The Meredith Magic

Reviews 26.04.2022

On the eve of her 80th birthday, Meredith Monk is more active than ever. A new creation, a book in French and a tour of Europe have come in the last six months to add to her admirable career. And to demonstrate the topicality of this timeless music, whose healing power seems more necessary than ever.

A winter with Meredith

I spent the winter with Meredith Monk. Charged by the Ircam (thanks Philippe Langlois) with writing the "path of the work" of this extraordinary artist for the demanding and excellent Brahms database, I immersed myself for many weeks in her life and her work. And to me, who thought I knew both of them well, having to describe and analyse, in a finite number of characters, this "journey", which is both extremely coherent and radically protean, appeared much more difficult than I had imagined. But how fascinating! And how consoling, in this sad winter of war, when this music has revealed all its virtue, its primitive, energising force! Meredith Monk's music is truly, like few others, a repository of that quality and wholeness "found in cultures where performance art is considered a spiritual discipline, with the power to heal and transform", as she herself wrote in 1983 in a programmatic text, Mission Statement (1).

For many weeks, our house resounded with the voices of Meredith Monk and his band, sometimes transforming itself into a tropical forest, sometimes into a medieval synagogue, a New York loft or an African village as I discovered or rediscovered the treasures - Dolmen Music (1981), Do You Be (1987), ATLAS (1993), Volcano Songs (1997), Impermanence (2008), Memory Game (2020)... - A discography that must, once again, be credited to Manfred Eicher and his irreplaceable ECM label. A discography that allows us to travel through his works, often within the same volume: Do You Be, for example, brings together pieces from Vessel: An Opera Epic (1971), Quarry: an opera - an emblematic piece from 1976 of which a film version was completed in 2019, the result of twenty years of patient restoration work -, The Games (1984) - a science-fiction opera co-written with his long-time companion, Ping Chong - and Acts From Under And Above (1986)... I also loved revisiting the early recordings made by Meredith Monk before she signed - 41 years ago, for Dolmen Music, after a brief stint with Wergo, Schott's contemporary music label - with the Munich label: The 1973 album Our Lady of Late in particular, in which she explores the most extreme and minute possibilities of her voice by accompanying herself with drones made from a single glass of wine:

It is true that the autumn-winter of 2021-22 will have been full of activities for this musician who will celebrate her eightieth birthday on 20 November - and who always impresses us, when we meet her, with her radiant youthful grace.
First of all, on 12 November 2021 at Mills College, there was the premiere ofIndra's Net, a stage work that brings to a close a trilogy - begun with On Behalf of Nature (2013) and Cellular Songs (2018) - about our relationship with the living and with nature. The composer recently confided to me that her memory of this creation is not very clear: the premiere ofIndra's Net was given in front of an almost empty hall due to sanitary constraints, and was mainly followed by streaming. Deprived of its essential dimension - the co-presence of the spectators - Indra's Net could not fully get into motion...
This winter, Meredith Monk then continued, in the company of percussionist John Hollenbeck, one of the pillars of her ensemble, her Duet Behavior series - duet conversations initiated in the 1980s with her friend Bobby McFerrin - with several concerts, one of which was at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.

And then there was the reissue in January, by Le Mot et le Reste, of Jean-Louis Tallon's book, Meredith Monk, a mystical voice. Initially published in 2015 by Éditions nouvelles Cécile Defaut, this collection of interviews has been revised and expanded for the occasion: an essential complement to Deborah Jowitt's 1997 book, it takes a step-by-step look back at the path that has guided this woman, who was born into music, since childhood(2). As in his other collections of interviews (with Gavin Bryars, Philippe Hersant and Pierre Bergounioux), Jean-Louis Talon reveals himself to be an interlocutor as zealous as he is delicate.
This fascinating book is of particular importance to me, since I have the immense honour (and pleasure) of being quoted in it... In any case, it has only strengthened my admiration for this artist-maverick who has followed her path with disarming integrity and sincerity - " I was considered crazy, or almost," she says. Men found it hard to admit, let alone understand, that a woman could have a vocation, a purpose, that she was tempted to go all the way to the end of the artistic adventure to give it meaning and body, while remaining, at the same time, a woman in her own right..." - without ever being cold-hearted.

