MEREDITH MONK FOR AUTRE MAGAZINE
February 7, 2019 via telephone
Published in Autre Magazine: Volume 2, Issue 7 - Spring 2019
Introductory text and interview by Jonathan Hepfer
I first became aware of Meredith Monk in a music history class in my first semester at Oberlin in 2004. In an effort to counteract the tendency of standard music history textbooks ignoring the presence of living female composers, she devoted a lecture to Laurie Anderson, Diamanda Galas and Meredith Monk. The discovery of these three women was a major revelation to me, but none made a bigger dent than Meredith, whose music haunts me in a very profound way to this day.
Later that year, I found out that Meredith had given a workshop on campus which culminated in an exquisite corpse presented by the students (who incidentally, came from the dance, theater and music departments). I have only the haziest memories of what actually took place in that performance, but I remember vividly the sense that I walked away with: the pleasure, simplicity and beauty that comes from consummate freedom in creativity.
Many years later, as the artistic director of my own concert series, I attempted to program one of Meredith's early masterpieces - a request which was denied. The blockages I ran into in presenting this work finally revealed to me much of what makes her work so compelling and courageous. Despite my frustration as a curator, the respect and understanding of her work that I gained through this process was illuminating and inspiring - an interaction that forced me to grow in my own role as a presenter.
Despite being described as a composer of contemporary music (which her position as composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall will confirm), her work is so multifaceted that the concept of a notated score only winds up being a fraction of the equation. She is a composer, a dancer, a director of both opera and feature films, a pianist, and an iconic singer.
She was an early influence on the work of Bruce Nauman. A documentary on her work has been made by Peter Greenaway. Her work has wound up in the films of Jean-Luc Godard and The Coen Brothers. Her work will receive two major presentations in Los Angeles this year: first when UCLA presents Cellular Songs in March, and second when the LA Philharmonic presents her magnum opus, her opera Atlas, directed by Yuval Sharon in June.
I spoke with Meredith over the phone recently to discuss her work, her background and her words of grandmotherly wisdom for the next generation of creative spirits.
JONATHAN HEPFER: You mentioned this interesting thing about needing to go to New Mexico in order to get out of the mind frame of New York City. I learned recently that you have a turtle in New York, perhaps even several of them, and turtles help you frame the idea of time differently.
MEREDITH MONK: Yes... (laughs) I have one tortoise, it’s a female three-toed box tortoise. Her name is Neutron and I’ve had her since 1978 and she is still going strong. It is hard to know if she can recognize me after all these years-- but she really has a little personality and it is amazing to be around an animal like that. It is a real antidote to the speed of New York, that’s for sure.
JONATHAN HEPFER: I know that you come from a musical family. Can you tell me a little bit about your earliest reference points, both as a musician and as a listener?
MEREDITH MONK: Well, my mother was a professional singer. She was on the radio every day. So, I was hearing popular music from that period. She was also singing jingles on the radio and popular music. This would be the 1940s, and my grandfather was a classical bass baritone, and I remember him singing. I remember them singing together, and then, also I heard that my father’s father was a cantor.
So, music - and singing particularly - was something that was like breathing to me. It was just part of my DNA, and my earliest training was in Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which was really helpful for me because I’ve got strabismus, which means my two eyes don’t work together. I was not that coordinated, but I was very rhythmically acute and I sang back melodies that I heard from my mother. Before I could talk, I could sing back anything. So, Dalcroze is a remarkable integration of my body and my music ability. I think other kids were learning music through their bodies, but I was learning my body through music. So, there is something about that relationship that held me in really good stead throughout my life, even though I wasn't aware of how much it had influenced me until I wrote my opera, Atlas for Houston Grand Opera.
