A singer, a composer, a choreographer, a dancer, a writer, and more: Meredith Monk is among those protean creators whose body of work helped to blaze trails decades ago for any number of contemporary artists, and whose hard-won expressive liberties have provided pleasure, sustenance, and hope for admirers, acolytes, and listeners alike. Seldom less than busy, Monk is pursuing a busy agenda this fall.
On Behalf of Nature, an absorbing recorded realization of Monk’s recent stage work of the same title, came out Nov. 4 on ECM, Monk’s label home since 1981. On Nov. 17, she’ll present two shows shared with the Nepalese Buddhist nun and singer Ani Chöying Drolma at National Sawdust, presented in partnership with World Music Institute and preceded by a a joint public lecture at The New School on Nov. 15. And a concert series under Monk’s supervision, the first of its kind, began in October and runs throughout the season at Roulette in downtown Brooklyn.
Seated at her kitchen table on a fateful Tuesday morning in November, Monk spoke at length about those topics and more.
STEVE SMITH Everything that I’ve read so far concerning your newest piece and album, On Behalf of Nature, states that the work was inspired by, and in some sense a response to, ecology and climate change. How do you address such issues in what is essentially a non-narrative artistic discipline?
MEREDITH MONK: That was one of the challenges – How do you make a non-narrative piece about something like that, when it’s really a musical work? Part of the way I addressed it was the process of making the piece. My impulse was, how does one make an ecological work? Not necessarily only the content, but how in the process do you make an ecological work of art? So part of that was: no waste.
My first part of thinking about waste was how much money one spends on costumes or sets, and then you wear them a few times and then they go into storage. How do we address that? So my first impulse was to go into storage, take the old costumes, cut them up, and put them back together again in another way. And my costume designer, Yoshio Yabara, who I’ve worked with for many years, I was in conversation with him – but then I realized, actually, that those are still costumes, they’re still one step removed from us as human beings. So I felt that it would be more eloquent to have people bring in their own clothing, and then we actually create something else, something new from that clothing. We developed a visual scheme of color – there were three sections in the piece, and so it was a kind of color scale. People brought in their own clothes, and Yoshio made these beautiful, sculptural kinds of costumes with each person being a very distinctive shape, but throughout that color scale, we would change costumes to the next color but in the same shape.
What was very moving about that was that not only were we using something again – and of course this idea comes straight from Lévi-Strauss, this idea of bricolage, and I’d been thinking about that for many years – but that our own personal history was also part of that. In other words, I had clothing from the ’60s that we cut up as part of my costume. So in a way, our own stories were part of it. And then we did a beautiful installation in the lobby related to the piece, so people would be able to see [Yabara’s] beautiful drawings. He took each person and showed their costumes, and then each of us made a little statement on a Post-It underneath the picture of us, and we told about the history of those clothes.
I was originally inspired by this beautiful article by Gary Snyder, “Writers and the War Against Nature.” He talks about the shamanic tradition in ancient times, that a shaman figure – or you could say an artist, though maybe there were not artists at that time – had two functions in society at the time. One was to tell the truth of what was going on; the other was to embody creatures or energies or beings that did not have their own voice in song and dance. It’s a kind of embodiment to acknowledge the existence of beings that cannot speak for themselves. That was so interesting, and some of his early essays, even though they have ’70s language in them, they’re very prescient of what’s going on. He saw the way the whole thing was going to work, and he was an environmental activist as well as a Buddhist practitioner and a great poet and writer.
I had a piece called “Ecology”; in Songs of Ascension I ended up calling it “Fathom,” but I first called it “Ecology.” Somebody came up to me after I performed it and said, “You must do a piece about our world and the danger of losing nature.” It was like she threw the gauntlet down and I picked it up. Then when I was in the process of making the piece, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? How do you do a piece that’s non-narrative, as you said, non-pointy verbal politics – how do you do it? And then I thought, well, I did take on Impermanence, and I took on Mercy, so I guess I should try.
These years, I feel that part of my time left on earth is to be working in my art on something that you contemplate, that you’re not ever going to find the answer to. You’re never going to really be able to delineate mercy, and it’s kind of an oxymoron to do a piece about impermanence. But the process of doing that, to really, really contemplate something, that’s kind of what I did. Embodying the processes of nature – I mean, we’re not going “tweet, tweet,” running around as birds, but embodying the inner processes of nature in musical terms. The other part that was very complex for me is that I think a lot of my work is nature-based, anyway… not consciously so, but there’s something where I hook into these rhythmic kinds of processes, the way things come in and out.
