Repeat Cycles: Meredith Monk on Voice, #MeToo, and Recurring History
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Repeat Cycles: Meredith Monk on Voice, #MeToo, and Recurring History

Meredith Monk's Cellular Songs. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Born in the late years of the Second World War, Meredith Monk has seen it all—14 presidents; six major US wars; the birth of the modern Civil Rights, anti-war, and environmental movements; 9/11; Black Lives Matter; #MeToo; Donald Trump. Through it all, the multifaceted artist says she has been responding through her art to events in the world—but rarely through words.

A composer, singer, director/choreographer, filmmaker, and visual artist, she is best known as a pioneer in extended vocal technique, in particular a practice that utilizes the voice as an instrument instead of as a conveyor of meaning through words. “Sometimes phonemes and nonverbal vocal qualities speak louder than words,” Monk said during a recent phone call from her New Mexico home. “They can also delineate, more clearly, emotions and energies for which we don’t have words.” Without the specificity of words, she argues, her art can reference what she calls “fundamental energies and human behavior that repeat in cycles through time.” On the eve of her return to the Walker to perform Cellular Songs, we invited Monk to discuss how she responds, personally and through her art, to these times of polarization, fear, and what she terms compression.

PAUL SCHMELZER (PS)

Your work is often characterized by what could be seen as a contradiction: that it’s both timeless and utterly contemporary. But at the same time, another dualism or seeming contradiction is that you’re an artist who’s both engaged with the world and, in a Buddhist sense, detached. So the question is, in our current times of turmoil—with scary things happening in the White House, to immigrants and refugees, and to the environment—how do you respond and how do you stay balanced?

MEREDITH MONK (MM)

I feel like I’ve always been responding to the world I’ve lived in through all these years of making art. At the same time, I am mostly interested in fundamental energies and human behavior that repeat in cycles through time. When you have that perspective, you realize that things you think are happening only in the moment have actually happened before. This very dark world that we’re living in today—of polarization, hatred, and fear—has happened before and will probably happen again.

As artists, I think we all are contending with what we can contribute that is going to provide some kind of insight or healing, or at least some kind of clarity about what is happening in the world. In my last few pieces, I’ve really been thinking about this, and because my work is musical and poetic rather than prose—that is, it doesn’t have much text—I realize that confronting what’s going on through a kind of political analysis isn’t something that’s true to me. And it’s much better served by people who do use text as a primary medium in their work.

Meredith Monk. Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Starting with mercy in 2001 and continuing through On Behalf of Nature (2013) and then into Cellular Songs—I’ve been taking on themes that can’t really be expressed, but they can be suggested. They’re subjects you can’t make something about, but the process of working on them becomes a process of contemplation. It’s a way of dealing with the ineffable.

With On Behalf of Nature, I was inspired by a wonderful article that I read in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar by Gary Snyder [the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet of the Beat era and “poet laureate of deep ecology”]. He wrote that the role of art, in ancient traditions, is to speak for beings that don’t have words, through song and dance. I was very inspired by that, especially as I’ve been thinking a lot about ecology and what’s happening to the planet. So with that piece, and then going on to Cellular Songs, I really was exploring sources of life. With Cellular Songs, I was thinking about the most fundamental unit of life and somehow affirming that. With On Behalf of Nature, it was more about affirming the energies of nature so that when you experienced the piece, you would sense what we were in danger of losing. It has a kind of elegiac feeling to it. In this present world that is so fraught with darkness, ignorance, and polarization, it seems that a healing antidote was to make a piece that affirmed the source of life and life energy. So that’s where Cellular Songs came from.

PS

Cellular Songs is about interconnectedness—between people and with the natural world—and it feels very communal in nature, which has echoes in the collaborative and long-running relationships you’ve had with certain artists.

MM

One of my big inspirations for Cellular Songs was The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. As I was reading it, I started getting very interested in the cell as a prototype of cooperation and interdependence, the way cells work together to make this organism that we are. If you realize that all these processes are going on simultaneously, it’s a miracle.

