The Stranger vs. Bumbershoot
Meredith MonkMon Sept 5, McCaw Hall, 4–5:30 pm.
After a late-night opera rehearsal in college, I got into my buddy's car and he popped in a CD. What I heard were two unaccompanied voices phased just seconds away from each other, rising and falling a painful microtone apart. They wailed away on nonsense syllables: "Niaangghaaaao." I sat silently afterward, haunted by the sound. At that moment I knew there was something about music that my professors weren't teaching.
The voices, it turns out, belonged to Meredith Monk and ensemble-mate Katie Geissinger. Nine years later in 2005, Monk is celebrating 40 years in the performing arts, during which she has been a pioneer and purveyor of "interdisciplinary performance," working to intersect opera, film, dance, and installations in arresting new ways. Her 1991 work Atlas—generally regarded as an opera—does have a loose, dreamlike narrative but contains almost no text. Instead the performers hoot, chant, and sing gibberish that simply provides threads and loops for the larger mosaic.
The gibberish is part of the her other great innovation—"extended vocal technique." Clumsy name, but it connotes the extremities to which Monk and her ensembles take their voices. The technique draws—in a way that almost all of Monk's work does—from nearly every human and nonhuman interaction imaginable. At times the members of the ensembles channel various nameless personages from throughout time—once ancient grunting shamans, now cooing babies, now multi-tongued extraterrestrials. Monk explores the depths and heights of the vocal mechanism, and even when employing the tightest, most-constricted sounds, she maintains a level of reflexivity that gives the impression that her voice is being fed to her straight out of the ether.
It sounds pretentious, but the extended vocal technique, with all its plunging and braying, is not intended to be novel. It's a tool to exercise the idea that certain vocal functions resulted in, and are a result of, the pervasive modalities of man's relationship with his environment and himself. It asks and answers the question of why people of all races and eras have laughed loudly and healthily when they found something funny. Or why all peoples everywhere hum and whistle but pay little mind to why doing so is also pleasurable. There appears to be a binding force through music and sound that resonates in and through all people, and this force is decidedly extralinguistic. In September 2001, Björk chose to perform Monk's wordless "Gotham Lullaby" just hours after being informed of the events at the World Trade Center. The concert was in Stockholm—thousands of miles away from New York—but the plangent tones of her voice on Monk's melody and broken chords spoke directly to the foreign audience and was so affecting and appropriate precisely because there was no text to tie it to a particular politic; the tragedy and tribute was shared by everyone everywhere.
While Monk is at home in small solo works like "Gotham Lullaby," it is in small ensembles that her work comes to life. When two or more are gathered in Monk's name, they often achieve the "universal voice"—that sweet spot in music where every part is so in accord with the whole that identities, pitch, timbre, and even gender become undifferentiated. I expect more than a few of these moments for Monday's trio of Monk, Geissinger, and Theo Bleckmann. More fascinating is that Monk rarely writes down musical notation for her vocal works. Instead she and her ensembles rely on a rich and intuitive oral tradition to pass along melodies, harmonies, tempi, and rhythms. This could be why even the most "composed" moments of Monk's work sound like free association. Likewise Monk brings an intellectual order to a chaotic barrage of sounds so that the instinctual brawn is braced by a considerate treatment that requires the listener's brain be engaged as much as the ear.
I still don't know what that "something" was that I heard in the car that night. If there's a word for it, I don't want to know it. And I suspect that Monk doesn't either. She is merely a willing vessel—a messenger and curator for some intelligent design in the musical multiverse unfolding through her body and voice: "There are three heavens and hells... What do the three heavens and hells look like? They are all the same."