Getting Down to the Bones: Meredith Monk and Deborah Jowitt in Conversation
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Getting Down to the Bones: Meredith Monk and Deborah Jowitt in Conversation

Meredith Monk at the Walker in 2005. Photo: Gene Pittman

For five decades, Meredith Monk has been performing, choreographing, and composing works that “thrive at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound, discovering and weaving together new modes of perception.” Her interdisciplinary approach encompasses the exploration of the voice as a musical instrument, the layering and rhyming of visual and aural elements, and the questioning of the boundaries (both physical and theoretical) of a stage. Her pieces have been performed all over the world, including at the Walker, where she’s performed 11 times since 1974.

Marking Monk’s 50th season as a creator and performer, her 1966 video installation work 16 Millimeter Earrings is featured in the Walker exhibition Less than One. The following conversation–conducted by dancer, choreographer, and journalist Deborah Jowitt and published in the 1998 Walker exhibition catalogue Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/ Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones–is an in-depth discussion of the processes, inspirations, themes, and evolutions that have defined Monk’s career.

Deborah Jowitt: I want to start with a really big question. The concert music, the large music-theater pieces, the smaller pieces, the films, and the dances from the early days–to me they have a very consistent kind of vision. Certain threads seem to bind them together. Can you talk about that?

Meredith Monk: A sense of multidimensionality. I think there is a way of structuring any medium with the concept of layering–layering and transparencies. And an attempt to get down to the bone, essentially.

View of the exhibition Less Than One, 2016; Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966/1998 (Photo: Gene Pittman, ©Walker Art Center)
View of the exhibition Less Than One, 2016; Meredith Monk, 16 Millimeter Earrings, 1966/1998 Photo: Gene Pittman, ©Walker Art Center

Jowitt: To the bones of your subject, whatever it is.

Monk: To the bones of the form, the bones of what needs to be said in whatever medium it is.

Jowitt: When you speak about layering and transparencies, are you speaking about seeing one layer through another?

Monk: Or letting one resound from another. Or the way layering would structure how something is put together. Light or luminosity is created by the way elements are juxtaposed. In a sense, they become reflective. There is a radiance that comes from putting different things together.

Jowitt: When we talk of things happening at the same time, I think of Merce Cunningham. In his art, the dance and the music and the decor are separate, independently composed layers that strike against each other in curious ways.

Monk: In the sense of different worlds coexisting, I was also thinking of John Cage at that moment. I remember when I did Vessel1 in 1971, the first part took place in my loft of Great Jones Street. It was a very silent piece, but it happened that there was a rock-and-roll band that rehearsed in a studio down the street. They were playing really loudly during the performance and it disturbed me that my silence was being violated. I thought that the band’s music would destroy the concentrated, mysterious ambience of the piece. Then I thought of John and how funny that notion would be to him. A sense of transparency allows for one to do a piece that could exist with anything else happening at the same time; it would not destroy the integrity of it.

Jowitt: One of the interesting things about the part in the parking lot was trying to decide what belonged to it–which was actually pretty clear–and what didn’t.

Monk: I liked working with the audience’s perception of the piece expanding and expanding, until one wasn’t sure how far it could go. When the church across the street lit up and the three people with gray hair waved, you realized that the edges of the parking lot were not the boundaries of the piece. I actually tried to rent a helicopter so that the sky was also part of it.

Meredith Monk and Ping Chong, Paris, 1982

In the loft part, there was a telephone in the room that was my regular telephone. Ping Chong, playing the host, was the guide or emcee of the piece. I gave him directions that if someone happened to call he should answer it and just say, “Meredith is in a performance,” or “A performance is happening at this moment.”

Pablo Veda (my longtime colleague and assistant director) told me that he was in the audience when a call actually happened and at that moment his whole idea of theater totally exploded. Were we really in a performance, or were we really in my house and this was a real telephone call? Everything just started turning upside down for him. I like to allow for that.