In listening to this new piece, there are things about it that evoke a Native American animistic sensibility. That speaks to what you were saying: You’re not consciously evoking or imitating anything.
It’s more an appreciation or an acknowledgement. And I wouldn’t say that it’s only Native American, or hopefully not a cultural thing at all. It’s more, I think, presenting something that we are in danger of losing.
What I think I perceived is what you were saying about a sort of acknowledgement…
An acknowledgement, and you could say it’s Buddhist, as well. I was thinking of it as more Buddhist, because I was thinking of the interdependence of all sentient beings with all beings. From my point of view, it came much more from that: how we as human beings are so interdependent. Everything is interdependent, so if we’re destroying nature, then we’re destroying ourselves.
As you just explained that, I realized my assumption of a linkage to any Native American tradition probably came from a confluence of vocal chant and simple, primal flutes. But this cycle also includes some of your most ornate music, in those rich, beautiful confluences of vibraphone and harp.
It’s more orchestrated than anything I’ve done before on an album. It’s funny that you would say the flute, because the flute is actually Sri Lankan! There were two little sections that I wrote for Realm Variations – sometimes when I’m working on two pieces at the same time, things sort of flit back and forth. I had already started thinking about On Behalf of Nature when I did Realm Variations for the San Francisco Symphony. And there was some material that kind of overlapped, but it’s orchestrated in a totally different way, and of course the context is different.
Realm Variations I wrote for Cathy Payne, the San Francisco Symphony piccolo player, because she wanted me to write something for her as a soloist. I remember saying to Michael Tilson Thomas, “I hate piccolo!” [Laughs] And I remember saying to Cathy Payne, “I hate piccolo,” and she said, “I know what you mean, Meredith, don’t worry about it.” I’m talking to this beautiful instrumentalist, and I’m saying, I hate your instrument! I couldn’t believe that that came out of my mouth. But then I heard a tape of her, and I was like, oh my gosh, this is a person that can sing with that piccolo. So that little part at the beginning of On Behalf of Nature was originally written – and it was a much longer section, like a whole little prologue – for piccolo.
[Monk ensemble member] Bohdan [Hilash] doesn’t play piccolo, but he has that little Sri Lankan flute. Then I heard that in Sri Lanka, they use flute music to open the door to the gods – or open the door to the universe, you could say. That just seemed so beautiful: a little flute invocation to open the door to space, which is something in almost every piece I do.
Another thing that strikes me about On Behalf of Nature is that despite what we hear in the media about climate-change deniers and Chinese conspiracies, I sense in large part optimism and celebration. A spirit of joy permeates so much of this album.
And I hope also poignancy, because I know people who saw the show at BAM said they were crying in some places, and I think that that’s O.K. My rant – in a way I feel I almost should have called it a lament, maybe I made the wrong title, but it had that kind of sense of [thumps table with fist] “wake up” – but I rewrote it for the album. The structure was a little different for the live piece. The beginning had more of that anger/rant thing, and then the end was more, you could say, a lament or lullaby, something like that. But musically, just to listen to it, it didn’t work, so I rewrote it. You actually hear that more grieving lullaby at the beginning, the more rant-like quality in the middle, and then it goes back to the lullaby, which you could say has a kind of optimism about it. But, you know, it’s also that we can cry. I feel like we have to also grieve the ignorance of the human animal, grieve the ignorance and the kind of carelessness. Art is a way that we become more emotionally intelligent, I think. And we need it, and we become more human.
Your process of assembling the work involved combing through notebooks of ideas that you had preserved. Was there a specific quality or character you were looking for in the material you extracted to work with?
That’s interesting… I’m not sure. You know, I’ve just got these notebooks, my jottings, music notes and phrases. I think I just played through some stuff, mostly stuff from the ’90s that I didn’t finish. They’re like sketches, something like that, and maybe I wasn’t ready to develop them at that time, or maybe didn’t even have the skill. Part of the thing is that, having been able to do the orchestra pieces – the one for Michael in the early 2000s, Possible Sky; Weave, for the St. Louis Symphony – I’m learning about instruments as singers, and my ensemble is very rich instrumentally. It’s a beautiful thing to go back to old work and realize you’re ready to work on it now, or you just didn’t see where it was going at that time.
The idea proved solid, but you had to wait until you had the technique to make it manifest.
