Only a minute or so into our phone interview in late April, I realized that talking with Meredith Monk wasn’t so different from listening to one of her recordings. And not merely because the singer-composer-dancer-filmmaker will often adorn phrases with a thrilling and wordless vocalization, just like she does on most of her classic albums. In her casual speech, Monk is as emotionally direct — and as capable of elegant, quick movement between radically different moods — as she is on the songs that make up Dolmen Music, or Impermanence. To wit: She’ll tell you when you’ve made her sad.
In our talk, this reaction came after I asked Monk whether the excellent new recording of her gorgeous and playful piano music, performed by Bruce Brubaker and Ursula Oppens, was an attempt to formulate an introduction to her music for those who may shrink from phrases like “installation art” or the hyphenate, inter-disciplinary work that she has pioneered since the 1960s.
Monk replied that she was proud of this collection of her various Piano Songs — some of which are drawn from her earliest large-scale performance-art works — even agreeing that the album might represent an ideal, 48-minute introduction to her sound world. But of the idea that some listeners might have avoided, say, Monk’s landmark non-narrative opera Atlas — issued as an audio-only recording by the ECM label — due to a preemptive fear that it was impossible to “understand”? There’s no hedging. Just: “It actually makes me quite sad.”
Thankfully, Monk doesn’t linger on that discomfort. She also addresses some details about her performing and composing life that may not have been clear, even to some of her longtime fans. “When I make an album [from a stage piece], I rewrite the music, because I know the music is going to give you all the images that you will not have,” she told me. “I really compress the forms and I also enrich the forms, instrumentally…I really want the music to stand by itself, and give you an experience without you having to think, ‘Oh I’m missing this or I’m missing that.’…It’s this kind of mindset that I’m hoping we can break down. A lot of times people don’t trust their own instincts and their own feelings and their own direct experiences. They only have an experience when someone else is already filtering [their] experience. So I guess what I’ve been trying to do all these years is to break that down. To really offer a very direct experience that goes right to the nervous system, right to the heart and really bypasses some of that narrator-aspect-of-mind.”
Which is why, despite the undeniable song-form that anchors much of her work, Monk rarely uses syntax in a way that we’re used to hearing in music. “I never use a word that’s narrative,” she says. “But I always think of words as an element in itself, you know, a sculptural element. … And the word ‘understand’ is always something that gives me a lot of problems. I’m not sure that understanding is what we really do when we see artwork. I think ‘understanding’ is already you analyzing your experience, and you’re one step away from your experience. Whereas when you really immerse yourself in the experience, that word understanding doesn’t really apply.”
When I apologize to Monk for possibly bumming her out — the last thing I’d wanted to do — she trills out a string of “no no no no!” and sounds happy again, much as a “character” in one of her songs might quickly pivot from a mournful to cheerful. And when I tell her that I’ve just watched a 1982 public television broadcast of her half-hour dance-meets-music piece Paris — some of the music from which pops up on Piano Songs — she belts out a laugh, adding: “That’s a long time ago, boy!”
In describing that instrumental piece — by turns dreamy and experimentally wild — that gives the half-hour film its title, Monk called it her “first piano piece” after a revelation, in the late 1960s, about her own mature voice as a singer and composer. “My first musical training was in Dalcroze eurhythmics,” she told me. “And then as a child I sang, I played piano. I wrote little piano pieces in high school. But I was also really interested, when I was about 13 or 14, in folk music…And I loved the very sad ballads, it says something about my teenage years — really sad British ballads. So something about that honesty and directness in folk music is something that I feel is still a value in what I want my music to be. That plaintive quality of folk music.
“At Sarah Lawrence I was in the voice department,” she continues. “I was studying lieder and I was in the opera workshop — I had a voice lesson three times a week and coaching twice a week. And I was earning my way through [school] partially by playing at children’s birthday parties with a guitar, and singing. When I came to New York, I was doing pieces that tried to combine the voice with movement and some imagery — but I wasn’t doing such extensive singing. And one day I had a revelation that changed my life basically — which was that the voice could be like an instrument. That I could find a vocabulary built on my own voice, the way you do with movement…That within the voice were male and female, were different ages, were characters and landscapes and different ways of producing sound.”
