The Sounds of Now, Part Two: Meredith Monk

Setting aside the increasingly vast realm of computer-generated and computer-reproduced compositions, music is something done by the body; it is, by and large, a corporeal activity. We often forget this fact (or choose to forget it) as listeners and even as producers of music. In this matter, there is little distinction between the so-called popular and classical realms. Given the nearly unimaginable advances in studio recording equipment, popular music releases expunge nearly all evidence of human frailty. Computer programs efface a pop singer’s mistakes; that occasional flat note (what some of us thought of as “character” in the voices of earlier recording artists) now attains the status of the hyper-perfect and the hyper-real — it is somehow simultaneously the sound of the voice and a digital representation of that voice; a sign turned in upon itself.

Recommended Recording

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, Do You Be (ECM)
This is an excellent introduction to Monk’s work. The Vocal Ensemble sounds wonderfully inventive and exciting throughout and the material on this recording includes some of Monk’s finest shorter pieces (albeit excerpted from longer works). “Scared Song”, the first track, presents a representative example of her imaginative use of repetition and variation. Other highlights include “Panda Chant II” and “Memory Song”.

No longer necessarily produced by a human body but rather using the human production as source material (raw matter to be processed digitally), much of what now constitutes popular music exhibits a sheen that virtually disavows human involvement. Occasionally, of course, the chance occurrence allows the machine to drop its veil, revealing that, in contradistinction to Oz where a small man sits at the center of a large mechanical apparatus, now a mechanical apparatus sits at the center of our celebrity performers (witness Milli Vanilli or, more recently, Ashlee Simpson).

In addition to such studio manipulation, many classical performers endeavor to erase all traces of human imperfection in their technical approaches to their chosen instruments. A pianist will sit for hours on end attempting to eradicate all tonal variance between the weakest and the strongest finger. This is (in part) what is known as technique and with good reason: it is the technical mastery of the bodily apparatus, the becoming-machine of the human being. Technique is not new nor is it to be inordinately disdained. However, long gone seem to be the days when Jascha Heifetz recorded the Bach solo violin works. Heifetz had technique, to be sure, but it was wholly imbued with the unmistakable idiosyncrasies of his approach. Increasingly, we find ourselves in a technocracy of musical production in which we substitute technical perfection (whether achieved via devoted practice or computer enhancement) for human expression. Increasingly, we endeavor to eliminate the body from musical production in a misguided attempt to bring into being the 19th-century ideal of a pure music of the mind divested of all traces of the corporeal.

However, there is, among certain composers and performers (from both the classical and popular worlds), a continuing pocket of resistance to this trend and perhaps no figure better represents that heterogeneous contingency (inasmuch as such a diverse group can be represented by a single figure) than Meredith Monk. From the beginning of her career, Monk has sought to integrate composition, performance, choreography, theatrics, and even film. Although she considers herself to be primarily a composer, even the most “pure” of her musical compositions or performances integrates the personal aspects of the body in a manner wholly removed from the majority of current musical production. This artistic ideal — one might even think of it as a spiritual quest — undoubtedly creates certain challenges for Monk and performances of her work. But, at the same time, it gives rise to a type of music that is quite remarkable in its singularity and unmistakably her own.

Monk graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence in 1964. Even at this stage of her development, she had already established the basic trajectory of her career: her studies at Sarah Lawrence comprised a mixture of theatre, music, and dance — the primary ingredients of nearly her entire body of work. Upon graduation, she returned to New York City and became involved in the experimental music and dance scene. She first gained recognition through her work with the Judson Dance Theater. In 1968, she founded The House, a company devoted to investigating and promoting interdisciplinary approaches to performance and a decade later she founded Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble with the goal of expanding vocal technique and exploring new sonorities and textures supported by a minimal instrumental foundation.