I had already been working on some a cappella vocal music for Cellular Songs, and I was thinking the songs have a quality of rotation and of weaving and layering that reminded me of cellular activity. If you hear the first trios, they’re so interwoven that it is hard to tell who is singing what. It’s an idea that I’ve worked on over the years. For example, “Hocket” from Facing North (1990) is for two voices, but once we really get going it’s hard to tell who’s who.

Then in terms of working with my group: when I make a piece, I start in solitude and work for a long time—maybe a year, maybe years. Then I go into rehearsal and present the material to the group. It’s very rare that I’ll come in with a full score. We’ll work on it in a real hands-on way that’s more like a sculpting kind of process. I love keeping the possibilities open as long as I can. Then I go back alone and work on what we did, make changes, re-voice it, or arrange things differently. We then usually have another rehearsal period before the form is finished.

Then the actual performance: what I love about live performance, which you can’t get in any other medium, is that it’s very organic. It’s like a little baby. You keep on working on a piece. It grows, and you’re learning as you’re performing. You’re getting insight about what it is and what the parameters are. Then it turns into a toddler. It’s just like an organic life. So my working process is a combination of solitude—I really spend time listening to my inner voice or voices and generating the material—and then going to the group, where there is a beautiful give and take interaction. And then having solitude again in the final process.

Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs. Photo: Stephanie Berger

But I think one of the things that I also love about live performance is, and especially working with some people for so long (I’ve been working with Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin, who are in Cellular Songs, since 1975, 1991 and 1996, respectively), that you really get the sense of interdependence as performers. It’s a prototype of the possibility of human behavior in that it’s very sensitive, very generous. It’s very radiant and very aware, so the content is not only music but it’s also behavior that becomes part of the piece. For Cellular Songs, I deliberately chose to have an all-woman cast because of the period that we’re living in, and this very patriarchal, tyrannical energy that has come up.

PS

What are your thoughts on the #MeToo movement? Does it make you think back to your own experiences as a woman in the 1960s and ’70s doing out-of-the-box work in a male-dominated field? Did you have to struggle extra hard to be seen and heard?

MM

I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I have a lot of sadness about it because I think I was made to feel that there was something wrong with me because I had a vision and I was following that vision. It didn’t affect me following that vision, and I never thought about it at the time, particularly. I just did what I knew that I needed to do. But I know that I was made to feel that there was something wrong with a woman who was following her vision.

PS

How did that manifest? Was it in what people said, or were you shunned in other ways?

MM

I think it had a lot of to do with personal relationships at that time. When I think about it, I’m sad that to stick to my guns, I always had to have my boxing gloves on. I had to fight, really fight hard, and be really tough. So maybe my sadness comes from seeing that pattern.

PS

And were you a man, you might not have had to?

MM

I think so. I think it was—and is—easier for men. But at the same time, as I said, I didn’t think about it in that way. It’s really more in retrospect that I see these certain things and opportunities, and then I could think to myself, “Did it happen that way because I was a woman?” I have to scratch my head a little bit because I always feel like I have tried to follow my own path the best that I can. Following one’s own path is a full-time job—for all of us.

Meredith Monk (center) in Cellular Songs. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

I’m very glad about this movement. I’ve always felt that if women are allowed to be whole, without compromising themselves, it is only more beneficial to men because it also allows men to be whole. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Any kind of progress in women’s fulfillment helps in our development as human beings. That’s the way I’ve always felt. But it’s not the way the world has felt, I guess. This strange poverty mentality that is coming up so strongly right now has to do with the fear that if one gets something, someone else won’t. That isn’t real. It’s just an illusion.

PS

The other day I was watching the documentary Inner Voice in preparation for this conversation with you. Olivia, my three-year old daughter, came down and sat on my lap to watch. And she’s at that age of nonsense vocalization and wordplay, so she really took to the nonverbal nature of your work.

MM

I have a lot of fans in the under-six group. [Laughs]

PS

She doesn’t write yet, but she took my notepad and started making these marks—like notations on a graphic score—little circles that are supposed to be language, I think.