Dalcroze training is so amazing because it’s a three-pronged pedagogical system—the first one, is rhythmic training. So, I remember being three years old, and by the time I was seven years old, I remember catching balls in time and skipping in time, and it was very physical but always in relation to music. The second branch of the pedagogical system is improvisation, which I loved, and the third is solfège. I learned solfège early, not only aurally, but also through my body because they would teach the scale with the arms starting down, and you go up the scale and by the time you went up to the octave, then your arms were up, so it’s a synesthetic, spatial idea of music. What a great thing! Over the years I keep telling musicians—space is your ally! In the classical tradition we don’t learn that. Sometimes people just plant themselves into their spot and they do not realize what is going on in the body, the whole body, and what’s going on with the relationship of your voice in space.
JONATHAN HEPFER: I definitely identify with that, because as a percussionist, our instruments are literally laid out in space. So with each setup, there is a brand new geography that needs navigation and a certain amount of choreography. Do you feel that your training in Eurythmics created a unique perception for you early on with respect to how sound and space intersect in your work?
MEREDITH MONK: I wrote a piece for St. Louis Symphony called Weave and it had a chorus, a chamber orchestra, and two vocal soloists. And I placed the instruments antiphonally. For example, if there were two horns, they would be on opposite sides of the stage - just what you were saying about choreography - it was a lot about echo, and doubling. The whole setup had to do with what you’re talking about—another way of using space in music—how you want the auditory sensation to be. And that relates to Cellular Songs, because it has a surround sound kind of setup, which is very, very important for the audience to have an immersive experience of this music.
JH: It reminds me a bit of that old Cage adage: I don't know why everybody is so afraid of new ideas - I'm afraid of the old ones. I never understand when composers today write for the orchestra as it was in Beethoven's day. I always thought that a unique spatial layout of the instruments was something very desirable. It always engages me as a listener in a much more active way.
You have an almost incomprehensible amount of different aspects to your artistic identity. At what point did you realize that you could dissolve the concept of category? And what gave you the self-confidence to think that you could actually achieve that in your career?
MEREDITH MONK: I think I had glimpses of it when I was at Sarah Lawrence in the voice department. I was doing some piano composition, and music composition, and I was in the dance department, and I was in the theater department. I think as a child I was very interested in all of these things, and in a strange way there was a kind of urgency, which I think a lot of artists have when they are young, to find their artistic identity—to meet it with life and death. There’s a kind of urgency of integrating as a human being and then that manifest in finding, “how could I weave together my voice and gesture?” How could I weave together, voice, gesture, and visual images? It was a necessity for me, and so I started making pieces there that already had the combination of the voice and the body in counterpoint - a very right hand, left hand kind of thing - objects and images, and a little bit of film.
Then, when I came to New York, I was really fortunate that I came at the right time. I think, in history, there are times that are expansive and there are times that are contractive. I think right now we’re in a really contractive period, and it’s really painful. But when I teach people in schools or young people, I am always encouraging people to open out and to not be afraid. I sometimes get this strange reaction, like “you guys did everything and there’s nothing more to do!” But then I'm always going, "listen: there's only one of you in the universe! That's ridiculous!" Of course, you are going to find new ways—it may be integrating some of the things we discovered, but then you’ll find your own way of working with that.
When I first came to New York, I was doing a lot of work, solo pieces in galleries and there were a lot of alternative spaces in New York. There was some vocal work but not really—it was more gestural, spatial, a little vocal work—but I was working (I’m a real film buff - I adore film) and I was very interested in cinematic syntax. But then after a few months of being in New York, I was really missing singing—just straight out singing—So, I sat at the piano and just started vocalizing and I had a revelation. I always say: sometimes there are these moments in life that change your life. I had a revelation that I could use my voice as an instrument, also coming from a movement background I didn’t have to have text; within the voice were male and female, different ages, different landscapes, different ways of producing sound, and different ways of using the breath and inside of the mouth as part of the music. And that the voice was a very ancient connection to emotion. It’s from the center of the body out. And it was my way of getting back to my family. It was not easy to sing in a family of all singers. (Laughs) You have to find your place in these musical families. I felt back to my blood, and that I was really meant to do this, and also that was kind of my emotional center. I always felt that my work was structurally very strong, but where was my emotional center? And I realized that it was in the voice. That was a great day for me and my whole life changed after that.