Although this ensemble was loosely modeled on similar groups formed by such Minimalist composers as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Monk has always rejected the label of Minimalism for her work. While she has at times explained her reticence as stemming from a basic artistic suspicion of labels, we might profitably consider the case more thoroughly. Much of her work exudes an interest in the highly repetitive structures and reliance upon ostinati that is typical of the Minimalist approach. However, Minimalism proper endeavored to realize an aesthetic completely antithetical to Monk’s creative interests. By “Minimalism proper” I mean the earliest, “pure” period of Minimalism (roughly from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s) wherein its constituents tended to think of musical works as derived from process-oriented approaches to composition. The composer designated a process that served as the foundation of the composition but then the remainder of the details of the composition (its actual musical unfolding in time) was largely the result of that process being carried out.

A fine example of this approach is Reich’s justifiably famous Come Out (1966). It was composed for a benefit to promote a retrial of six boys charged with murder during the 1964 Harlem riots. The source material for the composition consists of a recording of one of the accused (Daniel Hamm) as he describes his attempt to demonstrate visible bleeding so that he could be moved to the hospital (the police were only transporting those who displayed actual bleeding): “I had to like open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” Reich created a tape loop out of the phrase “come out to show them”. The composition begins with the loop in two channels, synchronized with itself. However, gradually the loops begin to go out of phase and the process begins. As the recording falls out of phase, it gives rise to what is, at first, an almost imperceptible elongation of the sibilance that begins the word “show”. A palpable (albeit quick) echo on the harder consonantal sounds (the letters “c” and “t” in the first two words) soon follows. As the process continues, Reich expands the texture to include up to eight “voices” all consisting of the same loop but all increasingly out of phase until the actual text becomes irremediably obfuscated. The sibilance of “show” becomes a white noise drone while the consonantal sounds become pure percussion.

Reich (in the liner notes to Steve Reich: Early Works [Elektra/Nonesuch, 1987]) claims that by utilizing recorded speech he was able to present speech and meaning as they “naturally occur”: “By not altering its pitch or timbre, one keeps the original emotional power that speech has while intensifying its melody and meaning through repetition and rhythm” (emphasis in the original).

This is an intriguing if somewhat mystifying explication of what is at work within this composition. It may indeed represent what Reich had in mind when preparing the piece but it hardly seems to account for the final result. Insofar as Reich did not alter the pitch or the timbre of the source recording, one might be able to say that he has presented speech the way it “naturally occurs” (inasmuch as that phrase has any discernible meaning) but surely as soon as he begins to manipulate that speech through phase shifting, he has begun to significantly alter its possible range of meanings. The idea that one is simply intensifying the “melody and meaning through repetition and rhythm” is tendentious, to say the least.

The repetition and rhythm ultimately serve to annihilate the speech function of the source material. It slowly comes to mean nothing at all qua speech but rather gains its new significance qua musical sound. By the end of the process, it no longer constitutes speech at all. Far from the manner in which it naturally occurs, speech here is entirely denatured so as to become something radically inhuman. The “original emotional power” is not preserved; it is drastically transmuted into another form of expression altogether (perhaps equally emotional but hardly what it was). The piece seems to reveal the underlying purely mechanistic substratum of the human apparatus. Sibilants and consonances are transmogrified into white noise and percussive attacks, respectively. In the end, the human speech act strikingly resembles the engine of a locomotive. More importantly, perhaps, the painful contingency of this moment in American history is peeled away to reveal the rather bland sameness that underwrites all human experience — the churning of the corporeal machine. This is not the body as experienced by us everyday in its utter individuality but rather the generic mechanical product of evolutionary development. By the time the piece has ended, the source material could have been from anyone; the process has effaced all specificity. Come Out is an amazing and moving piece but not because it preserves the meaning of speech as it naturally occurs.

Despite the surface similarities (primarily, the repetitions), Monk’s music shares little with Minimalism in the way of aesthetic sensibility. (One might say that Monk’s music is more akin to Reich’s work after the mid-’70s but I would place such music outside of the realm of Minimalism proper. While it is true that many people continue to refer to Reich’s later output as a Minimalist, I think it should be obvious that this is a label utilized more for its convenience than for its accuracy.) The trajectory of Monk’s artistic concern is the opposite of Reich’s, as displayed in Come Out. Far from peeling away the surface levels of individuality to reveal the common mechanism that resides beneath, Monk pursues the essentially contingent in her compositions.

