On April 15, groundbreaking interdisciplinary artist Meredith Monk returns to the Twin Cities in celebration of her more than 50 years as a vanguard artist. As a composer of sound, movement, and film, Monk is one of the most innovative American artists of our time. Her expansive body of work, anchored by her trademark, three-octave voice, transcends definition; it is simultaneously contemporary yet timeless, deeply personal yet universal.
Since the beginning Monk has pushed boundaries within her practice, and she continues to do so today. But her explorations of sound, time, and space, in whatever form they take, all bear her unmistakable signature.
Meredith Monk and the Walker share a long, rich history that has spanned the majority of her career. Since 1974, the Walker has supported Monk’s artistic activity across a variety of mediums, including commissioning five key works, presenting an array of her creative output over 11 visits to the Walker, hosting six artistic and community residencies, featuring her in a prominent exhibition in the Walker galleries, and acquiring her iconic 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966/98 for the Walker’s visual arts collection. What follows is a chronological history of Meredith Monk’s legacy with the Walker, one that’s sure to continue far into the future.
Education of the Girlchild (1973) consisted of three sections at the Masonic Lodge, beginning and ending with the artist performing alone and featuring local performers in the middle section. Monk described the themes of the work as “seeing the process of aging, but backwards … show[ing] the change of time through gesture and through sound.” Likewise, Our Lady of Late (1971) featured Monk alone onstage, this time accompanied by the sound of a wine glass. Taken together, these two performances showcased the artist’s adventurous treatment of both time and sound, making it a fitting introduction for Walker audiences to her early work.
Three years later, Monk returned to the Twin Cities with Quarry, her 1976 Obie Award–winning opera music/theater piece set during World War II. With 40 performers, the multidisciplinary work was performed in the Great Hall at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union. In describing the inspiration behind Quarry, Monk asked herself: “How could I make a piece, an abstract, poetic documentary about World War II that had some historical references, but at the same time was free of that and dealt with cycles of war and cycles of dictatorship. How could I do that in a really honest way?”
In contrast to the large scale production of Quarry, Monk also performed her unaccompanied solo Songs from the Hill, a work originally composed on a hill in New Mexico in 1975 and 1976, showcasing the dynamic range of Monk’s singular voice.
Continuing her site-specific exploration of the Twin Cities, Monk and Ping Chong filmed their collaborative theater piece, Paris, a live performance originally created in 1972, over five days in an abandoned grain factory on the Mississippi River. This adaptation was supported by the Walker and KTCA-TV (now TPT or Twin Cities Public Television) and aired on national public television to wide acclaim; Paris was also performed in front of a live audience in the Walker auditorium during a 1982 residency.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of her career, the Walker presented a selection of performances from Meredith Monk’s expansive catalogue, including vocal arrangements from her landmark works Solo Excerpts for Voice and Piano, Turtle Dreams: Waltz, and Dolmen Music. A screening of the documentary film version of Quarry contributed to the evening at Hamline University.
Alive from Off Center, a creative collaboration between the Walker and Twin Cities Public Television, was a 1980s broadcast TV show that featured contemporary performing artists across a range of genres. Meredith Monk’s short film Ellis Island (1981) was featured in the third season of the show, in an episode hosted by Laurie Anderson. Ellis Island explores the American immigrant experience through music, dance, and imagery, examining history through a contemporary lens.
ATLAS: An Opera in Three Parts was the first work by Meredith Monk that the Walker commissioned—and the artist’s first full-scale opera. The critically acclaimed performance includes a 12-piece orchestra, seven soloists, and a full chorus trained in Monk’s extended vocal technique. The story revolves around Alexandra Daniels, a female explorer based upon the life of Alexandra David-Neel, the first western woman explorer to visit Lhasa, Tibet. The work was performed at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at St. Catherine’s University.
In 1994, Meredith Monk returned to the Walker auditorium for an early work-in-progress showing of the Walker co-commissioned work Volcano Songs, which deals with themes of aging and the miracle of human transformation and features Monk’s characteristic vocal range.
Describing the Walker’s support of Volcano Songs, Monk stated that “they gave me the chance to do what an artist strives to do: to create a new work without knowing what the result will be; to take the risk of starting from zero, cutting through preconceptions and artistic habits to allow the piece to grow organically, so that eventually it will have a life of its own.”
In 1994, the Walker also co-commissioned American Archeology #1, a site-specific work performed only on Roosevelt Island, New York, in Lighthouse Park and Renwick Ruin.