JONATHAN HEPFER: It's clear that you have a fascination with the voice as a carrier of phonemes rather than words as its primary function. Something that I really loved that you said had to do with this idea of exploring from deep within what was already inherent in your voice: the ages, the gender, the animal, vegetable, mineral content, etc. And you said, very often, that you would discover music that existed in the world later in life, that you had already discovered for yourself as a singer—just through exploration.
MEREDITH MONK: Yes. I think you are talking about it in terms of, sometimes people say, “did you go to these cultures,” and no, I never did. I work from the inside out. But if you work with the voice you are going to come across sounds and ways of producing sound, and you’re just going to come across all the sounds that we all have in our voices. I think something wonderful about working with the voice is that each of our voices is totally unique—so, that’s why in my ensemble I do not want people to sound like me. I try to make Katie be as Katie as possible—although, I must say that with Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin and me in Cellular Songs it is almost the opposite—in the first three songs that we sing, we are so blended, and the weaving of the lines so intricate that you don’t know who is singing what, which is part of the fun we have with those pieces. You can follow each of the voice, but I remember when we performed in Wesleyan and one of the students said, “If I really concentrated, I could follow Allison’s voice or Katie’s voice because our timbres are different. But the way that it’s composed, the idea is that we are so interwoven that you don’t know who is singing what. Basically, I feel that each person's voice is unique—really unique—and yet, at the same time, we are all part of the world vocal family—that’s the thing that is so beautiful. For example, I discover in my own voice like a glottal break—I am working my early pieces with a kind of glottal break exploration. And then, I remember my first concert of all music concerts was at the Whitney Museum in 1970 and somebody said, “oh you know, what you’re doing, that glottal break, sounds like Balkan music, have you ever heard it?” and I said no! And I’m going, “oh that’s great!” if the glottal break exists in Balkan music, but it exists in North Carolina Hollering, and it exists in African music—it’s a physical discovery that we all have the potential to discover in our voices, but it’s what you do with it. It's sort of like how Bartók took those amazing folksongs - if you listen to the originals, they're great, but he did with them was INCREDIBLE! So, I don’t go and study cultures. I just keep on working with my own voice.
JONATHAN HEPFER: Steve Reich said that when he went to study in Ghana, the main thing he left with was a sense of confirmation. Confirmation of what he was already discovering in his own explorations. I thought that was a beautiful answer.
MEREDITH MONK: It is beautiful.
JONATHAN HEPFER: You mentioned that Björk was somebody who interpreted your music in a way that you found very desirable.
MEREDITH MONK: It was very moving because, particularly, the solo pieces, people usually just try to imitate and it doesn’t really come to life- what she did, and I do love her very much, I mean we’ve been working on a duet for ten years now (I don’t think it’s ever going to be done)... but I do have a lot of respect and love for her. She found her own way of doing it, but the piece was still Gotham Lullaby—In other words, she really found the essence. It’s not that it was just a Björk thing—I think it was really, really that she kept the integrity of the world of Gotham Lullaby but she found her own way of doing it while still keeping the integrity of the piece. I think that’s pretty extraordinary.
JONATHAN HEPFER: One thing that I am often considering, because I’m at a stage in my life where life feels very bohemian—it feels very sort of economically and financially on edge, yet there is a certain excitement that comes with it. Therefore, I have a tendency to look back at these periods—like the period that you grew up in New York and sort of came of age as an artist––with a certain romanticism. Has the nature of your work changed? As you mentioned, you began in a lot of art galleries, and now you are center stage at the LA Phil, and you’ve been composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall. Has anything about the nature of the work changed as the venues have changed from bohemian to essentially, you are now not only accepted but part of the canon?
