Artist as Sibyl

Meredith Monk on Fifty Years of Art Making

John R. Killacky

In other cultures Meredith Monk would be called shaman, seer, healer; here we struggle to define her interdisciplinary prowess. Singer/composer, dancer/choreographer, actor/performer, director/playwright, visual artist/filmmaker — even together, these categories cannot capture her resplendent achievements.

She creates visceral excavations of abstracted gesture, sound, and tableau, inviting audiences to experience archetypal, transformative rituals. Distilling idiosyncratic movement, three-octave vocalizing, and luminous stage design to their unadorned essence, she collages these elements into transcultural dreamscapes.

From large-scale, multivenue events with a hundred-plus performers, to intimate pieces for solo voice and wine glass, as well as award-winning recordings and films, we journey through her clear-sightedness into a vision of redemption. Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with my friend and artist hero, now celebrating her fiftieth season of making work.

Meredith Monk performing OnBehalf of Nature. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

John Killacky   Fifty years ago when the postmodernists were deconstructing and stripping everyday action down to its essence, you emerged on the New York scene almost as a maximalist with your mixed-media work 16 Millimeter Earrings. Talk about those early years, your influences, and in particular that iconic work.

Meredith Monk   Making 16 Millimeter Earrings was a real breakthrough piece for me, because I had been trying to figure out ways of weaving together different perceptual modes. At first it was very much a personal imperative. As a child I had come from music, I had done movement, I had done theater, and it was a kind of intuitive way of integrating these strands or aspects of myself into one form that represented a totality. I realized early on that this way of putting things together was a holistic antidote to this fragmented world.

After I left Sarah Lawrence and came to New York, I was very interested in the syntax of cinema and was trying to figure out how to transfer that into live performance. 16 Millimeter Earrings was a culmination of a few years of working with those ideas, and it was the first piece that I used film in. It was also the first piece I did a real vocal track that went throughout the whole piece.

I was very influenced by what was going on in the visual arts world. I’d go to a lot of galleries, and I was in some of the late happenings. Working with materials in a very plastic way, using materials that are not usually used on stage, treating them in a very visual way, visual images and sculpture and color and painting, that’s what I was really trying for, a kind of painterly live performance form.

JK   In 1984 you said, “I work in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema.” Given this framework, where and how does each new work begin?

MM   Each piece begins in a different place. It’s very unpredictable. Sometimes I’ll have a lot of music formed before I even go into rehearsal. With my most recent work, On Behalf of Nature, I had quite a bit of the music done and pretty well formed when I went into rehearsal. Then it was a matter of how you make a piece with images and movement that don’t cancel out the complexity of the music. The music probably is one of the most complex scores that I’ve written in the last few years, and I wanted the movement to be something that allowed you to also hear its complexity. That necessitated a kind of simplicity and purity of the images and movement.

With each piece, once you find what the question is, then you’re really on the road to discovering that piece. The impulse for impermanence was the death of my partner. With mercy, a piece that I made in collaboration with Ann Hamilton, we were thinking about the difference between help and harm. We also asked, how do you make a sumptuous piece with very simple means?

You, as a maker of a piece, have to listen to what the piece needs.

JK   Your great-grandfather was a cantor in Russia. Your grandparents opened a music school in Harlem, and your mom was a radio singer.

MM   That’s right.

JK   Ancestry and personal mythology seem to play a central role in many of your works. Does your lineage influence the spiritual biographies you create for the stage?

MM   My grandfather was a concert singer, and my grandmother was a concert pianist first, and then they opened up a music conservatory in Harlem. On my father’s side were people that came from Poland and were woodworkers. My grandfather was a carpenter and opened a lumberyard, and my grandmother was like a salt-of-the-earth country girl from Poland. I remember her in her garden till the day she died.

Meredith Monk’s Songs of Ascension being performed in Ann Hamilton’s Tower. Photo by Babeth VanLoo.

Having musicians on my mother’s side gave me a voice and the richness of music in my life, a musicality that I was able to take for granted as a child. But mythically, I would say my father’s family, really that Eastern European shtetl existence, was something that was a fantasy of mine.

When I was working on the solo for Education of the Girlchild, I think I was calling up the memory of that grandmother. Having come from an Eastern European Jewish background, making Quarry was also deeply meaningful. I could project myself into what it would be like to be taken away, so it had another layer of meaning. And with Book of Days, I realized nobody I knew of had really done anything about the Jewish community in the Middle Ages.