Jowitt: It’s like that wonderful moment in Break (1964), which was one of your first early dance solos. When you left the stage and ran up the aisle and stood among the audience looking back at the stage–that had that same kind of shock for me.

Monk: I was thinking of empty space. How would you get the feeling that we were all looking at the absence of figure. I guess I could have gone offstage, which would have been another solution. But I liked the idea that the performer was looking back at the empty space as well.

Jowitt: Going offstage would have been utterly different. Because all of a sudden you weren’t bound by that proscenium. You were outside with us.

Monk: That is why prosceniums rarely interest me. I do everything in my power to break down that situation.

Jowitt: I thought that those early spectacles of yours, like Juice (1969)2 and Vessel, were really all about breaking open a proscenium space.

Monk: Or the situation of audience/performer. I was really investigating the performer/audience relationship and trying to work with variations in terms of scale and proximity. The irony of some of the things I was doing–like Juice or some of the Tour Series (1969-19971)–was that the audience was mobile and the performers were immobile. The audience walked by still figures in different parts of the building. In a way, you can fulfill some of these ideas with a camera a lot easier than you can in performance. You can zoom in, you can do close-ups, you can do fast cuts of disjunctions of space and time. Different kinds of audience/performer relationships have always interested me in one way or another.

I was also trying to break down habitual ways of thinking about the act of going to performance. I made pieces to be performed at different times of day or pieces that took place over a period of time in different locations, incorporating memory as part of that experience.

Jowitt: At one time you said Juice was about architecture; the content was architecture because the first part took place in the Guggenheim Museum. It seems to me that one of the things your pieces in nontraditional spaces do is make the audience see that space–really see it. I had never been as aware of the ramps of the Guggenheim as when I had to hunt for the dancers in Juice. Or when I saw them from the bottom, ranged along the spiraling ramp.3

Monk: And the building spinning. Do you remember when we were running against the spiral so that the building seemed to spin? I was thinking about architecture as structure at that time. Juice became a dialogue about how space affects images and time. I still like to work with a counterpoint of my ideas and images, and a particular space–to excavate a space and let it speak.

Jowitt: I think some of the early 1960s Happenings artists had an idea that taking their work into new spaces would sort of democratize the art. The figures would blend with the ground, so to speak. There would be less of the traditional art-viewing situation. But they didn’t often structure an event meticulously onto a space the way you did.

Monk: I think that the visual artists were coming from a non-time medium. The way I think of time is as a sculptural, fluid medium. I can compress it, extend it, twist it, interrupt it. Coming from a musical background makes me very sensitive to rhythm. That is really the ground base of everything I do.

Jowitt: In your music-based theater pieces, time becomes not just something to be manipulated, but a subject, because some of those layers that you have been talking about are also layers of time.

Monk: Historical time.

Jowitt: When did your archaeological sensitivity to time crop up?

Monk: I’ve always had a fascination with the notion of simultaneity. It’s something that I always like about live theater, which is more difficult to achieve in film. In a strange way, film is a more linear medium. You can imply simultaneity by intercutting, but short of multiple images you don’t feel it as viscerally. What I love about live performance is that the audience can choose where its focus is. You can offer it a very complex experience of simultaneity. Taking it a step further; sometimes I have the sensation that everything in history is simultaneous. It’s like looking through one thing to see the next thing and that starts to inform and illuminate the next layer.

Still from Meredith Monk’s Book of Days, 1988

Jowitt: You have used that idea very literally–I hesitate to use that word–in two films, Book of Days (1988/1989) and Ellis Island (1981). In Book of Days, a contemporary group of workmen blow up a wall and behind that wall is a medieval town in France.

Monk: When I was beginning work on the film, a film producer told me that something like that really happened. I remember seeing in Frankfurt years ago that they were also doing some digging to put a new building in and they were coming across all these artifacts. I took it a little further. What would happen if you took this wall and then behind that was the whole town, intact.