MEREDITH MONK: Well, I don’t think the work has changed actually. Truly, I feel like I’ve always been in dialogue with every space that I’m in. And, there are some artists, who I won’t mention their names, once they perform at Carnegie, it always has to be in these big places. But I enjoy flexibility. I could perform at Carnegie and then the next thing I do is at P.S. 122, so that young people can come. I mean, I just feel that the most important thing is to always be in the state of mind that is called ‘beginner's mind,’ in the Zen tradition. Beginner's mind is open to everything. Expert’s mind closes to everything. What keeps me going is that I am a very curious person and I want to learn throughout my whole life. So, risking every time, and it being, you could say, at zero. It’s not that I don’t use any of my past experience at all, I don’t think there is a way to get rid of the backpack of our past (laughs).
But for example, this time, performing at Royce Hall with Cellular Songs is very challenging because I did not make the piece for a proscenium stage at all. I made the piece to be seen from overhead and it has a much more of a surround sound - a round kind of experience. Especially looking down is very important—so only part of the audience from Royce is going to be able to see the floor. I am projecting on the floor—but I’ve solved hat by working with the back wall. I just feel like I love performing and being composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall, but I love doing pieces, for example, in an ice skating rink in Russia. It was not on the ice, but it was in a sports place that they converted that was three-sided with the audience watching down. Something about that was so important—part of growing older is resilience—you start getting impulses of rigidity—but the resiliency is what keeps you going and allows you to be in the moment.
JONATHAN HEPFER: One difficulty in presenting your work is that so much of it requires your presence either as a musician or project director in order to perform. But soon, the LA Philharmonic will present your magnum opus, Atlas, directed by the brilliant Yuval Sharon. What made you trust Yuval with such an enormous task?
MEREDITH MONK: That’s a great question. I met Yuval because of Michael Tilson Thomas who is a good friend. He’s always been a champion of my music, and he finally made me write an orchestra piece, which took five years of him trying to convince me, but I did, for New World Symphony called Possible Sky. Michael was doing the John Cage Songbooks for the hundredth anniversary of John's birth.
As far as John is concerned, I knew Merce and John, but I didn’t really get to know John until the end of his life when he asked me to sing Aria and we got to be good friends. But it was really towards the end of his life—In a way, the way that they worked, I mean I love them so much, but in a way, I am diametrically opposite in the way I work. The spirit is something that's - even if it's just a Hegelian relationship, it's something I think about a lot - the way that they work. It's just that I work very differently. But we loved each other, so how could I say no to that (even though I really don’t enjoy singing other people's music that much)?
So, I said yes, and Jessye Norman, Joan La Barbara, and I were the three ladies. We were the three ladies, and then San Francisco Symphony, and then Michael was also performing on stage. I mean it was wild! Yuval is the director. Now, I’ve never been directed by anybody else, I direct myself (laughs). He was so supportive and great as a director—especially to us singers.
He's a special young person. He said that he had listened to Atlas every day of his life when he was a student at Berkeley, and one of the great dreams of his life was to do a production of it, and I said, "you better hurry up before I leave this planet! (laughs) Because I want to see it at least!" So, then he was in residence with the LA Philharmonic and he decided to do Atlas. And right near the beginning, we'd had a long series of sessions for three days of me talking through all of the scenes and the intentions and blah, blah, blah. And he said, "I want you to approve everything that I do." And I said, "absolutely not!" Because the idea of doing this is to experiment with "does this work hold up with somebody else doing it?" Because when I made Atlas, I was working on all of the elements. I was composing the music, which took five years. I was working on the gesturing movement. I was working on the directing. I made the scenario. I was performing in it. It was very woven together. And if you take one element out - so now we have the score, which Boosey and Hawkes JUST finished. They just finished the vocal score, which was like giving birth to a hippopotamus. It was like a year of work to get the score together.