JK   I’ve seen your work in opera houses, alternative spaces, cathedrals, abandoned buildings, museums, outdoor sculpture parks, and your own loft. How important does site play in the development of your works?

MM   I was one of the early people working with what’s now called “site-specific performance,” and I’ve always loved the dialogue that you have between the space and you. A lot of the times when I’m working in a space, I’ll go in there and sit for a long while and feel what that space is telling me.

I love displacing expectations, and I love changing scale: from working in my loft with that kind of close-up, very intimate performing to something like the Guggenheim which, just by the size and the particularities of the space, invites you to make an epic kind of piece.

JK   You’ve collaborated with theater artist Ping Chong, visual artist Ann Hamilton, and scenic artist Yoshio Yabara, among others, as well as members of your ensemble. Early on, you even wrote a rock song with Don Preston of The Mothers of Invention. Can you talk about your collaborative process?

MM   Each situation is very different. Ping and I were together at the time we were making Paris. It was very much a piece about using our lives as a kind of myth. I remember calling him and saying, “It would be really nice to do a piece about Paris.” The experience there for the first time had been evocative and inspiring for us both.

In a good collaboration, both people let go of their territory to make a third thing that neither one can make alone. In Paris, I really limited my vocal music aspect. Ping did not include audiovisual elements the way that he did in his own work — so we came to something that was very new.

With Ann Hamilton in mercy, it was very much the same thing. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Ann was to renew my energy in terms of the visual aspects. I had been concentrating so much on music and was getting bored with my visual ideas. Even though I usually create a video component for my music-theater pieces, it seemed right that Ann would make the video for mercy. I obviously did the music, and we pretty much conceptually started from scratch together. In Songs of Ascension, I had more or less completed the overall form, and then Ann came in and added her video component.

JK   In much of your work, central characters are visionaries, healers, and spiritual practitioners. Your portrayal of the madwoman soothsayer in Book of Days is yet another extraordinary figure in your pantheon of unforgettable characters, from Joan of Arc in Vessel, the woman in different life stages in Education of the Girlchild, the feverish child in Quarry, the intrepid truth seeker in ATLAS, and your Buster Keaton-esque persona in Volcano Songs. What do you see is the role of artist in society today?

MM   There are basically two kinds of artists. One is a mirror of the particular time that artist lives in. The other is more the way that I think about things, which is a more timeless kind of idea of very fundamental energies and cycles of human behavior and things that recur. We are sensitive, and we stand a little bit away from the world, enough to respond to it, but at the same time we offer an alternative.

What I’m trying to do is to offer an experience, a direct experience in the very distracted world that we’re living in, which might not be so easy. It’s very hard for us to let go of our devices and distractions, and the nakedness of the present is, for many people, very painful. The stillness, the not being entertained, and just the being in the present is not that easy, but I think that that’s what I’m trying to do in my work — to offer a situation where audience members could actually let go of the distractions, let go of the mental narrator, let go of the restlessness for a certain period of time.

JK   In two of your major film works, Book of Days and Ellis Island, time goes backward and forward throughout, and color is introduced ever so slightly into a few scenes. Why the juxtaposition of time and color in these works?

MM   I love dealing with time as a sculptural element, compressing it and extending it. This idea of simultaneous time is something I do a lot in my work.

Color as the present and black and white as the past was a visual metaphor that I started working with in Ellis Island in the early eighties. It was a way of juxtaposing one reality with another. I used black and white as the past because I was very influenced by the photographs of immigrants in the turn of the century, Lewis Hine’s, for example.

And with Book of Days, I decided to stay with that same idea. I let the Middle Ages be shot in black and white, and the color sections represent our present time. There are a few gradations in Book of Days where there’s just a little bit of saturation to get a kind of in-between world.

JK   When you were fifty you wrote, “I think the hardest aspect of having done something for a long time is the sense of carrying around a lot of baggage that has to be discarded to be able to begin again.” Now twenty years later is that burden even heavier? How do you begin and begin ever anew to create?

MM   I’m terrified at the start of every piece, flailing about trying to find a clue. Beginning anew is a very hard thing. I did something interesting in On Behalf of Nature, which is quite different for me. I started playing through some of my old music notebooks where I notate raw ideas and selected a phrase or a measure or just a little piece of material that seemed interesting to me now but at the time I was not able to develop.