Jowitt: Your heroine, the little girl in Book of Days, foresees the future. When the present-day workmen burst into that past town, they see her crude drawing of an airplane on the wall.

Monk: I’ve always been interested in time travel. I like the idea of displacement–of us looking at the Middle Ages from our very specific point of view and then our world being seen through the fresh eyes of someone from the Middle Ages. So in the film, I include very contemporary ways of seeing and behaving. For example, there is a series of scenes where television newscasters interview the medieval characters. I like the idea that we are asking questions about things that really matter to us now, but the medieval characters have no idea what we are talking about. It wouldn’t be in keeping for a person to ask, “Are you happy?” This idea of “happiness” is a romantic notion that is historically a recent development.

The main character, Eva, has visionary qualities. She is a character who travels psychically through time, or you could think of her as a beyond time. She sees images from our time but she can’t decipher them. I am intrigued by this idea of time as spirals, looks, figure eights, DNA molecule structures. Time offers very rich possibilities for weaving.

Jowitt: You have used that notion of time in so many different ways. In Quarry (1977), you created separate “zones” around the bed of a sick child, your central figure. A biblical couple occupies the same performance space at the same time as a European World War II Jewish couple. In American Archeology #1, inhabitants of Roosevelt Island in various eras appeared simultaneously. There was an archaeologist in Recent Ruins (1979).

Monk: In Recent Ruins there were a bunch of archaeologists.

Jowitt: I felt as if the actions were like shards that the spectator had to piece together.

Monk: I think Recent Ruins was an unusual investigation because in that piece I actually took the elements apart. Usually my large composite pieces are mosaics or weavings of many means of perception: music, movement, objects, and light put together into a complex whole. But when I tried to put images with Dolmen Music (1979),4 for example, it didn’t work at all. I just went right back to the music standing alone as an overture.

The next part of Recent Ruins became more like a theatrical section that included the group of archaeologists from all different periods and the main archaeologists on a platform putting a pot together from shards. On a screen behind them was a giant hand drawing contemporary objects, as if the hand belonged to an archaeologist five hundred years from now looking at our late twentieth-century objects from the point of view of the future.

The third part combined primordial, gestural movement with a capella vocal chants. That section had a sense of irony because it conjured up an imagined, ancient society, and yet the relics or residue that it left (by people making chalk marks on the floor) were symbols like E=mc² or the infinity sign.

I thought of the last part as an image section. Image and sound. The images were bright flashes, in a totally dark room, of giant white turtles moving across the floor and huge white bees and spiders in the air–animals that existed in ancient times and have not changed or evolved over millions of years. At the same time, there was a tape of the last section of Dolmen Music playing, so it came full circle.

So how Recent Ruins was put together was unusual for me. It wasn’t like taking small tiles and placing them in a mosaic, or taking little strands and weaving them together into a larger whole. The structure itself had a more monolithic, hewn continuity. It dealt with isolating and intensifying the various elements.

Jowitt: You’ve used the term “visual rhyming” in relation to your work, especially in relation to the multimedia pieces–the pieces that use film as well.

Elements from 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966/1998) on view in the 1998 exhibition Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones

Monk: I started thinking about that when I was making 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966), which was a very important piece for me. I saw that I could make a performance form that had a sense of poetry, nonverbal poetry–a theater of images, sounds, and textures–and by weaving various elements together, a very powerful and multidimensional experience could occur. I started seeing how you could work with images and sound in a painterly way to create or reflect another level of reality–the relativity of reality.

Jowitt: At that time I wasn’t so sensitive to the musical element.

Monk: 16 Millimeter Earrings was very important to me because it was also the first time I composed a full score of music from beginning to end. Before that time I had done taped sound and some vocal work in my pieces, but there was a lot of silence in them.