So the question is - and I'm risking this - does it work when you take one element (which is the music) and separate it - and of course the piece is always based on the music, but I as the director and choreographer could add eight bars if I needed to do it for the movement. It was very fluid. So the question is whether another director could do it. So I said to him, "I don't want to approve of everything - I actually don't want to know what you're doing. Otherwise I'd rather do my own production of it. (Laughs)" So the only thing that I said that I really wanted to be involved in was the casting because the cast is REALLY important with Atlas. First of all, it has to be international - really, really diverse. I made a lot of the material before I had my cast, but then I adjusted it for that cast. So, in a way, you could say that it was custom made for that cast. And they were an unbelievable cast. So that is what I involved myself with. And I think that we found some beautiful, radiant young people. And I guess the way that I'm thinking now is: I hope it works, and if it doesn't totally work, I think it will at least be beautiful that these young people have experienced this process, which is very different than the usual opera world.
JONATHAN HEPFER: Even though (or maybe because) it is so unconventional, the excerpts that I’ve seen of earlier productions of Atlas make so much sense to me, and the whole standard operatic repertory makes so little sense to me.
MEREDITH MONK: Me too! I've always had such a hard time with it! I love the form—the form has all the potential in the world because it’s multi-sensory, multi-perception. And I have always called my pieces operas—but the opera, opera form where you have to read through the text, Ugh! I mean, I don’t know there’s just something about the experience that is just so unsatisfying. Because you have that filter of the text—half the time, you don’t understand, if it’s not a really good singing actor you don’t understand what they are singing anyway, and it is just so static in a way. You know what I mean? Because of the linear narrative thing. For me, it just doesn’t live, and although potential of the form is amazing…we’ll see! We’ll see in June!
JONATHAN HEPFER: How do you feel about the term Gesamtkunstwerk?
MEREDITH MONK: I used to love that, but when I went to Germany, that’s what they called me. The first time I went to Germany, I did a concert there, but boy, if I think of anybody who said, “she is a phenomenon!” and I had gotten a lot of slack in the United States. But I felt that the Germans in the late ‘70s actually understood my music better than anybody had up to that point. They understood what I was doing poetically and how technically difficult it was - that no: everybody could not do that. I had some wonderful concerts in Germany—and still, to this day, when I go to Germany, I feel the audience is right there, and they know exactly what I am doing.
JONATHAN HEPFER: The Germans also embraced Morton Feldman. And Ensemble Modern plays a lot of Steve Reich's music...
MEREDITH MONK: And they also played Frank Zappa’s music! Beautifully. I knew Frank when I was in my 20s, and he always sabotaged himself, but on purpose so he had this beautiful melody, and then he’d go, “bluuhh,” and he would never let you enjoy it. But I mean, Ensemble Modern, doing all those orchestral pieces? So beautiful! I saw Frank right at the end of his life in Frankfurt, and he wanted to see me and talk with me, and he was not well, he was really in pain. But boy, it was such a beautiful evening and hearing his orchestral music, and realizing this guy was a REALLY good composer! Ensemble Modern is wonderful. And I've been working with Manfred at ECM since 1980.
JONATHAN HEPFER: After you left Sarah Lawrence, were there any mentors in New York who took you under their wing? A lot of artists have these notorious jobs—like Glass driving a taxi and being a plumber. Mapplethorpe moving boxes and Patti Smith working at a bookstore.
MEREDITH MONK: Well, I worked as an artist’s model because I felt like I could just have my mind to myself. I tried an office for two months and forget it! I worked for Moses Sawyer, a painter, and then some sketch classes. And then I taught children’s dance and music lessons all the way out at the end of the subway line in Brooklyn and New Jersey—getting up at five in the morning for a nine o’clock class of children’s music and dance. I could manage with that. I did that for many years. That’s how I managed. As far as mentors, I think some of the Fluxus people like Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles and Philip Corner, Jackson Mac Low—they saw, even though again, I was a very different generation than they were. They were all students of Cage and had a different quality—much more Dada, iconoclastic in a certain way. But I guess it was because I was multi-talented and that I had a fluidity and flexibility, and so they were very kind and encouraging to me.