That wide-ranging technique, as well as the passion for colloquial form, helps explain why Monk has long bristled at the idea that she was much influenced by the first wave of minimalism (which was developing its own tradition around the same time). “I guess my thinking was how do you make a song form, but in an abstract way? And that’s very different from this minimalist idea, which is [about] this overall pattern,” she says. “And the other real difference is I was working maximally with the voice — and definitely working with the full range of emotion. I guess I don’t relate to the minimalist thing because I feel like the aims or the aspirations were very different.”
Though Monk does fondly recall one La Monte Young concert, in the late 1960s, at which entrants were required to sign indemnification waivers. “You had to sign a release that said they weren’t responsible for what happened to your brain…I think the performance was upstairs in this empty warehouse, and you could hear these drones all the way in the lobby. And of course I signed immediately. I had a headache when I first came in. And I went upstairs two flights: It was John Cale, La Monte, Marian Zazeela — I don’t think it was Lou Reed — but it was Tony Conrad. And they were doing drones on these different instruments. I think I stayed about three hours, and [afterward] I felt great! Just amazing. So I was aware of La Monte’s music.”
Like Young and some other minimalists, though, Monk has not confined herself to standard classical-notation practices. She’s developed her art in lifelong-workshop fashion, with her own vocal and instrumental ensembles, which often learn Monk’s music orally. Since 2002, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has tried to draw Monk closer to the mainstream classical tradition — or to bring the classical tradition to her — with orchestral commissions which also contain parts for members of Monk’s group. “For the instrumentalists, the whole piece [has to be] totally written out,” she said. “There was no way around it—which, it’s very irritating.”
One reason that Monk herself doesn’t tend to rely on notation, during live performance, is more serious. “I was born with strabismus, which is a condition that, if I look out of both eyes at the same time, I see two images,” she tells me. “I can’t fuse and make one three-dimensional image. But my brain has compensated for it…My music is very spatial. It’s very much about sound and space. And I think that’s kind of a compensation for the fact that I’m actually looking out of one eye at a time.”
Monk’s occasional stretches into the realm of symphonic scoring has come back into her own small-ensemble music, too. “What happened from the orchestral work, which was wonderful, was I was less self-conscious about making the instrumental aspects more rich,” she says. “Because I guess I had always kept the instrumental aspect very clear and simple, because I wanted the voice to have the complexity. Since 2002, I really felt the next step would be: OK, how could I include strings with voices? That’s what’s been very exciting for me.”
Later this year, New York audiences will have a chance to hear a variety of these recent pieces, when Monk assumes a composer-in-residence chair at Carnegie Hall. (Two of her orchestral pieces, as well as a series of other works, will be presented over a six-concert series.) “One is a piece called Weave that I wrote two years ago for chamber orchestra, and which is, in my inimitable style, completely impractical,” Monk told me, before enacting all the roles in her early discussions with the St. Louis Symphony. “Do you have a chorus? Yes. Do you have a chamber orchestra? Yes. And I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’m gonna try chamber orchestra, chorus and then two of my soloists.’ And then I thought, ‘What have I got myself into?’ But what that piece was about was how the orchestra could sometimes be the chorus, the chorus could sometimes be the orchestra, and how they were woven together. And so there aren’t that many situations where you can get an orchestra and a chorus.”
Though Monk says it’s not clear whether Weave will be recorded during its presentation at Carnegie Hall — chiefly because “the orchestral thing is just a question of money — she ends our conversation on an joyful-sounding note. “St. Louis will play it, and that it is making me feel very happy — just to be able to hear it again!” Listeners who clamor, in the meantime, for a taste of Monk’s larger-ensemble writing should turn to that non-narrative opera, Atlas. Scored for an 11-piece group, it has all the catchy song-form of the pieces on Piano Songs, and also faithfully represents Monk’s large-scale ideas — first and foremost among them being the idea that you can learn to trust your own experience of her music.