In 16 Millimeter Earrings, I created an additive sound environment made up of live phrases or blocks of vocal music, text, or sound, which set off tape loops of fragments from the live performance.5 As each layer was added, the sound texture became thicker and richer. I worked on it with my cousin,
Daniel Zellman, who is a sound engineer. At that time there weren’t portable multitrack tape recorders, so we used four tape recorders in the performance. I was very aware of trying to create a sound environment for the images, like a visual and aural rhyme.

Jowitt: Speaking of visual rhyming, I was very much aware of how the frames in the films equated with the red streamers that blew up out of the trunk and the red hair.

Monk: My red hair, which I had dyed especially for the piece, and a bright red wig. I was working with these different textures, like taking one image, say the image of fire, and then exploring different textural ways of working with it, which is a lot like how I was working with Volcano Songs (1994). A lot of people who came to see Volcano Songs thought I was coming back to some basic principles about my work. In a sense the images in 16 Millimeter Earrings were emblematic, but not of anything other than themselves. I was thinking of the stage as a canvas, thinking like a painter. I worked with a sense of the tactility of surfaces and layers in a literal, physical way.

At a certain point in the piece I was wearing an off-white dress that I had made from fisherman’s net. Through the dress you could see my white underwear and over the dress I put on a red-and-white bathrobe for another section. Later I put a white paper dress over that and wore a bright red wig. I was working with color and texture (the reds and white, the net, paper, hair, metal Slinky, wooden trunk) in a very conscious way. I put a white metal cagelike dome over my head that was half covered with white screening material. A film of my face was projected onto the dome and covered my real face. The image was larger than life-size so it looked like I had a huge head. Then I wiped my real hand across the filmed eyes. This motif of covering or layering was a basic principle of the piece.

Meredith Monk, Volcano Songs, 1994 Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Jowitt: In Volcano Songs, which came out almost thirty years later, I was very aware of surfaces also, and textures. But in that piece, the images and sounds seem to be more about different characters, different aspects of characters.

Monk: In 16 Millimeter Earrings I was also thinking about that, but I was determined not to do that as a performer. That seemed to be part of my idea in those days of being only a figure. The image was everything. I actually had named the character with the red wig for myself, but I didn’t do much except the actions that went with that image, although I probably did more than I thought despite myself.

But I think now I have dug in even deeper as a performer because with singing you just start excavating from the inside out, so to speak. The medium etches you. With Volcano Songs, I was interested in transformation coming from the unadorned, vulnerable performer. That is something I have been working with during the last few years. The Politics of Quiet (1996) is similar in that when there is a transformation, it is not really done through costumes or objects but from within the body, from within the live person. Yet you still see a transformation coming from that person.

Jowitt: Whenever you’ve sung, even something like Songs from the Hill (1976), which is not fully produced theatrically, I feel that different characters come through your voice. In Volcano Songs it’s as if we cut through layers of “this is Meredith Monk standing before me singing” to “this is a very old woman on a mountaintop” to “this is some primordial sound I can’t identify.” Those characters that you say come from your being come out through your voice very clearly.

Monk: I become more and more aware of performance being a place of transformation. With Volcano Songs I was trying neither to pull in the attention of an audience nor to project out at it. I wanted to see if I could, in a sense, be open and vulnerable enough for the currents, energies, or personas to emerge–like abstract portraits. Again, if I were trying to delineate these “personas” in a literal way, then I would want everyone in the audience to know exactly what they were and have exactly the same reaction. But, in fact, I am trying to leave a lot of space so people can hook in, in their own way. This freedom is something interesting to me as part of the process of integrating the insights that I gain in my life with my work.

In 16 Millimeter Earrings it was very safe for me as a performer. In a way, I didn’t even have to perform the piece once it was all worked out in my mind. Every element was totally controlled, carefully constructed. Alfred Hitchcock always use to say he really didn’t have to shoot the film because it was all worked out in meticulous detail before he shot it. And shooting it for him was sometimes boring. While I still like to work with the same rigor, the same attention to detail that I used for 16 Millimeter Earrings, I now prefer to allow for a more immediate and risky situation for the performer. In Volcano Songs there are potential pitfalls along the way from beginning to end. It may not be apparent, but it’s very touch-and-go as a performer. You have to be relaxed and yet concentrated enough to not get in the way of the material streaming through.

