The Voice of Moving Meditation

An Interview with Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk defies description. The body of work she has made in a legendary 50-year-long career is unequalled in its range and inventiveness. She is a composer, singer, choreographer, filmmaker, installation artist and creator of opera and music-theatre works.

Her early training and experience encouraged a sensibility that was already searching for ways to integrate sound, image and movement into one form in which “all units had their integrity.” Her education at Sarah Lawrence, where she studied in both the voice, theatre and dance departments, her training in Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a system of learning in which music and movement were understood as equivalent inspirations, and an atmosphere of interdisciplinarity in mid-’60s New York all fed her synthesizing imagination. In the following interview she remarks how much she loved the “anything-is-possible mentality” that characterized the city when she moved there in 1964. Her gifts and imagination took its permissions to heart, and in a unique way, she made everything possible. As Alex Ross put it in The New Yorker, she has “mapped a world that never quite existed in the history of the arts.”

Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966. Photo: Kenneth van Sickle. All photos courtesy the artist.

While she is disciplined, she has never taken any definition of a discipline as a limiting frame within which to work. She has famously said that she works “in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theatre becomes cinema.” To use one of her own formulations, the voice is “the soul’s messenger,” and she is always finding meaning in the connections between things. Anyone committed to the interstitial embraces the word “between” because it is there that we find the tissues that connect one thing and one idea to another. Monk situates her work in “that space between language and abstract music. I love that ambiguity. It’s like another crack. I love those places because I think you’ll find things there between the cracks.”

Her own assessment is that she has been exploring what she calls “primordial utterance,” sound that comes before language and that makes a language of its own. When you first hear the articulated sounds in a Monk composition, you think you’re hearing language caught in some process of deconstruction or invention. It is a soothing indeterminacy. Finally, you give over to its own sense of being and becoming in the moment. Her music has a tendency to obliterate measures of time. Many commentators have remarked that her music sounds simultaneously ancient and futuristic; we feel it is deeply rooted in our core and we feel equally that we are hearing it for the first time. She is a time magus.

Her most recent CD, On Behalf of Nature, is both a celebration of Nature and a warning on its behalf. When I asked if her prognosis about our future was positive, Monk responded with a gentle equivocation. The world will keep on going, even though our stupidity and avidity may be severe enough to exclude us from the process.

What I am assured of is that what she has made will be part of that ongoing continuum. An artist who has repeatedly made the boundaries of time irrelevant is an artist whose work will move alongside time throughout its infinite measure.

16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966, Judson Memorial Church, New York City. Photo: Charlotte Victoria.

On the first evening of the 2017 Winnipeg New Music Festival in January, the WSO will present WEAVE for Two Voices, Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Alexander Mickelthwate, with vocalists Katie Geissenger and Jeffrey Gavett. The next evening, Monk and her ensemble will perform a selection of works she composed between 1969 and 2008, and a selection of her choral works will be included in the third evening.

The following interview was done by phone to New York on October 20, 2016.

BORDER CROSSINGS: You’ve always said the body and the voice are not separate but when you first went to Sarah Lawrence you were more interested in movement than in voice.

MEREDITH MONK: I was actually in both the voice and the dance department and I also did some theatre work. In my senior year they allowed me to take two-thirds of my studies in a combined performing arts program where they let me design my own major. I was very dedicated and disciplined even in my academic studies. Sarah Lawrence was an amazing, progressive institution.

Was there an ‘on the road to Damascus’ moment when you realized how central voice was to what you were doing?

Well, my mother and my grandfather were singers, my great-grandfather was a cantor and my maternal grandmother was a concert pianist, so music was my first language and was very natural to me. I had the aspiration to become a singer, but movement was also a part of my childhood. I had some physical challenges and so I’m always very grateful that my early training was in Dalcroze’s Eurhythmics, which is a combination of music and movement. Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, who was a Swiss composer and educator, says that all musical ideas originate in the body.

Crowd Scene from Book of Days, 1988. Photo: Jerry Pantzer.