The 1998 Walker exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones documented the Walker’s longstanding relationships with three key innovators who approached multidisciplinary creation in distinct ways. Monk’s gallery included a new set of interactive, memorable installations (which the artist worked closely with Walker curators to create) as well as scores, storyboards, drawings, sets, props, costumes, and sound and film excerpts representing the range of her artistic output, including landmark works like 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966), Juice (1969), Quarry (1976), and ATLAS (1991). Monk’s role in Art Performs Life also included performances, an artist talk with Curator Philip Bither, community residency activities, and an exhibition catalogue.
The Meredith Monk gallery in Art Performs Life included an installation of her breakthrough music/performance/film 16 Millimeter Earrings. Created very early in her career, 16 Millimeter Earrings was the first time the artist worked with film and consequently became a watershed moment for Monk. Combining voice, guitar, audio loops, performance, film projections, and sculpture, the work is mesmerizing and unforgettable. In 2010, the Walker acquired 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966/1998, the video/installation version of the work created for Art Performs Life for our visual arts collection; it is currently on view in the Walker exhibition Less Than One.
Another key element of the Art Performs Life opening was a moving performance of A Celebration Service (1996) at the First Unitarian Society Church next to the Walker, involving Monk, her Vocal Ensemble, numerous community members, and a post-concert processional. Monk also sang a solo work from the organ loft at the Basilica of St. Mary, also near the Walker, following Sunday mass.
In conjunction with the opening weekend of Art Performs Life, Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble performed a full concert featuring excerpts from two Walker co-commissioned works: ATLAS (1991) and The Politics of Quiet (1996), which Monk describes in the Art Performs Life exhibition catalogue as a “musical-theater oratorio.” She went on to say, “I am always interested in discovering new forms between the cracks. … In The Politics of Quiet the music was the continuity. I didn’t want to illustrate the music; I wanted images that were a counterpoint to the music. Eventually, the piece revealed itself to be an abstract, nonverbal oratorio, or you could think of it as a ceremonial.”
Meredith Monk and visual artist Ann Hamilton worked together for the first time on their 2001 music/performance work mercy. With visual installations by Hamilton and sound and movement by Monk, the work was a true collaboration between the two artists from start to finish. In 2008, Monk said “[mercy] ended up being a manifestation of the creative process of two human beings. The first image of the piece—the two of us sitting at opposite ends of a table—was what the piece was about.” The New York Times called mercy “an extraordinary collaboration. … Together, they created a multitude of visual and sonic wonders.” The work was performed at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at the College of St. Catherine.
When the Walker held a grand opening celebration for the McGuire Theater in 2005, Performing Arts curator Philip Bither invited Meredith Monk and her longtime collaborator, Theo Bleckmann, to inaugurate the space in a series of performances that also included Philip Glass, Mugiyono Kasido, Steve Tibbetts with Choying Drolma, and Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali. As Bither remembers:
“After Meredith Monk and Theo Bleckmann flawlessly performed three excerpts from Monk’s Facing North to a hushed, reverent crowd, they began their deceptively simple but truly complex vocal work Hocket. A few seconds in, Theo started on a wrong beat and Meredith waved her arms and then faced the audience with a smile: ‘Hold it. Start over.’ Warm laughter flooded the room; rigid shoulders lowered as the relieved audience seemed to settle comfortably into their seats. It was like hanging out with friends in your living room, or being with family and playing music together, or experimenting with something and realizing it was time to start over. The theater had, in a matter of seconds, been transformed from a temple of excellence to the kind of artist-centered, audience-friendly place we’d dreamed of.”
Songs of Ascension (2008) combined Meredith Monk’s composition and choreography with Ann Hamilton’s visual elements to create a music/theater work exploring spirituality, ritual, community, and time. Monk was inspired, in part, by Hamilton’s 60-foot spiraling tower located in Geyserville, California, where the work was later performed as a site-specific version. The Walker co-commissioned Songs of Ascension, presented three preview performances, and hosted a 15-day production residency in the McGuire Theater, which helped Monk, her performers, and her artistic collaborators bring the work to life.
To honor Meredith Monk’s rich history as a pioneer in contemporary performance, Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble performs The Soul’s Messenger, Celebrating 50 Years of New Music on Friday, April 15, 2016 at The O’Shaughnessy Auditorium.
Meredith Monk will join Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither for a conversation about her evolution as an artist on Thursday, April 14, 2016, in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966/1998 is on view in the Walker galleries as part of the exhibition Less Than One through December 2016.