Meredith Monk has been creating performances at a steady clip for 50 years and by now it feels like they form one muted, meditative spectacle. You could string them together in chronological order or shuffle them randomly and it would hardly matter: Either way, you’d get a remarkably consistent portrait of an artist whose ideas sound at once fresh and familiar. “I like to have a very ancient and very futuristic feeling simultaneously,” she told an interviewer decades ago, and she’s never disturbed that equilibrium. Hers has always a wistful avant-garde, evocative of some pure and primitive culture whose messages she plucks from the ether.
In the latest episode of her career-long work, On Behalf of Nature, Monk and her loyal corps of singer/dancers circulate around the stage in moving pools of light, waving one arm in tight circles and quietly hooting to an accompaniment of echoing bells. A little while later, she stomps across the stage alone, whispering ferociously over a scratchy violin. What’s she angry about? There’s no way to know, and it’s the wrong question anyway: Meaning doesn’t matter much in her world.
The sounds she utters are like phonemes from a lost language. Hockets, growls and looping vocal lines rub against one another in grainy counterpoint. The most entrancing thing about Monk’s music has always been the variety of vocal sounds that she extracts from her larynx and her ensemble. She pierces to the emotional quality of a vocal sound. Brassy bleats of indignation; nasal, didgeridoo-ish drones; plaintive yowls; seraphic hums; plain, spare chants, and percussive “Da”s — over the years, she has refined each of these techniques into powerful expressive vehicles.
Monk’s generation colonized lower Manhattan in the late 1960s, but reached maturity a decade later, during a delirious week in 1979. New Music New York, a festival of contemporary music at the Kitchen, enchanted a tiny audience with an assortment of mind-altering works by members of the future establishment. The programs included Steve Reich’s hour-long Drumming; Pauline Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation for singing audience, and Monk’s Dolmen Music, in which an intimate ensemble of voices, piano, percussion, and a couple of stringed instruments celebrated a shamanistic ritual and carved out a new sonic universe. That piece hasn’t lost its power, and its techniques still hum through her more recent compositions.
At 72, Monk has become even more Monk-ish, with gaunt, sculpted cheekbones, dark hair yanked back and twined into two long skinny braids, a body that remains limber, though she never had the otherworldly fluidity of a great dancer. Instead, she has the onstage demeanor of an undernourished mystic.
On Behalf of Nature is a wordless sermon on the environment, underlined by the decision of the designer Yoshio Yobara to cut up the performers’ old clothes into new costumes. The resulting hippie-meets-Mennonite look doesn’t do much for the cause.
Monk practices a more profound form of conservation: She recycles the past, both her own and that of distant centuries. Some artists leap from phase to phase, or sputter out. She has managed a slow evolution, made of stutter steps and micro-epiphanies. Her old shows — some, like Turtle Songs, preserved on YouTube — had a rough-hewn, innocent weirdness that’s gone now. She is no longer the goofy but serious alien girl with the long flowing hair; instead she’s a sage. But the cathedral-ready counterpoint, the atmosphere of coordinated serenity, the slow pace, the avoidance of muscular drama — these things endure. The Politics of Quiet, a work from the mid 1996, spilled into a lobby display: a steam iron, a boot scraper, a pair of shears, a vinyl record, all dipped in wax, preserved “relics of our own time,” as Monk called them. Whatever the title, her topic is always the same: the sense in which time collapses in on itself, memories behave like a stack of cards being shuffled, and we can slip effortlessly between the recent and the ancient pasts.