So you would have been more interested in kinaesthesia than synaesthesia?

Not really, but I did come from a different background than the other children in Dalcroze. They were learning music through their bodies and I was learning my body through music. I came into the classes feeling confident about music and rhythm.

You said that you felt somewhat awkward because movement didn’t come naturally to you, so in some senses you had to learn more about it than about the capabilities of your own voice?

Exactly, because I have strabismus, which is an eye condition where I can’t fuse two images. Most of us look out of two eyes and we fuse the two images into one that has three-dimensions. I’m actually looking out of one eye at a time and my brain compensates for that. So if you close one eye that’s what I am seeing. I’m seeing distance but not that curved, three-dimensional aspect of an object.

Scene from Book of Days, directed by Meredith Monk, 1988, left to right: Toby Newman, Pablo Vela. Photo: Dominique Lasseur.

And yet you talk about sculptural space.

The irony is that I have always dealt with space. Another thing about Dalcroze training is that it is music in space. Space is an ally. I always talk to singers who come from the classical tradition about that because they were never taught about space. Dalcroze was interested in a three-pronged pedagogical system—one was rhythmic training, one was solfège training and one was improvisation, so in a sense it was very synaesthetic. For example, we would sing the “do re mi fa so la ti do” scale but then we would delineate it with our arms in space and also read it on paper. Perhaps this is the synaesthesia you were talking about earlier. I didn’t realize how much that had influenced me until many years later when I was working on ATLAS, an opera for the Houston Grand Opera. The Western classical system is not that complex rhythmically; rhythmic articulation is not actually in the forefront, it is more about line than rhythm. So I would show the classically trained singers a piece of material and then I would sing it and they would ask, “How are you going out into all those rhythms and then coming back around again?” I would say, it is very instinctive and their response was, “It’s that Dalcroze training.” That’s when I realized it was more of an influence than I had thought.

You’re only 21 years old when you come out of Sarah Lawrence, and you seem fairly precocious.

Meredith Monk and Toby Newman, Book of Days, 1988. Photo: Jerry Pantzer.

My first piece in New York was called Break. I performed it in the Washington Square Galleries. I had been very influenced by cinema. It was a solo piece, and for me every piece has a question. When you find a question you are on the right track; the question for Break was: how do you do a solo form that has some of the syntax of film— fast cuts, perceptual changes, changes of persona, discontinuity and disjunction—and how do you do that as a soloist? The piece was very gestural, it had some voice, a few words and it also had a soundtrack. I made a multitrack soundtrack— fragmented collages of car crashes—by using two tape recorders and building tracks by taping from one machine to the other.

Had you been following what was going on at the Judson Dance Theater before you came to New York in 1964?

The Judson Dance Theater started when I was still in school in 1963. I remember coming into New York in the summer and seeing some of those first concerts, which were really wonderful. What was interesting about Judson was the artists were coming from all different disciplines and they were trying to break through the boundaries by trying another discipline. Most of them went back to their original discipline but they had increased their vocabulary by working in another form. Those concerts were disparate because people’s approaches were so diverse. I think that critics always think of Judson as having one particular sensibility, but there were actually many people with a wide range of approaches. The concerts were very long and you never knew what was going to happen next. I loved that “anything-is-possible” mentality and even as a student I was trying to find new things for myself before coming into New York. By the time I got to New York the Judson Dance Theatre no longer existed as a group but the Judson Church was available. I did do a few of my performances there because Al Carmines was very open to having young people perform.

You have famously said that you work “between the cracks where the voice starts dancing and the body singing.” Was that a natural place for you to be where you recognized that the various art forms could be part of the same sensibility, or was it something you had to work on to develop?

I think it was a necessity for me. Through my childhood and adolescence I did have these different interests and talents, and weaving together perceptual modes became an urgent quest because it was a way of integrating myself as an artist and a person. After a few years of working that way I started thinking about how art forms in the Western European tradition were separate; singers just sang, musicians just played instruments, dancers just danced and actors just acted, whereas in ancient cultures those performance forms were integrated. There wasn’t this specialized way of thinking about things. I realized that weaving together different elements could be an antidote to the fragmentation that we had in our society.