Jowitt: Did your discovery of different ways to use your voice change how you worked on your pieces? You said that “the voice could be as flexible as the spine.” It seemed to me that you began to use your voice and that sensibility more in your pieces.

Monk: That was a revelation I had around 1965. I had come from a musician’s family, and as a teenager I was singing lieder and folk music and realizing that wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I didn’t want to be an interpretive artist. Even when I got to Sarah Lawrence,6 I had glimpses of how to work with the voice and movement, combined with images. When I first came to New York I made solos and small group pieces using gestural movement, sound, and images inspired by cinematic syntax. I missed singing a lot, so I would sit at the piano and do regular classical vocalizing. One day I had a revelatory moment and realized I could work with my voice the way that I had with my body. At Sarah Lawrence, I had worked very hard to create a personal movement vocabulary and an idiosyncratic choreographic style from my own physical rhythms and impulses. That day at the piano, I saw that I could literally make a vocabulary built on my own vocal instrument and that within the voice there were limitless possibilities of timbre, texture, landscape, character, gender, ways of producing sound.

I started widening the ends of my range and experimented with my breath, my diaphragm, vocal gestures such as sighing, whispering, laughing, and various head and body resonances. I found that within one voice are male and female, all ages, shades of feeling that we don’t have words for. I was lucky to have the vocal instrument given to me as part of my family legacy. I could work in a virtuosic way with those discoveries.

Jowitt: You were doing things that would make some singers say, “Oh, my God, I couldn’t possibly do that.”

Monk: I never really thought in those terms, because it was so natural for me. Because my family members were musicians, that moment was also a way of coming home. It had such a sense of rightness that I just flew from that point on. I went back to playing keyboard. I had played piano as a child but chose the organ because of the sustained quality and possibility of epic scale that the organ implied. I didn’t start playing the piano again until a few years later. I liked the lyrical richness of the piano and the ways it registered in the effort of the hands. It seemed to have much more of the emotional quality that I was looking for at that time. From the beginning, I was working with what I would call “abstract song forms,” which had the abstract qualities of dance or of painting, using the voice as and instrument without words.

Jowitt: And your body moves a little bit as you sing, and somehow shapes the voice. The choice to use no words, to use syllables, did that have to do with wishing to get closer to a kind of abstraction, to avoid the literal?

Monk: Yes. Right from the beginning I sensed that the voice could speak louder and more eloquently than a particular text could; that the voice itself was a language that spoke directly and had the possibility of universality. So I felt that words just got in the way.

Jowitt: You can be understood, in effect, all over the world.

Monk: We have been fortunate enough to travel all over the world. People respond to the music very directly, very emotionally.

Jowitt: Musicologists have pointed out that some of your harmonies and your intervals and your practices–things that sound like throat singing and hocketing and overtone singing–are not as related to Western musical practice as to that of other continents and other countries. Were you influence by any non-Western forms?

Monk: That has always been a misunderstanding. There are people who do learn the styles from other cultures or they study with a teacher, and they incorporate that into their music. That is a perfectly valid way of working. But I have worked very directly with my own voice and body, and when you do that and you are not just staying with the Western vocal tradition, you come upon sounds within your own vocal instrument that could be termed “transcultural.” For example, if I, by my own exploration, come across the glottal break–the place where the lower register becomes the upper register–that break, which is usually smoothed over in Western technique, becomes a rich area to explore. That break is used in the music of many cultures: Swiss yodeling, cowboy music, Balkan, and African music, for example. Its use and my way of using it is something that I discovered from my own voice, yet sometimes it can make people have a memory of these other cultures.