I was ready then to revisit some of these fragments, and I started realizing that the process was very much a theme of On Behalf of Nature, which was to not waste anything but to recycle all the elements in one way or another. That’s a way of beginning anew, but it’s also a kind of circling around to the past to make something present.

JK   In the last two decades you have created profoundly moving internal works: The Politics of Quiet, mercy, impermanence, and Songs of Ascension. These seemed a shift from earlier narrative-infused works. Do you see it that way, and why the shift?

MM   The music has gotten more and more complex, and I’ve been more consciously aware of trying to create sacred space as an antidote to this world we’re living in. I feel like I don’t have so much time left on the planet, and I really want to do something that might be helpful or useful for people to connect to their lives. Music itself and movement — this experience speaks louder than narrative — it goes directly into the bloodstream of the audience.

JK   You have been a student of Buddhism for many years, even singing for the Dalai Lama. How has this study influenced your work?

MM   When I began teaching at Naropa in the seventies, I first connected with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and I started realizing that some of my aesthetic principles were very connected to fundamental Buddhist principles, like silence, stillness, flexible time, presence. I became more and more interested in Buddhism, and then years later, I started a formal practice. I’m not sure how much it’s influenced my artwork, but my aspiration of what it is to be an artist has become much more conscious.

JK   In doing research for this conversation, I came upon a dialogue you did with Bruce Nauman at the Walker Art Center in 1994 talking about horses and what they taught you. Any lessons there applied in your work?

MM   If I’m teaching, sometimes I use riding or horse metaphors. They’re very useful. For example: not anticipating, being just in the moment. If you’re going over a jump on a horse and you anticipate, then you actually throw the balance of the horse off. If you lay back and you’re holding on so tight that you’re afraid, then you’re left behind, and it’s really hard on the horse’s mouth.

That’s very close to what it’s like to perform — you’re really trying to be completely on axis, neither projecting out nor pulling in, but just being very centered. I still ride, and it’s something that has been a wonderful part of my life.

JK   In the last decade, you received orchestral commissions from St. Louis, New World, and San Francisco Symphonies, as well as Kronos Quartet, Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and other groups. Is your working process different for these than when you are working and collaborating with your own ensemble?

MM   When I’m working with an orchestra, I have to have a full score ready for them to play, whereas with my ensemble, it’s much more hands-on, an organic kind of process. I can really work through material with the ensemble, and we learn the music in our bones. I still prefer to work with my ensemble because I like to work slowly. I love the intensive rehearsal process. I love how over the years a piece can keep on changing.

Meredith Monk
Mission Statement

My goals:

To create an art that breaks down the boundaries between the disciplines, an art which in turn becomes a metaphor for opening up thought, perception, experience.

An art that is inclusive, rather than exclusive; that is expansive, whole, human, multidimensional.

An art that cleanses the senses, that offers insight, feeling, magic. That allows the public to perhaps see familiar things in a new, fresh way — that gives them the possibility of feeling more alive.

An art that seeks to reestablish the unity existing in music, theatre, and dance — the wholeness that is found in cultures where performing arts practice is considered a spiritual discipline with healing and transformative power.

An art that reaches toward emotion we have no words for, that we barely remember — an art that affirms the world of feeling in a time and society where feelings are in danger of being eliminated.

Once you set a score, you can change it, but it’s difficult, and in the orchestral world, they just don’t have that many rehearsals. It’s because of the expense of the rehearsal process, so you might get one or two readings or rehearsals before they have to perform, and that’s hard for me. This music is something that’s very physical and also has a kind of momentum. You really have to play it for a while to understand the way the energy works in the piece.

That’s not to say that I’m not very grateful for working with orchestral groups because this is how I’m learning. I’m so excited to learn the possibilities of the instruments, and I’m a person who loves to learn. I went to Sarah Lawrence. If we learned one thing, it was the joy of learning. I hope I’ll be learning for the rest of my life. I’ve always thought of the voice as an instrument, and now I’m trying to think about the instruments as voices.

JK   Beginning this fall, you will be composer in residence at Carnegie Hall, and many of your compositions will be featured in a number of concerts over the season. Who will be performing?