Many of her solo songs are, of course, designed for her own performance. She is a true master of extended performance technique, employing a wide and tremulous vibrato, glottal stops, nasal timbres, sliding tones, and vocal techniques borrowed from other cultures (not to mention a skittering vocal glissando that sounds remarkably similar to Fran Drescher’s laugh). Furthermore, in her writing for other members of her ensemble, she often tailors each part to the specific capabilities of that performer. Generic designations such as soprano or tenor are meaningless in her music; she writes for the individual. This, not surprisingly, gives rise to certain problems regarding the reproducibility of compositions by ensembles other than her own. Indeed, Monk seems to continually struggle with the question of how much of her music she feels comfortable having other people perform. This dilemma extends to the notation of scores. Monk often teaches her ensemble through oral transmission — making the process of learning a work highly personal and flexible — and indeed many of her compositions, while striking the listener (and perhaps even the original performers) as relatively simple, become exceedingly recondite, with respect especially to rhythm, when notated in score.

In performance, the connection between the sounds being produced and the bodies involved in that production is clarified through the choreographic and theatrical elements of her performances. Many of her pieces are indeed Music Theater, or what is often referred to as performance art. There is something undeniably immediate about witnessing these live performances. The audience sees the singer moving about the stage; there is a palpable connection maintained between the sound being heard and the concrete body producing that sound. This creates a particular source of concern (at least for the listener, if not for Monk herself) when it comes to connecting with her music via the medium through which many of us first come into contact with it: that is, audio recordings.

In the late ’70s, Monk signed with Manfred Eicher’s label ECM, which primarily recorded jazz albums, and she began to release albums that were necessarily divorced from the theatrical element so integral to these compositions. Whereas a typical Monk performance overwhelms the sensorium with stimuli that continually affect one’s interaction with the piece, the recordings appeal solely to the ear. Furthermore, several of the recordings are excerpts from longer works divested of their original context. For instance, Do You Be (1987) contains songs from four larger theatrical productions: Vessel, Quarry, Acts from Under and Above, and Games (with the majority of the material deriving from the latter two works).

And yet somehow the corporeality of the music manages to remain remarkably intact. Whereas Reich claims to have attempted to intensify the melody and meaning of the human voice through mechanical manipulation, Monk depends upon the voice in its immediacy. Repetition is not used as mere manipulation of material but rather a means of exploring the implications and nuances of phrases through some quite subtle approaches to variation. “Scared Song” from Do You Be is a fine example. After a brief keyboard introduction, Monk begins with a short descending phrase that continually grows through internal repetitions of its various subphrases. Repeated phrases need not be sung the same way both times; differences arise without seeming like imperfections.

The intake of breath that most singers attempt to mask is not only evident on many of the tracks of Do You Be, it becomes an essential part of the music. Although many of the pieces rely mostly on vocalise or nonsense syllables, phrases of text crop up occasionally. Owing to their manner of introduction, these phrases strike the listener in a manner similar to the entrance of a character onstage; the texts seem to derive from quasi-automatic writing — the “characters” here seem to come from a rather benign Beckett. Again “Scared Song” can serve as our example. Beginning as a vocalise, identifiable words slowly emerge until Monk arrives at the refrain (“Oh I’m scared”). The text gives way to prolonged pitches that Monk continues to subtly alter through timbral shifts and varying degrees of vibrato. Finally the piece launches into a bravado virtuoso showcase for Monk’s surprising abilities, which then subsides to make way for a repetition of the refrain. The theatrical element, so important to Monk’s conception of her work, becomes internalized and is in attendance even in the “purely aural” representation presented on these recordings.

It is her intimate approach to music making that may be Meredith Monk’s greatest contribution. These recordings reveal a group of talented musicians “playing themselves” instead of some arbitrary characters; the music, to an extent, is about their abilities and the idiosyncrasies of their vocal apparatuses; it is about the sounds produced by their contingent bodies in a specific place at a specific moment in time. Although there may be a certain timeless quality to her music, that quality seems to arise directly out of its concrete situatedness. Its eternity is discovered within the ever-mutable moment; its essential element is found within the accidental nature of individual bodies.

Meredith MonkLive