There are always two aspects. One is that each of our voices is totally unique, so my vocal chords are different from anyone else’s. And then the other is that when you work honestly with your own instrument you become part of what I call “the world vocal family”–within one voice is the whole world.

Jowitt: Also the images you suggest are both very specific and somehow archetypal.

Monk: For me, it’s more how do I find new voices within myself? How do I not rely on my old habits? How do I discover something new in my own perception of the world? That’s basically been my question for more than thirty years. It seems that even within the voice, each piece creates its own world and then I have to stay within that world. So that is what makes each piece unique, even though my style is very recognizable.

Jowitt: You’ve always drawn on the creativity of your performers or the personas that they can project, I mean from the early days of The House7–Lanny Harrison and Lee Nagrin, Coco Pekelis–they contributed a lot to your work. Now you have been working with highly trained singers. How do their individual vocal styles feed you or affect what you are writing for them?

Monk: I’ve been privileged to work with extraordinary people over the years. I have always tried to work with and balance a group of unique individuals in every way: in looks, voices, personalities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, presences. Even in a very tight ensemble, each person has his or her own space and it’s extremely clear. There is no blending or mistaking one person for another. The House consisted of people who came from many different disciplines: movement, visual art, music, literature, science, crafts–brilliant and unique individuals, each a world unto him or herself.

Meredith Monk, Quarry, 1977, Coffman Union Great Hall, University of Minnesota

The group I’m working with now, Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble,8 is made up of remarkable and radiant singer/dancer/actors. Each is a star in his or her own right and a prodigiously skilled musician. The fact that they are all professional singers makes it a bit more specialized. I really need that for the music, which has become more and more intricate and challenging. In the days of Quarry or Girlchild9 or Vessel, I was mostly performing the music myself. I was singing and playing solo pieces, and then every once in a while there would be something everyone sang, but it never had the complexity of the group pieces that I write now. The challenge for me with this group is to maintain the raw, rough, visceral impulses of my early work with singers who have such refined skills, while exploring new possibilities and qualities. The group is very open to trying anything.

Jowitt: Your working process has always fascinated me because I have never seen anybody work in music the way you do. That is, you work almost the way you probably work as a choreographer. You come in with ideas, and you may come in with something written down, but it’s not complete. You work it out right in rehearsal. “Try this, sing this, what if you did this?”

Monk: I like to work hands-on but I spend long periods of time (sometimes years) working on the material by myself before I go into rehearsal. I have never been able to go into a rehearsal and use the material that people create from scratch. It gets me too confused. I can bring in things to play with and I can bring in ideas related to what it’s going to end up being so that the performers know what I am thinking about, but it’s very rare that I would use actual material improvised in rehearsal. I like to stay open to suggestions and try different possibilities, but I always have to go back to my own overview.

When I rehearse with the Ensemble, I work on the material by myself and either bring in tapes or written phrases. I try different people singing it and play with variations of different ways of voicing, so the rehearsals are very lively. In some ways, this way of working has a lot in common with a jazz ensemble, yet in jazz there is a language of chord changes and harmony that everyone speaks, but people can take a tune and improvise it in their own way. I think with us, each piece is so different that we are trying to find the language of each piece.

Jowitt: The way you work seems very organic.

Monk: It’s so much more fun than handing people a scene. Because I am working so much with the “muscle memory” of the music, I eliminate one step in the memory process. When the ensemble grows with the music as it is being created, the music has an in-the-bone quality that is closer to the dancing impulse. It eliminates the intermediary process of visually memorizing from paper.

Jowitt: Do you think of The Politics of Quiet (1996) as a very different kind of piece from what you’ve worked on before, or a new step?

Monk: It’s the first piece that I haven’t been in myself. I was trying to create a democratic form where everybody had the same amount of material. Everybody was a soloist and everybody was a star, yet there were very strong ensemble sections. For these performers, who are used to doing musical theater and are really great singing actors, it was very challenging to do something so abstract. I was trying to eliminate the idea of character. I was also trying to eliminate visual and theatrical tricks. I was just going for the essentialized performer–the performer unadorned, no mask of any kind. For some, it took a while to realize how challenging this was going to be.

