MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Rising Up with Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus

Meredith Monk; photo by Masimo Agus

Songs of Ascension is one of Meredith Monk’s creations of the past few years. If you don’t know her incomparable music yet, this is a wonderful place to start exploring it.

Monk’s unclassifiable art is grounded in a unique understanding of the flexibility of the human voice. She loves to create new contexts in which to fathom its expressive depths. The result is music that sometimes sounds as if it had been quarried from an archeological dig or beamed in from a distant future. Both impressions emanate from Songs of Ascension, the tenth project Monk has recorded for ECM since her path-breaking Dolmen Music was released three decades ago. That discography charts her intrepid forays “between the cracks,” as Monk likes to put it, where different ways of perceiving the world through art converge.

On one level, Songs of Ascension encapsulates Monk’s aesthetic outlook over a long career, one in which the voice serves as a guiding thread for her interdisciplinary performance pieces. But it also reveals the undiminished curiosity of her artistic quest by incorporating the expanded musical language Monk has evolved over the past decade. With Possible Sky (2003), her first work for orchestra, Monk began to apply her intuitive sense of the voice as a complicated instrument to larger ensembles, teasing out the feedback between singers and instrumentalists in ways that rethink the very bases of composition.

Songs of Ascension represents an ambitious example of this development in her work. One stimulus for the work was Monk’s encounter with poet Norman Fischer’s translation of the Psalms into a Zen-infused language. His imagery led to further reflections on the trope of worshipers ascending a mountain and pausing periodically to sing a psalm of praise. A simultaneous invitation to collaborate with visual artist Ann Hamilton further clarified her evolving musical images, adding a site-specific dimension. Hamilton’s project involved performing while ascending a new tower the artist had designed in Sonoma County, California, inside which a pair of staircases that resemble a double helix spiral upward. In this form Songs premiered in October 2008.

To explore her fascination with the connection between worship, transcendence, and images of ascension, Monk interweaves a fabric drawn from her recent experience writing for string quartet and the signature extended technique of her own vocal ensemble (with the added contributions of The M6 and the Montclair State University Singers). Other threads she includes are woodwinds, an array of percussion, and a blend of Western and Eastern sonorities (with a prominent role for the harmonium-like shruti box, which is associated with Indian music).

In place of a libretto the “text” consists of unpredictable patterns of abstracted phonemes, fluid vocalise, and shaman-like incantations. Yet even as non-sense replaces the logic of language, the vocalizations by Monk and her collaborators seem to imply the origin of speech rather than the disintegration of Babel.

The effect is especially enchanting at the beginning of the piece, which the string quartet inaugurates with sustained whispers of just a few pitches: a gentle fog which rises to reveal the echo of human voices. These “clusters” (in Monk’s terminology) set the stage for the sprouting of song, the blossoming of harmony. The interlinked sections are the first two of 21 that comprise Songs. Monk’s titles cue us in to recurrent patterns—and are also provocatively enigmatic (why are the seasons out of order, and why are winter and autumn instrumental-only while summer and spring include voices?).

Monk’s continual intercutting of highly varied textures builds a sense of larger-scale momentum. The section “mapping,” for example, suddenly introduces a new tone of festive tintinnabulation, while the gliding swoops of strings and voices in “falling” convey the curious sense of whimsical archaism that tempers the more meditative sections crisscrossing through the work. The range of Monk’s vocal idiom is literally breathtaking: a strangely beguiling repertoire of aviary microtones, robust yodels, insectoid whispers, and (in the penultimate “fathom,” a lengthy solo for Monk as she accompanies herself with a shruti box), dusky, low-range chanting. The final number, “ascent,” makes for an inspiring conclusion to the adventure, its layered sonic tapestry suggesting an endless procession/quest as solo lines leap in ecstatic figures from the drone-like foundation.

Though the original Songs of Ascension was conceived as an “immersive experience” with video and site-specific movement, Monk’s music is thoroughly evocative on its own terms. ECM’s engineering gives the music rich, warm resonance and even manages to convey something of Monk’s spatial acoustic. The recording was made in 2009 at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. The booklet includes a smart essay by composer Kyle Gann and a color-photo essay from the premiere in Hamilton’s tower. Songs is further confirmation of the musical treasure we have in Monk, who shows no signs of slowing down.

(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, CD review, new music

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