Finding an inner voice through outer expression in the music of Meredith Monk

By George Chambers

“Sometimes in the past when I was going to perform a piece again I would listen to old recordings and try to reproduce the material. This time I realized that carrying around old information, trying to get everything in, and still be in the moment just doesn’t work.”

 Meredith Monk

The compositional ethos of American composer Meredith Monk has always been of much musicological debate. Monk believes in teaching by ear and, despite many criticisms, maintains that the ‘inner voice’ of the music is so often lost when ink is put to paper and music is confined to the page. For this reason, Monk relies on a huge collection of recordings, videos, notes, sketches and her memory to recreate her most important works. For a safety of authenticity, she also largely limits the performance of her works to her beloved vocal ensemble – her closest musical allies, many of which have been working with her from the very beginnings of her career. By returning to works, some over 50 years old, her pieces often naturally evolve and develop over time – a product of the aural tradition she maintains at the centre of her pedagogical method. To what extent does Monk have to excavate the past to find that spark of originality and freshness that keeps us, as she would say, ‘in the moment’ of the present? As we move further into the 21st century, and Monk becomes more of a seminal figure in American twentieth-century music, is there a fundamental conflict between developmental innovation through her performances and maintaining a compositional authenticity her most seminal works.

It is a necessary and crucial part of a performers’ work to make a piece their own. This is especially true in contemporary compositions and pieces not yet performed. Monk often composes for certain members of her vocal ensemble, and arias are written for certain voices. The composition of Monk’s work, in essence, is often unfinished without the performer. This is a statement not only true of Monk’s work, but of any composition written for a performer in mind. Each voice is unique, and this is something Monk understands more than any composer around today. Her compositional journey began when experimenting at the piano in the ‘60s. It was from here that she discovered the use of what we would describe as ‘extended techniques’ other than just singing. The term strikes fear in the hearts of Monk lovers as one of those terms so often used to describe contemporary composers’ style which is faintly beyond the norm. Monk’s vocal style is simply the way her voice and her compositions have developed; they are an extension of nothing but her own creativity, imagination and personal style of singing. Just as an opera singer would mature through teaching and practice, so Monk continually creates new ‘extensions’ to her voice through experimentation at the piano and with her vocal ensemble.

One of her most haunting works, Gotham Lullaby is a prime example of how text in Monk’s music develops through each performance. The example below shows text used by Monk in the opening phrase of the work in two separate recordings: Dolmen Music recording from 1980 and a live performance from Santa Fe in 2004.

1980 Dolmen Music recording

Lyrics: [weh(lala) tih]  [wah ta nah neh nala sahnanananananana teh]  [wah la la -, la la la la]

2004 Live performance

Lyrics: [wah lah so]  [wah lah lah ley lah lah lah seh na na seh]  [wah la la - , la la la la]

This is divided into three smaller sub phrases as in every recording, phrasing usually never changes. Monk’s general contour of phrasing and melody remains constant. Although aspects of the melodic line in Gotham Lullaby ebb and flow their way around a central ‘core’ phrasing structure, they never move too far away from this point. The placement of stress on certain syllables also remains fairly constant, giving us a sense of regular and recognisable phrasing. Constraint, in a very loose form, is certainly integral to the development of Monk’s work. It allows us to roughly sing along and recognise her charming, dreamy melodies whilst keeping her iconic works typically ‘Monk.’ Anyone can hum along to Gotham Lullaby, but an authentic performance can only be one given by Monk, or people who have directly been taught by her. Choosing text, or more the process of improvising on what syllables and sounds to use, is a paramount part of the performance within Monk’s compositions.

Text in general is a tricky issue when it comes to performing Monk. A select few of her choral works are now available through the publishers Boosey & Hawks. This is a brave move for Monk and one which could hugely affect the fundamental principles of performance she holds dear to her heart. Each score has been meticulously edited, extensive programme notes have been given and even recordings of certain sounds have been uploaded onto Monk’s website. To accompany learning from the page, Monk advocates listening to CDs and watching DVDs of all her published scores. In many ways, this is a fundamental part of the learning process. Another pedagogical problem rears its ugly head in written descriptions of how to make sounds with the voice which are not usually used within singing. Often a text-based description is needed, as standard music notation is unable to express all the timbral and expressive qualities of a certain sound or gesture. Once again, we find ourselves back to the problematic idea of the ‘extended technique.’ Often what can be recorded played back and learnt within seconds takes reams of unnecessarily complex, verbose descriptions and ambiguous programme notes. Monk writes her own concise and extremely helpful notes to accompany her scores. In my mind, this is an absolutely vital tool in the important pedagogical exchange of performance technique between composer and performer. Although not a live exchange of ideas and thoughts, this is the closest Monk can possibly get to teaching these works to choirs, and the fact that her choral music is getting out to the wider world can only be a good thing.

Example from Meredith Monk’s Vocal Gestures, a rarely notated piece

 Monk sees her vocal development as a constant process of excavation. This implies a deep sense of personal history and principals in her work dating back to her first vocal experiments at the piano in the 60s. Of course, what Monk is aiming to ‘excavate’ is the new, the fresh, the original and that sound or gesture that can fully encapsulate a moment of emotion.

“By digging into my own voice I’m uncovering feelings and energies for which we don’t have words – it’s like shades of feeling, early human utterance, and essential human nature”

The use of full words in Monk’s work is very rare. It could be argued that her use of sounds alienates listeners and potential performers as her ‘sounds’ do not convey ideas as explicitly as language. In my view, this is quite the opposite. By not using a recognisable vernacular, Monk elevates her vocal works into a realm of universal understanding. No matter what language is spoken, it is possible to interpret Monk’s sounds however you wish and come to your own conclusions. This seems a rather primal way of seeing song:  as a method of absolute communication through music and sound alone. Indeed, Monk’s ‘text’ (if we can call it that) is ruled by sound, and, as mentioned above, phrasing. The two intertwine into pieces that are most definitely recognisable, but are equally able to transcend time and warp themselves into fresh versions with each performance. As a performer of her own music, usually at the keyboard, Monk has mastered the art of pleasing both regular and first-time listeners. Her compositional style allows iconic works to stay firmly within the minds of those in the know; what we listen to is what we expect it to be. Simultaneously however, it is an exciting prospect to know that each time we do listen there will be an element of originality within the performance that keeps it organic. Monk is a Buddhist, and I’ve often thought that through her song performances she is searching for that ultimate moment; a musical enlightenment.

“To get to that authenticity, you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty, and the inevitability of something”

One thing is sure – for Monk, composition is a pouring out of the heart and soul. It is far more than a cerebral process for process’ sake. I wonder what would happen if more composers dared to do such a thing and search for that deepest emotion, rather than deepest thought. Authenticity is its nature is the core truthfulness of origins. Monk’s music aims for a glorious outer expression of deep inner emotion, and for that reason her music is a beautiful example of artistic originality and integrity.

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