Essential Simplicity: Meredith Monk premieres new compositions to the Bay Area next month
By Lou Fancher
Dispelling any notion that the Mills College merger with Northeastern University announced in September 2021 means the Oakland-based higher education institution will slink quietly into the night—or the college’s commitment to cultivating women’s leadership subsumed or eclipsed—the 2021–22 Mills Music Now Concert Series strikes an impressive profile. Among the gems on the fall schedule are pianist Sarah Cahill’s The Future is Female (Oct. 30); a concert with Mendi and Keith Obadike (Nov. 20); and—in a coup for the Bay Area music scene—composer, singer, director/choreographer of new opera, theater, films and multimedia installations Meredith Monk. Monk’s interdisciplinary Indra’s Net was to have premiered in November 2020. Delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, a concert iteration of the multi-year project culminates in two premiere performances Nov. 12–13.
Hailed worldwide as a pioneer in site-specific work and, since 1965, exploring the human voice as a multifaceted instrument, Monk is the recipient of three of the highest honors bestowed to a living artist in the United States: induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2019), the 2017 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize and a 2015 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. Arriving in Oakland with countless awards and accomplishments—the MacArthur Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, three “Obies,” two “Bessies,” named one of National Public Radio’s 50 Great Voices, 2012 Doris Duke Artist Award, 2011 Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts, appearances with major orchestras, ensembles, founder of the Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, maker of a dozen recordings and more—Monk is the subject of two books and holds honorary doctorates from nearly a dozen higher education institutions. Indra’s Net is the third part of a trilogy of music-theater works exploring human beings’ interdependent relationship with nature and follows Monk’s On Behalf of Nature (2013) and Cellular Songs (2018).
Improbably, considering Monk’s monolithic six decades of work, simplicity is, has been, and forever remains its essence. While listening to a single vowel sung in a work composed by the interdisciplinary artist, I travel to six different geographic or metaphorical locations and hear sounds synced to the ancient vibratory vocalizations of the first homo sapiens to walk vertically on planet Earth. Often, in a singular passage my capacity to hear bursts wide, inviting sounds of a futuristic musical diaspora as voices or instruments project impressions of industrial cacophony, extraterrestrial flight, global languages and inflections, the many textures of nature and even the imagined audible emanations of galaxies in motion, of planets yet explored or resonances merely imagined.
When we speak on the phone on Sept. 20, I ask what she expects will always be true of her work. “Wow, that’s a beautiful question, let me think,” she says. “You will always feel that the person who made it is aware of what they’re doing. It has been essentialized to what is really necessary to be there. Perhaps the first solution is not best. It means throwing away what’s not necessary. It’s a process of refinement. I try to do that in every work.”
Expanding on essentialism, Monk describes her work and life as processes of continuity. Each new piece introduces a unique world in which different principles manifest themselves. “When it comes easily, I feel these pieces exist in another dimension and I’m just bringing them to earth.” While working on Indra’s Net—which is part of a trilogy—she continued to aim for it to be unique in and of itself, and yet the three works as a whole allow for a river of continuity that winds its way through separate, distinct landscapes.
I ask Monk if connectivity is ever-present in her body of work or if pieces are sometimes simply islands, stand-alone pieces. And what distinguishes a piece that springboards a new work? “A section in one piece will move into the next, because I haven’t fulfilled that concept, or sometimes an idea seems to spiral back to an earlier piece but is meant to manifest in a different way,” she says. “But my overall process of working and life is continuity and trying to grow and learn, even after all these years.”
The architecture of Monk’s compositional structures is predominantly elemental, stripped down-to-the-bone, to the essence. Even when there are layers and the work includes movement, film, and other production elements—they often do—the music is streamlined, simultaneously ancient and contemporary and therefore timeless, accessible. At its core, it is the voice and breath we humans possess and have the power to project.
Indra’s Net stands in its greater complexity as counterpoint to Monk’s signature approach. The piece was workshopped at Mills College in fall 2018 and 2019 with Bay Area musicians, and at ArtLab—at Harvard University—in spring 2020. It is based on the ancient Buddhist/Hindu legend of an enlightened king, Indra, who stretches a net across the universe with a jewel placed at each intersection. The jewels are reflective, indicating the interdependence of all living things. The Mills production features an intergenerational and multicultural cast including Monk joined by the Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble and a chamber orchestra consisting of players primarily from the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I’ve been working on Indra’s Net since 2010,” she says. “I started working on the music in 2014. What I’m loving, as far as the process is concerned, is using orchestral groups. This has a 16-member orchestra and eight of us singers. I’m enjoying orchestrating, because I didn’t come from that conservatory background. When I write the original music it’s like drawing in black-and-white; but orchestrating is like coloring. I’m just thrilled.”