MM

I would love to see that! And I did want to say something about the word “nonsense.” I think of it more as trying to find phonemes that delineate a sound world, and that each piece is a different sound world. When I make a new piece, I try to start from zero and understand what the principles of that piece are. And that includes “language”; the vocal language or vocabulary of the piece.

PS

And “nonsense” suggests that there’s no sense to it.

MM

Or that it’s not really thought through and not specific to making a world. I actually feel that sometimes these phonemes and nonverbal vocal qualities speak louder than words. They can also delineate, more clearly, emotions and energies for which we don’t have words.

PS

I was listening to the interview you did a few years ago with Meet the Composer, where you said, “Words are so pointy.”

MM

They are.

PS

“They point at things.” And I thought that was kind of a nice way of saying it.

MM

The funny thing is I actually love to write, but with my music I’ve always felt that language gets in the way. Sometimes, though, it’s fine to have text because then you have two languages simultaneously. There’s one piece that I sing in Cellular Songs that does have text. It’s called “Happy Woman.” I never use words as a narrative device; in this case it’s more like a poem. I always use words as another layer, that have their own integrity.

Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs. Photo: Stephanie Berger

One day I found myself in my studio, thinking, and then singing, “Oh, I’m a happy woman.” I have a little recording device that I use for composing, and for some reason I recorded it. I guess so that, if I was feeling blue, I could play it back to myself. I put the recorder away and didn’t think about it again. Later, when I was out in New Mexico and I was looking on that recording device to find some other material for Cellular Songs, I heard that song and thought: well, that’s kind of interesting. So I started working on it, and it just came out, intuitively, “Oh, I’m a hungry woman.” And I got an image of the Dorothea Lange photograph of the woman who’s starving [Migrant Woman, 1936]. And then, in my mind, I started getting images of African women, and suddenly the whole thing just flipped over. I started thinking: in some strange way I feel like I’m speaking for all women—for all women to be in the song.

It has two levels. One is that, in this Trump period—when women are being flattened into a pancake of Barbie doll qualities—the song is an affirmation of the fullness, the contradictions, the complexity of each of us as women and also as men. The second part of it evokes all the women of the world.

So it goes, first, happy woman then hungry woman. Then it goes from tender woman to thinking woman. Sassy woman, patient woman. Thieving woman, grieving woman. Shaky woman, lucky woman. Needy woman, greedy woman. Then the next verse: quiet woman, angry woman. Honest woman, lying woman, dying woman. Tired woman. Reckless woman, then last it comes back to scrappy woman, happy woman.

PS

It sounds like a reassertion or reinscription of “woman.”

MM

I feel like we need to have a kind of antidote to this tightening, this narrowing, this kind of poisonous limitation and… compression. I was very fortunate to come up in a time of an expansive sort of spirit. And then another kind of cycle has occurred where that spirit closes down, then opens back up again, then closes down again.

PS

So back to my basement with my daughter. As many parents do, I often find myself singing silly things sometimes, something that before I became a dad I was probably too inhibited to do. So I’m singing with my daughter and vocalizing along with you, there digitally with us. I began to notice the texture of breath in my chest and the tone resonating within my body. And it moved me, in that way you might have when you’re in yoga class and you feel like crying. It made me think about the different kinds of voice: the kind of voice we often think of related to small-p politics—speaking out, “having a voice,” having agency—on one hand, and then, on the other, the voice of doing your inner work and making sure that you’re residing in your being, that you’re integrated.

MM

That’s so great. I’m so glad to hear that. One of the classes I teach is called Dancing Voice/Singing Body, and it’s all about the voice being embodied. So there’s a kinesthetic element to the singing. It’s not just standing there and making a beautiful tone; it’s more the voice in space, the voice in movement, and, above all, embodied voice.

The thing about having a political voice and this inner voice: you could say there is even something in between the two, which is your own voice and however that manifests. I think what being an artist or a developed person is about, is finding what your own voice is. And that takes a lot of work. Of not listening to other things. I say this to my students: If there is only one of you in the universe, then what are you doing in this lifetime that only you can do?