Meredith Monk performs The Politics of Quiet and ATLAS (excerpts), Walker Art Center Auditorium, June 26, 1998

I think of The Politics of Quiet as a musical-theater oratorio. I am always interested in discovering new forms between the cracks. If you start with music and put a few more theatrical elements in there, you might get cabaret. That is how Turtle Dreams became cabaret. 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.

Jowitt: It’s interesting to use the word “oratorio.” The great oratorios of the past used sacred texts or biblical subjects, and Politics seems to be a very contemporary spiritual piece.

Monk: I think Facing North (1990), Volcano Songs, and The Politics of Quiet are all pieces attempting to create a metatheatrical, metaphysical experience for the audience. I have been thinking a lot about how you make a contemporary sacred form. And what would that be? Not a form coming from a particular religious tradition, rather how to make a form that offers an alternative to the fragmented and speedy experience that we have in the world in which we live? How do we get a little rest from that? What is the function of live performance now? I like the idea of offering a respite from discursive thought for the audience, if they would allow themselves to have that. I mean, it is not an easy thing.

Jowitt: A respite from discursive thought.

Monk: So that your mind could be rested a bit–more like a meditative experience.

Jowitt: I find that in a lot of your pieces, particularly the recent ones, there is an optimistic vision, or a sense that the world needs healing and can be healed. I felt it in Turtle Dreams (1983), I felt it in ATLAS(1991).10

Monk: Well, Turtle Dreams was different. Turtle Dreams was created in the period when I was thinking about the artist as an antenna of society. The pieces were more about stating the “problem” as I saw it, even if it was presented in a very oblique manner–seeing the occurrence and reflecting those energies in the piece. In a sense, more an apocalyptic vision.

Jowitt: You mean as in the film11 when the turtle crawls over the model of New York City?

Monk: Life goes on.

Meredith Monk, ATLAS, 1991

Jowitt: In effect, it’s saying that beyond all this speed and this energy and some of these bad vibes, there is something internal and enduring.

Monk: I think that most of my work says that in some way or another. The theme of death and rebirth seems to recur from time to time. In 16 Millimeter Earrings, coming out of the trunk after the doll is burned was like a phoenix rising, although I didn’t really think of a symbol when I was making the image. I was thinking about effigy in 16 Millimeter Earrings as well as in Blueprint (1968).

Jowitt: I remember in Blueprint that you finished the performance and the audience looked out the back window of the gallery and there were the two performers sitting with their backs to us, facing a new future.

Monk: Those weren’t us, you know. Those were dolls, life-sized dolls.

Jowitt: I know, but we knew they were supposed to be you. That may have been an accidentally symbolic image. But, in some of your work you seem to have chosen related themes: the artist as visionary, the quest. It was in Vessel. It was in Book of Days. It was in Education of the Girlchild, the traveling. It was certainly in ATLAS, the search for spiritual knowledge.
Monk: ATLAS was the most direct expression of that idea. In Girlchild,12 the traveling was only one aspect of a horizontal cut through the lives of the six hero/heroines–a slice of life across a certain evolution, a certain cycle of time. It’s more like seeing different aspects of these characters and of the society of those six women. I always think of the solo, the second half of the piece, as vertical, because it really is one person’s life abstracted and essentialized. The three different stations of this person’s life are essentialized and compressed with a road or stream in between. Does that make any sense at all?

Jowitt: Yes, I see that too, but when I speak of quest, it was really the solo part that I was speaking of. The traveling of the group was just a motif. I thought of the solo as a journey because you started as an old woman, and as you traveled down a sheet of unbleached muslin, you became younger.

Monk: I come back, actually, to the young woman that I was in the first act. In a sense, the structure is like an accordion. It opens all the way out, then it closes back down.

