Meredith Monk is, among others, a composer, a pianist, a dancer, a choreographer, a filmmaker, a playwright and a curator. But above all, she is a singer. Her voice is a truly remarkable instrument. Listen to her piano songs like Do You Be, or her staged works like Atlas, and she can be reminiscent of a babbling child, an ancient shaman, or a skinger, opera mezzo-soprano. She integrates animal grunts, growls, chuckles, chirps, howls, gasps, whispers, clicks, creaks and yodels into her vibratoless, three-octave range. Some of what Monk does could be described as “healthy poetry,” but it’s never ugly or deliberately experimental. This is music that can tell stories and convey emotions without words; music that can be joyful or sad, comforting or disturbing, often at once.
“When I first came to New York, I got a revelation that the voice could be an instrument,” Monk says. “The human voice could delineate nuances of emotion. It could contain landscapes and gender and characters. It could reflect the body. I began to think about what a spinning voice could be, what a leaping voice could be, how could a voice move “Like a spine or a hand? I was very aware of the ancient power of the voice. That’s why I deliberately tried to stretch my reach to find unorthodox ways to create sound using my whole body.”
She speaks to me via Zoom from the attic apartment in Tribeca, where she has lived since 1972, with only one turtle called Neutron for company. Monk’s musical peers include her fellow composers at the center, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, friends she’s often clumped with. “They were always a lot more conservatory-based,” she says. “As a singer, I was rooted in folk music and the body. And I was never really a minimalist: every repetition in my music comes from the folk song tradition. “Where Glass’s instrumentalists often invoked early forms of baroque and renaissance composition, Monk’s vocal works reached much, much further back in music history – by examining the prehistoric music itself roots.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that before there was language, there was music,” she says. “I have never studied world music; I do not love the idea of going to a culture and exploiting it. But by just going into my own voice, my own instrument, and exploring it deeply, you begin to encounter sounds that have been created by people all over the world, throughout history. Each of us has a unique vocal language, but we are also part of the world’s vocal family. Finding my voice was a lonely process – in the good way. When I started researching these extended vocal techniques, the people who were most encouraging were jazz musicians like Sam Rivers, Collin Walcott, or Naná Vasconcelos. It was they who said “Girl, go for it!”
Monk’s music has attracted many prominent fans. David Byrne befriended her and asked her to score and choreograph a scene in his film True Stories. Brian Eno invited her to his studio on 8th Street in 1978 and told her, “your music is so beautiful; people are not doing enough beauty now.” In 2015, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Obama. A 2012 tribute album, Monk Mix, featured covers and remixes of her work by the likes of Caetano Veloso, Nico Muhly, Don Byron, DJ Spooky, Lee Ranaldo, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Gabriel Prokofiev and Björk. The latter is perhaps her most profiled fan – Björk has talked about being completely transformed by Monk’s album Dolmen Music from 1981, and the two met in 2007 via a radio program.
“I felt like an aesthetic mother to Björk,” Monk says with a laugh. “What she does is so different from what I do, yet we have so much in common. At the end of that radio program, we were both in tears and shared our visions of music. We ended up writing a lot. duets together – I still have the tapes – and we keep thinking about finishing them.I should fly to Iceland and then she should meet me in New Mexico, but we can never find a window to it.But we’re still in contact. I have a lot of love for her. “
Monk was born in New York in 1942, her mother was a pop singer, her father a lumber merchant. At the age of three, she was diagnosed with a visual impairment called strabismus, and her mother, who noticed that she seemed physically uncoordinated, enrolled her in a program called Dalcroze Eurhythmics that integrated music with movement. “Dalcroze is an incredibly integrative program; all elements of the music are physicalized, ”says Monk. “For example, you move your arms in certain positions while learning the do-re-mi scale. And that’s affected everything I’ve done. That’s why dance and movement and film are so integrated into my music. It’s that’s why I see music so visually. ”
That’s probably why she fit so comfortably into the downtown scene when she moved back to New York in 1964. “I’ve always been into ways to combine different perceptual fashions or artistic disciplines, like the Fluxus artists,” she says. . “I loved how painters made very interesting movement works, poets made music, playwrights made dances, people pushed the boundaries of their respective art forms. It ended in the 70s, but I never stopped weaving the different elements together.
“I was recently invited by Vijay Iyer to teach a class called interdisciplinary composition at Harvard. I noticed that many students were composing on their laptops all day. So I thought, right, let’s work on embodiment. You’re coming to to compose an a cappella vocal piece outside, and you will film yourself when you perform it! You make music in a completely different way when you experience it physically. ”
Monk still has the enthusiasm and pace of work she had half a century ago (“curiosity gives me a lot of energy”), but she turns 80 this year, and is increasingly writing work that she does not necessarily have to do herself. However, it is difficult because her music is often inextricably linked to the uniqueness of her vocal performance. Famously, the manuscripts for her work often look like seismograms or electrocardiograms, filled with wiggling lines and impressionistic instructions.
“It’s hard music to score,” she says. “The player really has to feel my music physically before they can perform it. It has freedom, but it’s also very strict. When other people want to do my job, I insist that they work closely with me or members of my ensemble. “Before they even begin. It’s challenging to pass on my music. I think my latest piece Indra’s Net could eventually be made in my absence. But it will be sad for me!”
Monk’s upcoming show at London’s Royal Festival Hall, her first date in the UK since 2013, will see her perform from her latest album Memory Game, a collaboration with the New York ensemble Bang On a Can. “They’re a generation younger than me – very urban, edgy, in-your-face. I’m more planned, primordial, visceral, lyrical. So I had to find pieces that were in between these two sensibilities. I decided to revisit plays from the 1980s and 1990s that I played live but that did not really record properly. “
Can a composition ever really be finished? “It’s a beautiful question,” she ponders. “Live performances show us that each composition is an organic entity. When you first perform a piece, it’s like an infant. As you go, you learn more about it. You may come to a place where you are happy with the shape, but I like to make room for play and growth. ”