Yeah. And then coming from the Eastern European Jewish tradition, even though I didn’t come so much from that training, but maybe it’s in my genes: Don’t waste anything! [Laughs] Use everything! I hate the idea that all this stuff is just sitting there, and I never did anything with it.
Which ties in with your theme of not wasting anything in the ecological sense.
Exactly. I gave myself permission to do that. My thing had always been new, new, new, new, have to start every piece zero, zero, zero, no expectation, no past – I’m just dealing with the world of this piece. But this time I gave myself permission to cycle, to spiral, because that was a theme of how I was going to work on this thing.
ECM Records is in residence this season at National Sawdust, doing a concert series that starts on December 3. A few years ago I had the opportunity to watch you working with that label’s founder, Manfred Eicher, at a session here in New York. Can you talk about the impact he has had on your artistic evolution: not just as the person who makes and distributes your records, but also as an active collaborator?
[Percussionist and Monk colleague] Colin Wolcott was the person that sent Dolmen Music to Manfred in the first place. I had actually sent “Tablet” to him in 1978 or something like that, and he liked it very much. He knew my work, but he was not ready to have a singer-composer on the label. Then when Colin sent him Dolmen Music, it did seem like the right thing at the right time. And I feel like in a way, recording for that label changed my life at that point – really, in the ’80s, we were kind of like a rock & roll band in Europe. It was really great.
There’s always challenges working with anybody collaboratively, but I feel that we’re kind of kindred spirits. I can give you an example on this album: I called him up and said, I really think there has to be 30 seconds less between number 11 and number 12… I don’t remember the numbers, but I was going through it with a fine-toothed comb, the timing of it and everything. And he said, Meredith, I’ll be glad to do it, but you and I are probably the only people left who care about this, because people just have their shuffle. We’ve always cared about this dramaturgical idea: an album as a world, an album as an entity. I think of On Behalf of Nature as a unit; you can take the things apart, but if you actually look at the structure, there are a lot of short sections that are nice to listen to by themselves, but are really part of something – it’s a weave, and you’ll hear a part come back again.
I always feel like I’m a complete dinosaur, and I don’t care. We really love the object. You just don’t feel that same thing when you have it on the Internet. I love my iPod, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but to make a work of art, we very carefully put it together visually, my writing very carefully done. We come from the same place in terms of making a beautiful art object, so in that way we’re totally kindred spirits.
I wrote a funny thing about my first session for ECM. I’d never met [Manfred] before. Colin Wolcott was still alive at that time. Manfred came to breakfast at the hotel, and Colin could see that we just hit it off right away – phew! [Laughs] So we went into the studio and I laid down my first track of “Gotham Lullaby.” It was the morning, and I said, don’t you hear how my voice cracks at this place, and I’m a little under here and there, pitch-wise. He said, “No, I think it’s magic.” I said, can’t you hear that I’m a little under, and I’ve got a little crack in there? And he said, “Yes. You can lay down another one; I’m going to have coffee.” So I laid down one that was technically perfect – and it just didn’t have magic, and I had to give in.
A lot of the time I can’t even listen to the albums, and this time I was so sick with a flu that I could hardly sing. But I always know that he goes for life. Life itself.
I was just thinking: What is one thing that ECM Records in their extremely wide variety all have in common? And it’s that they are all documents of living, breathing people doing things in real time.
Living, breathing people. He doesn’t edit it out to kingdom come to get it perfect, but then it’s dead emotionally.
You’re curating a concert series at Roulette this season, which started in October with an event featuring David Behrman and continues with a diverse mix of artists. How did that come to pass?
Oh, I’ve been enjoying it so much. Jim [Staley, Roulette founder] asked me, and I’d never done it – it’s my virgin attempt at being a curator. And then, who do I know, and how do I make a series that has a big scope? Basically, I guess it was sort of a group of mavericks, and it’s a pretty wide range, from David Behrman – who’s the first person I thought of, because he’s such a wonderful composer and he just doesn’t get enough hearing. It was a wonderful concert, and it was full, packed.
Don Byron, who I think is a wonderful composer; he’s right at the edge of jazz and classical, like John Hollenbeck [percussionist and Monk ensemble member]. John was another person I thought of, but he had just done a concert at Roulette. Theo [Bleckmann] doing the Kate Bush project: I think it’s one of the best things he ever did. Gorgeous. The arrangements are so fantastic. And in December there’s Missy Mazzoli and GABI.