Jowitt: To me it was like a quest back through yourself to find the roots, to find the roots of what you became.

Meredith Monk, Education of the Girlchild, 1974

Monk: That’s very interesting, I never thought of it like that. Thinking back, I remember that I was excited about the idea that you could show the change of time through gesture and through sound, vocal sound. These were things that were repeated in those three stations and that is how the passage of time was implied. By actually seeing how age changed the gestures–the subtle variations of the same gesture performed by the old woman, the middle-aged woman, and the young woman–you could see the whole process of aging, but backwards. A large idea through small means. That is what I was thinking of.

Jowitt: Through one life you saw this. The archetypal vision comes through the very specific.

Monk: It’s very unusual for me but I saw that piece in my mind and that was it. The whole structure was there in one flash. I wish they all came like that! (laughter) It was just a matter of working on the material to fill it in. I also like the idea of doing a piece in which the audience already knows the whole structure, the visual gestalt is laid out right from the beginning. The piece has to unreel itself. but no other element is going to come into it. I like the spiral structure of that.

Jowitt: Part One of Education of the Girlchild is so full of startling, completely unpredictable images.

Monk: Disjunctive events.

Jowitt: I remember all of the women sitting around the table, then all of a sudden they reach down and you don’t know what they are going to do. And they turn around and they all have eyeglasses on, which makes, in some sense, no sense at all. It is kind of a miracle–yet so concrete and done so simply and so clearly.

Monk: I have always been interested in magic, but I like to lay my cards on the table at the same time. Then, even when all of the cards are down, magic happens. I don’t like to do tricks, but I still am always interested in magic, or the humor of that, or the surprise. I am excited to see and hear something I have never experienced before.


  1. Part I of Vessel: an opera epic (1971) took place in Monk’s New York loft, Part II in The Performing Garage (anonprosceniumtheater), and Part III in a Soho parking lot. A bus was rented to transport the audience from one space to another.
  2. Juice: a theatre cantata in 3 installments began at the Solomon R.Guggenheim Museum in New York. A month later, the second part was presented at Barnard College’s Minor Latham Playhouse, and one week later, the third installment–an installation with video and all the objects from the first two parts–was exhibited at The House Loft in New York.
  3. In the first installment of Juice, spectators sat in the lobby of the Guggenheim and looked up at performers on the ramps, then walked up the ramps to view various performed modules, then looked over the edges to see the performers gathered in the lobby below.
  4. Dolmen Music (1979) is a piece of vocal and instrumental music that originally figured as a section of Recent Ruins.
  5. Describing the sound environment in 16 Millimeter Earrings, Monk says, “The components included a vocal phrase with the phoneme ‘nota,’ a text which intercut sentences from Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of Orgasm with a description of a large and expansive dance, contrasting with the tiny movements that I was performing on stage and the sound of a frenzied crowd chanting.”
  6. Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, from which Monk graduated in 1964.
  7. The House was formed during 1968-1970 and was comprised of Ping Chong, Blondell Cummings, Signa Hammer, Lanny Harrison, Dick Higgins, Mark Monstermaker, Monica Moseley, Lee Nagrin, Coco Pekelis, and Daniel Ira Sverdlik.
  8. Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble was put together in 1978 and includes Carlos Arévalo, Theo Blackman, Thomas Bogdan, Janis Brenner, Allison Easter, Dina Emerson, Emily Eyre, Katie Geissinger, Ching Gonzales, Stephen Kalm, Allison Sniffin, and Randall Wong.
  9. Education of the Girlchild: an opera (1973)
  10. ATLAS: an opera in three parts (1991)
  11. Turtle Dreams (1983) included a film made by Robert Withers that was presented as part of the performance.
  12. Education of the Girlchild was a work in two parts: Part I for six performers with Monk and five female performers; Part II was a solo in which Monk makes a “journey” from old to young woman.

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