MM   Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, two fantastic pianists, will play a concert of my piano music off-site at (Le) Poisson Rouge on my birthday in November. This will also celebrate the release of the CD Piano Songs on ECM Records.

St. Louis Symphony will be performing WEAVE, a New York premiere. It’s very exciting for me that people in New York will hear it — a piece for chamber orchestra, chorus, and two vocal soloists from my ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Theo Bleckmann.

The American Composers Orchestra will perform Night, which is also for chamber orchestra and eight of my singers. I’m being commissioned by Carnegie to write a piece for Ensemble ACJW, a group of young preprofessional instrumentalists. And then I’m doing an evening called Meredith Monk & Friends, which will include everybody from Jessye Norman to John Zorn performing my work. We’ll conclude with a concert featuring my Vocal Ensemble.

JK   At seventy-one years old, do you feel finally that you are getting your due recognition as a composer?

MM   It’s a wonderful exciting time for me to have the music heard. My way of working is very different. I think it’s been hard for the classical music world to realize there are alternative ways of making music, but that seems to be changing.

I love to think my music has as many values of folk music and jazz as classical music. I want the flexibility of jazz, and I want the honesty of folk music in my music, but it’s very exciting for me to be in this context.

JK   What other projects can we look forward to as you celebrate your fiftieth season of making art?

MM   We are doing the New York premiere of On Behalf of Nature at BAM. I’m very much looking forward to that, and I’m right in the process of beginning to work on an installation of Songs of Ascension. I’m going to work with my friend Paul Krajniak, who was the director of the Discovery World Museum in Milwaukee. When we performed Songs of Ascension in 2008 in Ann Hamilton’s tower at Steve Oliver’s ranch in Sonoma, California, Dyanna Taylor filmed it with three cameras, including one from overhead on a crane. It was such beautiful filming from different angles of our performances in Ann’s eight-story tower, and we recorded twenty-four tracks of music. I’ve been planning an installation to convey that experience, and I am just beginning to work on it.

JK   You been blessed throughout your career with commissions, grants, fellowships, and artist residencies. Any advice for grantmakers?

MM   Trust the artist — we’re very dependable. It’s a strange myth that artists are these crazy kind of unpredictable people. Funders should also trust what they love; that way they will always support the right people.

I’ve been fortunate enough to receive the Guggenheim, USA Artists, and the Duke. All of those awards have had that level of trust. In the old days we were supported very much by the NEA and NYSCA. In my life, the MacArthur was extremely important; it actually changed my life because I had the freedom to use it in any way I felt was right. New Music USA has also been a wonderful help, and the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation has given consistent support that I’m grateful for.

A lot of funders give to institutions and then think it’s going to filter down to the artist, instead of trusting that the artist knows how to use that money. It doesn’t always filter down to the artist. All of us have worked for so many years, and we always, always come through. You can trust that it’s going to happen.

To make something, you have to be a deep-sea diver. You can have fear at the beginning, but then ultimately when curiosity takes over — at least this happens for me — then my fear goes away little by little because I get really interested in what I’ve discovered. We’re the R & D branch of the world, doing research and development all the time just to make an artwork. Making an artwork itself is a political statement in the world that we’re living in.

JK   New York and the art world seems a very different place than when you first began performing and creating in the early 1960s. What do you tell young emerging artists about how to sustain themselves and their careers?

MM   Follow your dream, and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. We never thought we were going to make a living from this, so we were doing this out of love. We supported ourselves by doing jobs that were not that difficult: I modeled for artists and taught music and dance classes for children. My rent was seventy-five dollars a month. I could live alone.

The young people I know that are really wonderful artists are just keeping their heads above water — being scrappy and inventive. Because there’s not much money in the art world, it’s coming back more to a kind of grassroots way of thinking about art.

When I first came to New York, there was a community of like-minded artists, even though there was a lot of diversity in the way they manifested. The “downtown scene” of artists coming from all different mediums was trying to find new ways of doing things. We all knew each other, and that was a support structure. Whereas now, it’s a little bit more dispersed, and it’s hard to find out who your community is. It’s also harder to be connected to history. It is very important that you know what came before you.

So, it’s more challenging, but if you really follow your path step-by-step and you don’t let anyone get in the way of what you dream, something will happen one way or another. It’s a matter of following your own path with as much honesty and integrity as you can muster.