Robert Rauschenberg said that he operated in the gap between art and life. Did you have anything in common with his notion about the source and location of art?

We were all thinking in those terms. His style was different from mine and he came from a different generation, but I think we were all contemplating what art really was and how that related to our lives.

Yvonne Rainer has the notion that you can get magic out of the ordinary, and a lot of what was going on in New York in those days was a recognition that the quotidian could be magical and could be lifted into art.

I think so. The Fluxus people, like Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles and Geoff Hendricks, were always

very concerned with that. I remember one of Alison’s performances was just making a salad, and I think she still does it. Joseph Beuys was very much into that as well.

Blueprint, 1967. Photo: Charlotte Victoria.

There is a European model for this, although he comes out of a completely different sensibility, and that is Antonin Artaud and his conception of the all-encompassing environment. Were you aware of his writing or was that European sensibility outside of the American experience?

I’d love to talk about Artaud but there is one other person who comes to mind and that is Duchamp. His work was very revolutionary in that ordinary objects, just by the context or the bracketing, could be called art. A lot of that thinking started with him and then it went to John Cage and from there to the following generations. I had been in New York for a year and a half and someone said I should read The Theatre and Its Double, which I did. I appreciated and was encouraged by it because I was coming from a non-verbal tradition and was working vocally and wasn’t using text. His critique in The Theatre and Its Double was about the naturalistic play tradition and linear narrative. He had been inspired by seeing Balinese theatre, and of course I felt very close to the idea of a multi-perceptual performance form, but had found it in my own way and in my own time.

It must have been a terrifically exciting time.

It was. I talk with young people today and they have a longing for that world because survival was possible. I could teach children’s music classes, model for artists and could live in an apartment by myself. I lived in a little garret attic apartment in a West Village brownstone where people had to bend down to get in the door. A lot of people were living in tenement buildings and they can’t do that anymore. If young people come to New York now, they have to live six to an apartment and have a regular nine-to-five job in order to survive. Our impulse to make art was coming from a place of sheer love and devotion and I think people long for that right now. They will find ways to do it. I think of art as an antidote to what’s going on in this world and it does offer an alternative. We need it and our souls need it. It’s a sad, dark time.

16 Millimeter Earrings (1966) is such a rich piece and one of the things it does is quote Wilhelm Reich on “the excitation of the sexual zones.” His writing was influential on Carolee Schneemann and James Tenney in Fuses. Were you aware of what Stan Brakhage or Carolee were doing in film in the mid-’60s?

I wasn’t aware of their film work but the other morning I woke up thinking about Meat Joy. Carolee was part of an older generation but I remember being especially impressed by that piece. It was sensuous, almost like seeing the energy of an abstract expressionist painting in three dimensions, but transformed by her unique sensibility.

I gather you were interested in surrealist film?

Absolutely. Around the time of 16 Millimeter Earrings there was a big show of Surrealism. I never saw the show but I remember Artforum devoted a whole issue to it. I was interested in modes of perception and also psychic landscapes. This way of thinking was very rich for me at the time.

Your imagination was like a sponge; you were absorbing ideas from everywhere.

Impermanence, left to right: Katie Geissinger, Ching Gonzalez. Photo: © Michael Cooper.

I was 23 years old and I was reading and seeing a lot but I was already sifting it through my own sensibility. I feel that’s how you come to something unique and authentically yours.

Let’s talk about uniqueness and ownership. When did you realize what an extraordinary voice you had? You talk about recognizing that the voice could do practically anything; was it your particular voice that could do anything more than anyone else’s?

…to continue reading the interview with Meredith Monk, order a copy of Issue 140: SOUND FILM PHOTOGRAPHY here, or SUBSCRIBE and receive a limited edition Border Crossings tote, screen-printed late summer 2016 in Winnipeg, MB.

Volume 35, Number 4: Sound Film Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #140, published December 2016.

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