JONATHAN HEPFER: There’s two things I want to ask— one is the nature of your relationship with Jean Luc-Godard, in terms of how your work entered his and the other is about your fascination with archaeology.
MEREDITH MONK: With Godard, who I adore, that came through Manfred Eicher who’s very, very close with him. I think he introduced Godard to my music, so that’s how that happened. With the Coen Brothers, my music was introduced by Carter Burwell to them. He’s a wonderful film writer. I adore Carter. He introduced my music to them.
And then with archaeology, well, in the late ‘70s, I think it maybe just happened. I don’t know what was the cause and effect but I have always been interested in layers and layers of history, and how historical cycles come around and around, like fundamental human energies.
For example, in 1976 I was working on Quarry, which is a piece inspired by World War II. It came from me going to Europe. My first visit to Europe, the first place I played was at the Nancy International Film Festival. It’s in Alsace Lorraine, on the border of France and Germany. And I wondered why are there not many men around fifty or sixty years old. And they said, “Well, there were two world wars.” So, then I was thinking of what it would be like to be occupied. Of course, because of my European Jewish Background, I started wondering what it would be like to be taken away, and I just started contemplating. How do you make a piece about World War II? It was a huge piece, and we’re in the process of trying to revive it, Quarry, which is I think, one of my major works.
In 1978, I went to Israel, just to visit, and I had read The Source by James Michener and I was so interested in this idea that you could have a place, and that you just tore away layer by layer, and it was one culture after another and another down to prehistoric times. That is what The Source was about. I wanted to see some of what he wrote about and I started working on a piece called Recent Ruins.
Quarry was a meditation on fascism, and if you look at the film of Quarry, it is shocking how contemporary and dark it is. So, therefore, I called the piece Recent Ruins and it’s really about this idea of digging back through layers and layers. My other feature-length film, called Book of Days was about AIDS, and also about the Middle Ages, and scapegoating. In a very kind of abstract musical kind of way—it’s still this idea that we just keep repeating—and yes, the particulars are particular (laughs) but basically the impulse and the archetypal situation keeps coming and spirals back around again. The sadness about it, to me, especially with people your age, is that nobody knows what happened. If you look at 1933, you’ll realize that’s what’s happening right now. It’s more just an interest in fundamental human behavior and fundamental events of time. The cycles of time. I think, also that there are artists that reflect the time they are in, but there are other artists that are interested more in cycles of time and timelessness and that’s more what I’m interested in.
JONATHAN HEPFER: À propos of how you mention these cycles. One thing that strikes me is that your music is on one hand very futuristic, but also obviously incredibly ancient in its reference points and source material. You can’t help but hear Gregorian Chants, early troubadour song, and organum—where does that come from in your life?
MEREDITH MONK: In some of the music, even before that, all the way to pre-historic and biblical times. I don't know! I don’t know if I can articulate that—it stems from a belief that time is circular, and that you cannot be in the present without the past and the future. You cannot be in the now without having the richness of the past in your being and also the curiosity about the future—that is the richness of the now. It’s so funny because I heard, I think on NPR, some guy from Silicon Valley going, “the past is not important at all, the future is the only thing that is important” and I said, “Are you kidding me?” That is just so pathetic. That’s why I get worried about YOU guys (laughs). You young ones, don’t believe that guy!
JONATHAN HEPFER: All I can say is, thank you for taking the time. Any final thoughts?
MEREDITH MONK: Oh you’re so welcome. And also, I just want to say one thing, because I do feel like Grandma and everything now. You know, what you’re calling a bohemian life; it’s really a great life. So, if you want to be secure and be old by the time you’re 50 years old. Great! But if you live this life that’s got that kind of edge and adventure and everything, it is such a wonderful life. I would give you so much encouragement to follow your dream, and don’t get scared about it. Just go for it. You’ll find a way. You’ll find a way.