “aaah-whooooo”). and really it’s a good album to start with because it’s less weird than much of her output. the album’s first four tracks are downright digestible, from the haunting “gotham lullaby” (linked in the title) whose first four notes are unmistakable after you’ve heard them once, to the jaunty “the tale,” in which monk impersonates a sort of elven character who runs around saying things that she still has (her phone, her gold ring, her allergies). the title track itself is a bit more difficult, as it’s a slow-moving 23+ minute dirge propelled by careful cello. but check out the musicians on this thing: collin walcott, robert een, and julius eastman all make appearances.
Facing North (1992): in 1990 monk had a residency at the banff center in alberta canada. the long dark cold lonely winters there inspired this piece about surviving in wilderness conditions. it’s a duet album with her frequent collaborator robert een, and its 14 songs explore themes of connection, disconnection, cold, warmth, and survival. as with so much of monk’s music, vocal techniques are used to conjure natural scenes and settings, from the northern lights to crackling ice to life-saving fire. a minor work, it is nonetheless interesting as an extended study for a male/female duet, which is a rarity in monk’s oeuvre.
Turtle Dreams (1983): the first track on this, “turtle dreams (waltz),” is the only one that really grabs my attention—“view 1” and “view 2” are both very pretty and “engine steps” and “ester’s song” are neat little curios, but “turtle dreams” itself is an all-timer. i recommend experiencing it through the very weird video monk made for it, linked below in the “quarantine quorner.”
Do You Be (1987): the individual tracks on Do You Be are frequently excellent, but as they derive from such a variety of her theater pieces (Acts from Under and Above, Vessel, and The Games) they struggle to hang together as a coherent album. I recommend instead watching the entirety of Vessel and picking out the best single tracks from the others—for example, “memory song” linked at the title or “scared song.”
most of monk’s work in the past 20 years has been “contemplation pieces” or what she describes as “pieces about things you can’t make pieces about.” i’ll let her explain, from this lecture:
Towards the end of the ‘90s I started thinking about how does one make a contemplative performance work… how would I spend the rest of my life making pieces about something you can’t make pieces about. And the contemplation of those things would be part of the process of making the piece. So the first one was called Mercy. So how do you make a piece about mercy? I mean, forget it…
in a variety of ways, she approaches her subjects in these pieces from an angle—like studying the light around a black hole instead of the black hole itself.
mercy (2002): i can’t for the life of me find any clips of this album online so you’ll just have to trust me when i say that it’s among her best. the theme here is “mercy” (no caps is monk’s stylization this time) and as it came out in 2002 and monk is from new york you can imagine that 9/11 might be its reference point, but i’m not so sure that’s necessarily the case. again, there are no words here, only vocalizations, so the listener can make their own connections. to me, a larger ahistorical inquiry into the nature of mercy as a concept seems like a better context. this is slow, meditative music, designed to be taken in all in one sitting. i can’t help but associate this album, and the meditative state it encourages, with monk’s buddhist beliefs. if mercy is a process, and that process takes patience and time and quiet, then this album might serve as a kind of aid to meditation. reference is made in song titles to a series of characters—patient, doctor, prisoner, woman—who may be in need of mercy or in a position to provide mercy. monk believes in the notion that art can heal in a quite literal sense, and this album comes close to delivering on that remarkable promise.
Impermanence (2008): Impermanence is about death, inspired by the untimely death of monk’s partner mieke van hoek and then developed through a collaboration with patients at an english hospice called rosetta life. the patients worked with monk, telling her stories and fantasizing about incredible or bizarre ways to die. it’s a heavy listen, with serious themes of mortality and loss (its first song is called “last song” and its last song is called “mieke’s melody no. 5,” adapted from a tape van hoek left behind). but it’s also at times hopeful, funny, even joyous. monk made it a point to include humor in the piece, such as the odd dance and physical comedy included in “skeleton lines,” linked in the title.
On Behalf of Nature (2013): this is an ecological piece in which the singers speak, obviously, on behalf of nature. monk was inspired by gary snyder’s essay “writers and the war against nature” in which he argues that humans need to speak for animals and other things that are suffering but cannot speak for themselves. but the difficulty is that naming things already does damage to them. rather than snyder let’s use another poet, w.s. merwin, to get at this point. in his essay “the tree on one tree hill” merwin, in reference to the invention of linnaean taxonomy, writes that
As the history of magic indicates, finding the “real” name of anything is a way of claiming and establishing power over it. In itself it is an act of appropriation, an annexation, and the moment of such naming of the flora and fauna of the South Pacific coincided with the final and most pervasive era of European imperialism.
you give a thing a name in order to classify it within a system, which is the first step in studying it and then using it and then abusing it and then destroying it. so how do you use language, which in this sense is fundamentally human and therefore unnatural, to defend nature against humanity? monk’s answer was there all through her career: you don’t use words at all. instead, she uses her extensive palette of vocal techniques to invoke natural sounds. each “environs” piece replicates some natural environment, from the chirping of insects to the yipping of dogs, while tracks like “water/sky rant” bring to mind rituals calling for rain. the audience, meanwhile, is free to make their own connections between the performance and its stated topic, contemplating the nameless natural world as it existed before human intervention.
Songs of Ascension (2011): written and performed in 2008, Songs of Ascension is about upward movement in a spiritual sense—ascending to another state of being. of course she also got inspiration from the idea of moving upward physically, read metaphorically, as in moses climbing the 4000 steps of mt. sinai. she was inspired by a number of such religious sources: processional paths around buddhist stupas, the group of psalms called the “song of ascents,” and the tawaf around the kaaba in islam. musically, this album is remarkable because it requires far more than her normal players: a string quartet, winds, percussion, and two vocal groups appear in addition to her regular vocal ensemble. she was also invited to perform the piece in ann hamilton’s site-specific sculpture/building tower, which can be seen in the linked video.
Cellular Songs (work in progress, 2018-present): the video linked <— over there is an interview with monk on the occasion of a live performance of her new piece, which is about cells—the cells you learn about in biology (that mitochondria is the powerhouse of) but also cells as in groups of people, cells as self-organizing units, cells as agents of chaos (as in terrorist cells, cancer cells). after reading siddhartha mukherjee’s history of cancer The Emperor of All Maladies, monk realized that the fundamental unit of the cell was a metaphor for the units that make up her work: the individual singer, the note, the syllable. i put this one in last place simply because it’s not done yet, though it has great potential. it’s unclear when the album version of it will be produced, but you can get an idea of it (and get excited about it) via the live performances of a few selections in the linked interview.
alright so we’re all stuck inside so below are a few things i’ve come across that have helped me to pass the time in a productive and calming way. i’ll put them here, in what i call the…
here a couple of full meredith monk video pieces, in charming early-80s tv quality:
Turtle Dreams (1983)
A Few Miscellaneous Documentaries
here are some links to interesting full-length documentaries about tusk is better-related folks:
For the Readers
if you’ve already gone through the tusk is better archives and are itching for something new to read, the wire magazine has made their archives free for the week and cheap thereafter:
in lieu of touring many musicians are hosting livestreamed concerts. two series of such concerts to note are “the quarantine concerts” from experimental sound studio and the series hosted by the decentralized sonic quarantine network. remember to send some money to these artists, as these concerts replace live tours that would have generated income.
ok good luck out there (in your homes) and stay healthy. feel free to contact me at email@example.com with requests or recommendations or just to chat. either way i’ll see y’all next week.