Within the multiple layers and realities of Indra’s Net, there are instrumental sections, a cappella solos or group pieces, and passages with both instruments and voices together in which the voices exist as backdrops—only for the instruments to fall away, leaving the voices to stand alone. There are inversions and reversals of form. “The way things weave is exciting to me,” Monk says. “I’ve been working with orchestras since 2001, after Michael Tilson-Thomas—after five years of trying to convince me to make an orchestra piece—convinced me. This piece is the most extensive and has the most variety of the orchestrated pieces I’ve been trying to make.”
In contrast to the majority of her larger works, the production includes minimal movement. I myself cannot resist moving, or at least swaying, when captivated by Monk’s mesmerizing compositions. She explains that because of the pandemic reducing in-person rehearsing and development as originally planned, the Mills performances are a music-concert version of what will be a large interdisciplinary piece. “Eventually, this will be a piece in which there will be sections of music, movement with music, movement with no sound, and films,” she says. “I’m making it in concert form, so it has to be in one linear form for now. How much gesture and staging is allowed in, and how much is inappropriate? Usually when I make large works that include these other elements, I distill it down for a tour or recording into a compressed form. Here, because of Covid and limitations, I’m going the other way.”
Monk says her relationship to time was altered by the pandemic. “Yeah, I’ve had to learn to be more patient. It’s been a meditation on patience,” she says, then laughs. “It’s been step-by-step. Part of the discipline is that you don’t lose the thread of the piece when so much time goes by. I’ve always said I’m a patient person underlying it all, but in the short term, moment-to-moment, I’ve been speedier. Now, I’m learning to be patient, period. Otherwise, it’s not going to be accomplished.”
Patience, stretched, was applied to creating a video of one section that she hopes will be something “you won’t look at 20 years from now and say, ‘Oh, that was made during the pandemic.’ It’s going to be a work of art that stands by itself.” It took four months just to rehearse and record the sound. “I had 16 instrumentalists almost totally on the West Coast, my singers were in New York City or East Coast except one living in L.A., and we were rehearsing and recording online,” she says. “Then it took three months to do post-production aligning. We were literally performing together while recording; not separately while listening to tracks of each other. It was important to me that it be live. Listening to it, you would never know it’s been recorded online.”
The video component required another six months. “We couldn’t rehearse in the same room at the same time. I had to shoot people one by one, because it was in the middle of the pandemic. Putting it together was almost like an animation process. That was me-ti-cu-lous, oh boy,” she tells me.
Two cycles of the film will be shown as an installation at a location that is a five-minute walk away from the concert hall on the Mills campus. For years, Monk has produced pre-show films she calls “video shrines”; she says they’re a preparation, an optional warmup to entering the mentality and atmosphere of a piece.
Another way to enter Monk’s ethos, if it were possible, would be to visit her New York City live-work studio. Written on a bulletin board or multiple sheets of paper so she can step back for an overview, large interdisciplinary works are mapped. “There are layers and materials: What’s my music? I ask. I then break that down into what is instrumental, vocal. What’s my movement? Are there any text ideas? What are my lighting ideas? I look at them like a chart. From there, I start weaving.” Even so, everything is predicated on Monk’s voice and physicality alone.
About the elegiac On Behalf of Nature, the trilogy’s first work, she says, “I started working on little a cappella pieces. I worked alone and laid tracks, making the counterpoint on my own voice.” With Cellular Songs, metaphors involving cooperation and generosity delved into the body, into the fundamental unit of life, which is a cell. Indra’s Net, she says, aims at interdependency and includes a darkness that echoes our current reality. “Ironically, a few months before the pandemic started, I told one of the performers I felt there needed to be a disease or plague because the interdependency can have a dark as well as a radiant side,” she says. “Three months later, the pandemic began, so we saw as organisms how we are related to stars, animals, our planets and other planets. If we do something, it has consequences.”
Leaving behind, for another day, other topics we agree hold equal fascination, I ask Monk about the preservation of her work. If, 40 years from now—barring an incredible scientific discovery—she is no longer alive and making art, what will represent a true recreation or remounted version of her work? “It’s something I’m thinking a lot about; particularly the music, which seems like it would be passed on easier than the pieces with all the interdisciplinary movements and elements,” she says. “But even with the music, the way I work comes from the oral tradition. In that way it’s like dance, and the best way to pass it on is teaching it rather than looking at a score. You see notes, the bar lines, but you don’t see the principles of how it goes together and the flow. So it’s complicated and elusive.”
Perhaps answers can be found in returning to the voice and to breath, to silences and spaciousness, to percussion produced by human teeth, or vowels birthed into new life by jumping up and down while vocalizing or lingering on a single vowel. Regardless of how or from where it comes, I hope the music we hear arrives sculpted with Monkian essentialism.