In terms of political voice and inner voice, because of the turmoil in the outside world, I feel like I need to dig my heels in, maybe even more, in making art that, number one, is of benefit to all sentient beings, and number two, really reflects a sense of values. Of integrity, honesty, and having the patience to try and find what each person’s unique voice is.

And I think there are two branches of how to respond as an artist to what’s going on in our time. One is art that has a direct political presentation, which some people are meant to do and they’re very strong in that. If it gives people insight, and something that’s workable that they can apply in their lives, then great. And then the other way of dealing with it is to offer an alternative possibility of what life could be, which is what I try to do.

PS

I noticed that about a year into the Trump presidency, your YouTube page posted an excerpt from Quarry, in which Ping Chong played a dictator who was shouting in this gibberish kind of speech. I was curious if the timing of that posting was a response to Trump.

The rally scene in Meredith Monk’s Quarry (1976), with Ping Chong as the dictator (top center). Photo: Ken Duncan

MM

Quarry was a piece I made in 1976 that was inspired by World War II. I had gone to Europe for the first time in the early ’70s. Some of my first performances were in the Alsace area of France, and I was very struck by the fact that there were not that many men of a certain age there. I asked about it and was told that a lot of the men of that generation were killed in the wars. I started contemplating war, world war, and what it was like to be occupied, and then my own Eastern European, Jewish background—realizing that even though I haven’t been a practicing Jew, I would’ve just been a number. And I started asking how could I make a poetic piece that went beyond the specificity of this war, beyond World War II as my inspiration.

This spirals back to the beginning of our conversation, when I was talking about the way that these dark periods recur. It’s recurring. I saw this coming years ago. Look what’s going on in Hungary. It’s not just this country. 1933, here we go again.

So, coincidentally, around the time of the election, I was thinking a lot about bringing Quarry back. And one of the things that inspired me was that one of the people in the original chorus of Quarry, Paul Langland, a wonderful dancer and choreographer, was teaching at the New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe. These are dance kids who are taking ballet class, but for some reason, he asked me, “Could I mount the Quarry rally with them?” The Quarry rally is sort of like one of these Trump rallies. It was based on the youth rallies during the ’30s—very athletic, fanatic kind of rallies. I think what struck me when I was working on it in 1976 was how easy it was to create a hypnotic, exciting, absolutely seductive phenomenon.

So when Paul mounted it, they performed it at a recital where they did a pointe number and then they put on their rally clothes—gray sort of uniforms—and they did the rally, vocally and movement-wise. It was pretty extraordinary. They put their whole heart and soul into it. Plus, we were able to teach them about World War II.

So that got me thinking about whether it would be interesting to bring Quarry back. Around the same time, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor asked me to do something for a concert. And I thought, even though this might be very difficult for an audience right now, let’s do the dictator’s movement harangue, vocal harangue, the short film of people in the rocks—which I always thought of as the dictator’s propaganda film (slaves lifting rocks up)—and then the rally, with all the students. It was so amazing. I saw one of the last rehearsals, and I was in tears.

So the haunting thing about it, is that after the rally suddenly three people in trench coats run in with suitcases and place them in front of certain people. Gradually, everyone in the rally slowly collapses and transforms from being the aggressors to suddenly becoming prisoners in a waiting room about to be taken away. The former rally youth sit, lie, and stand in shock in small groupings all over the stage. There is just the sound of their breathing. And that was the end of the sequence that we did. You know when they performed it? The weekend that Trump announced the immigration ban.

PS

Right, the “Muslim travel ban.”

MM

The audience was totally shocked and moved. So that’s probably the most directly political art I’ve ever done. And it doesn’t really specify this particular time that we’re living in now. It’s more showing that this is a possibility of human nature and that we just have to be alert and see what’s actually going on as it comes up yet again. Part of the problem that’s happened in this country is that people did not see this coming. They’re not making the connection to things that have happened in the past. And that’s why we are where we are now.

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