A flourishing spring

Last but not least, in the spring of 2022, Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble were on a European tour. A tour that has just passed - between London, The Hague (for a rich portrait at the Rewire Festival) and Luxembourg - through France: in Nantes and at the Philharmonie de Paris (3), she offered to spellbound audiences the concert version of Cellular Songs, for five singers.
I was lucky enough to be present in Nantes on 19 April, where she performed in the sumptuous Italian-style hall of the Théâtre Graslin and as part of the Variations festival proposed by the Lieu Unique with the BNP-Paribas Foundation, whose 2022 programme was no less sumptuous. I had not seen her on stage since her concert in May 2014 at Équinoxe, Scène nationale de Châteauroux, the culmination of a collaboration with the Microcosmos chamber choir conducted by Loïc Pierre. And as soon as the lights went out, I immediately rediscovered the unique, profound magic of Meredith Monk's concerts.

Cellular Songs was inspired by her reading of Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor Of All Maladies (2010), as she explains on stage in diligent French. Subtitled A Biography Of Cancer, it was the starting point for a reflection on the cell as a life force and a model 'for a possible society', she adds. On stage, four female singers (and sometimes instrumentalists) surround the composer. They include the familiar Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, and a newcomer who towers over them, the young Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, spotted in 2019 in the cast of director Yuval Sharon's revival of the opera ATLAS (1991) at Disney Hall, as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's centenary. All of them are wearing black boots and white costumes subtly adapted to their body shape and personality. The stage is bare except for a piano and five stools. The lighting is in tune with this graphic simplicity: apart from a few colour variations on the background cyclo, it sparingly cultivates the art of chiaroscuro.
The stage version of Cellular Songs included numerous video projections, projected from above onto a white floor, and concluded with the appearance of a choir of ten little girls and teenagers (recruited in each case from the city where the concert was taking place) who ended up joining the singers. Here, in this tighter version which offers, as the composer says, 'the essence of Cellular Songs ', the five singers occupy the space with a confounding naturalness, in a few imperceptible movements, inextricably linked to the music.

By its very subject matter, this is a piece that summons one of the most precious qualities of Meredith Monk's music: its organic dimension.
Cellular Songs is thus a powerful meditation - in the most spiritual sense of the word - on the individual and the group; on cooperation and interdependence, an idea that is also at the heart ofIndra's Net (in the Buddhist tradition, Indra's Flet is a metaphor for the universe, describing the interconnectedness of all living beings). Each of the three parts is punctuated by a solo: at the end of the first, a version of Happy Woman in which the almost octogenarian demonstrates impressive vocal agility, and whose text (a rare commodity in Monk's work) takes on a poignant resonance; in the second, a no less breathless vocal solo by Katie Geissinger; and finally, at the heart of the third part, an extraordinary choreographic interlude by Ellen Fisher, one of the company's leading performers. Lying balanced on a stool, she mimes (she told me after the concert) a body diving into the water to the bottom of the ocean, and bringing back to the surface the pearl collected in an oyster... A weightless moment, the power of which is due to Ellen Fisher's physical presence, and to this hairless skull which resonates intimately with the subject of the piece...

In counterpoint, Cellular Songs offers wonderful moments of collective communion. At the end of the second part in particular, when the five musicians end up gathered around the piano, each playing on the keyboard, as if they were one with the instrument. Or in the third part, when, sitting in a circle, they seem to pass the note to each other in a single breath, like a candle that must not be allowed to go out. They end the show tightly entwined, like so many cells of the same organism. An organism which, for an hour and a half, never ceases to transmit its positive energy, its serene and beneficial magic. Just like this music which, six decades later, is still blossoming.

David Sanson

1. This text, revised in 1996, was included in the indispensable collection edited by Deborah Jowitt, Meredith Monk, Baltimore, London, The John Hopkins University Press, 1997.
2. His maternal great-grandfather was a cantor in a synagogue in Russia, and his grandfather, Joseph B. Zellman, was a prominent bass-baritone in the Tsar's court before emigrating in the 1880s for anarchist sympathies; in New York he married the American pianist Rose Kornicker and eventually opened the Zellman Conservatory of Music in Harlem. His mother, Audrey Lois Zellman, was a professional singer under the name Audrey Marsh, who was very active in radio.
3. In passing, it is regrettable that it was not until gender parity became a "subject" that this respectable institution invited the woman who, more and more, is establishing herself as a major figure in post-war American music - where her male colleagues have long since demonstrated, notably at the Porte de Pantin, their ability to attract an audience much wider than that of classical music aficionados alone. The same applies to Éliane Radigue. In a nutshell.

Photo article © Steven Pisano
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Cellular Songs : concert version- Festival Variations - le lieu unique, Nantes © David Gallard


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