Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, Meredith Monk: Piano Songs

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

Contributor
on 05.06.14 in Reviews

Meredith Monk avoids easy pegging: She dances, she makes films, she stages non-narrative opera and invents new extended-vocal-technique languages. Her albums of contemporary classical music, issued through ECM’s “New Series” ever since 1981′s Dolmen Music, have been an influence on contemporary musicians like Bjork, among others. She presents a lot for music fans to process, and if you find yourself intimidated by the breadth of her three-dimensional artistry but still seek a way in…well, then you might need this album.

Preserving the quality of Monk’s music without her own performing expertise

Piano Songs is the first-ever album to feature Monk’s music, but not her own singing (or else her trained ensemble). This 48-minute program for two pianos, performed (and, in some cases, arranged) by the pianist Bruce Brubaker and Ursula Oppens, helps get an independent look at Monk’s sound world, outside the realm of the composer’s own performance practices. And damn if it isn’t a gateway drug, too — even for listeners who think they’ve got Monk’s discography sorted already. (Monk’s hardcore fans are likely to be sent back digging through deep-cut material, after encountering some of the rarer pieces here.)

On selections like “Ellis Island” or “Windows in 7,” there are hints of the piano music of Erik Satie, the playful French impressionist whose piano pieces Monk studied as a child. (Monk has also played his piano works, and danced in his ballet Relâche, in her professional career.) Other works offer even more surprising detours. On a track like “Paris” — originally part of a half-hour performance piece that was shown on public television in the early ’80s — you may, at first, see why Monk is often (somewhat lazily) lumped in with the early minimalists. The tonal language and motivic repetition are there, to start. Though, after the brief appearance of a more agitated-sounding figure, there’s suddenly a splattering intrusion of post-Cecil Taylor cluster-chord playing. These clouds spiral in, do their damage, and then disappear. Unlike early minimalism, this isn’t process music. And, in such a moment, you may better understand Monk’s inter-disciplinary biography — how her dancing and choreography feed naturally into these acrobatic and intuitive-seeming texture changes.

Elsewhere, a the stomping piano patterns of a track like “Folksong” — which requires clapping and shouting from the pianists as well — hint at Monk’s colloquial fascinations (in addition to proving how earworm-y her writing can get). The end of the record moves across between different decades of Monk’s writing, and seems to make a point about the breadth of her career. “Totentanz” — a relatively late and complex item in Monk’s catalog (originally scored as a chamber piece) — carries enough dynamic- and tempo-pivots to align it with the American Maverick tradition going back to Charles Ives. (In fact, San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is given to programming the music of both composers.) Whether playing solo or together, Oppens and Brubaker faithfully preserve the quality of Monk’s music without her own performing expertise — no small feat. They do such a tremendous job, however, it’s tough to imagine that any newcomers to the Meredith Monk discography would stop here.