Ellen Fisher is going to do an evening – she’s a dancer, and it’s wonderful that Jim said, Why don’t you include one dance person, because Roulette does have a dance series. She’s magnificent, and doesn’t get a chance that much to be seen. The pianist Robin Holcomb, she’s one of my super-favorites. So I guess I just went for my favorites! And then I wanted to get the babies in there, ACJW, though they’re not called that anymore – it’s Ensemble Connect. They did a marvelous job of my piece “Backlight” – my gosh, they played it to death. But I did say, please, let’s play living composers. And then ACME String Quartet, they’re so fabulous. So I tried to get a real sweep.
You have an evening coming up this week at National Sawdust with Ani Chöying Drolma. I understand that the two of you met at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, but how did this joint appearance come about?
World Music Institute initially asked me to share an evening with a Tuvan vocal ensemble, but I’m in the process of working on a new piece, so anything that was going to be interrupting me, I felt like I shouldn’t be taking on a big thing. I was thinking, who in the world-music world do I have a connection to? And I suggested Ani Chöying Drolma. The connection was that [guitarist, composer, and ECM recording artist] Steve Tibbetts was doing work with her in the late ’90s, and he sent me a tape of her. I heard that voice, and I was sitting in this kitchen almost sobbing. You can hear authenticity in a person’s voice in three notes. The quality was so moving. And I also loved what Steve was doing with it. Usually I don’t like it when people do something with ethnic music and then put something behind it to make it more palatable to the Western ear, but what he did was so beautiful, so original, and so atmospheric.
Then my partner died in 2002, and I couldn’t listen to music for like six months, but the only music I could listen to was hers. It’s also because I’m a practitioner and there was something about hearing an Ani sing. She got to her music through being an Ani, but I got to Buddhism through being a musician, so we sort of came from the opposite place. Then I was performing with Theo, doing Facing North for the opening of the new theater at the Walker in 2005, and she came backstage, and she was kind of stunned.
She’s a very down-to-earth person. I said, I just want to tell you that I really love your music and for a while couldn’t listen to anything else, and she said, maybe I’ve gotten merit somehow! [Laughs] I told her that her music was all I could listen to when my partner died, and we both got teary. That was the connection we made.
The sad thing is since I have an ensemble and I’m doing all my writing for ensemble, I don’t really have a lot of new material as a soloist. But Katie [Geissinger] and Allison [Sniffin] will join me; we’ll do the “Spider Web Anthem” from On Behalf of Nature, and we’ll do two or three things together as a trio.
Prior to the concert, you and Ani Chöying Drolma will participate in a public talk concerning connections between spirituality and art.
I have to be totally honest with you: It’s hard to talk about art as a spiritual practice. But it is interesting that I’m a composer, and she’s doing traditional music. I came as a musician and a composer and an artist to Naropa [University], teaching voice – it was 1975. I knew about Trungpa Rinpoche. I knew about what he was doing, because he was a Rinpoche but he was also a poet. He started Naropa to combine Buddhist thinking and spiritual practice with the arts. He was friends with Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg, and they had the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics there. It was an amazing place at that time.
I was asked if I would come teach voice and movement, and perform. I performed “Our Lady of Late,” the piece with glass and voice, which you could say is a very contemplative piece, and I just noticed the way people responded to it. There was no problem about something that had space in it, and that was not going to be entertaining in a conventional sense. That’s how I started opening my mind, because at that time I don’t think I was letting anything into my life that wasn’t through my art – I was so devoted.
I started listening to his talks while I was there – with some skepticism, because I didn’t like organized anything. I hovered about for a while, but at a certain point I just said, well, you know, this makes more sense to me than anything else.
I understand your reluctance to put into words the connections you feel between your art and spirituality, but you said some things in a Lion’s Roararticle that helped to clarify matters for me: “The parallels between dharma and making art are many,” and “Making art is a bodhisattva activity.”
The devotion is the same.
Devotion, discipline, and intense belief.
Yes, exactly. I can say that that’s absolutely true. And playfulness, and also no expectation. I also will talk a little bit about process, because in a way it’s like meditation process, where even sitting at the piano and I’m scared to death, and then taking a little at a time. In meditation, you always come back to your breath. Have you seen my writing that’s called “Voice: The Soul’s Messenger”?
I have, yes.
I talk about how it’s very similar to meditation practice, because as a creator you have to have that same sense of patience, and that you just come back and try again. You just keep trying again, with no expectation.
Meredith Monk and Ani Chöying Drolma perform at National Sawdust on Nov. 17 at 7 and 9:30 p.m., presented in partnership with World Music Institute; www.nationalsawdust.org