In Her Own Voice
Meredith Monk is an artistic visionary, celebrating her 50th season of creating and performing work in New York City. She invented a new style with her vocal innovations, and her fusion of sound and movement is as daring now as it was when she made her professional debut in 1964.
This season, she is holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, where her upcoming performances include collaborations with colleagues from the worlds of contemporary, classical, jazz, and electronic music, in addition to the full forces of the St. Louis Symphony. In conversation with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall’s director of artistic planning, Ms. Monk discusses her compositional process and her evolution from writing for her acclaimed Vocal Ensemble to composing for large instrumental groups.
For 50 years, your work has encompassed multiple art forms to include more visual and experiential elements.
Music has always been the heart of my work, but I do have that other branch, which is this weaving together of other elements like visual images, movement, theater, and film with the music. But I love the concert format, choosing these different pieces from different times and putting them together. To me, it’s as theatrical as a work that has other elements. It’s like making a wonderful meal—you have an appetizer, the salad, the main course, the dessert.
You have largely composed for the human voice, though you have more recently branched out into orchestral writing. How does writing for vocalists influence your writing for instrumentalists?
Sometimes I compose on the piano, which I really enjoy doing. But sometimes I feel that the pieces that I create using my voice are the strongest, even when they’re written for instrumentalists. My idea over the years has been that the voice is an instrument. That was my early way of thinking about the voice. I had a kind of revelation in the mid ’60s that the voice was an eloquent language in itself and that it did not have to have text. Within it were male, female, different ages, different ways of approaching sound, landscapes, characters. That was a big breakthrough for me. So I always approached it in an instrumental kind of way. And now, since I’ve been working with all these instrumental groups, I think of the instruments as voices. And then with a piece like WEAVE for Two Voices, Chamber Orchestra, and Chorus—which the St. Louis Symphony performs on March 20—the idea was that the relationship between the orchestra, chorus, and soloists is constantly shifting in terms of foreground/background, blend, and dynamic.
“I felt that the voice could do everything, but now I’ve learned that I can work with instruments as voices.”
The experience of writing for an orchestra must have been quite a departure from your usual compositional process.
My first orchestral piece was for the New World Symphony, and that was a really beautiful process because I came for two years and did workshops with the young instrumentalists there. That was more the way that I work, where I was bringing material in and I was letting them play it, then I was seeing how it worked, and they were showing me some of their extended techniques comparable to what I do vocally. So that was a give and take. Some of those young people said that they were so happy to have been in on the whole process, to see how these shards of material ended up coming to be a larger work.
What about notating with precision for a large ensemble versus allowing a more organic development in performance, as you’ve done in many other works?
I have to notate every note for an orchestral piece, so that’s a different process for me. I sometimes think my best pieces are not capable of being notated. I’ve been working on notating some choral pieces for Musica Sacra and also a French chorus named Mikrokosmos. There’s one piece called Return to Earth—for that, we’ll likely end up with two different maps and a transcription because there’s really no other way to notate it. It has a lot to do with listening to the other layers and to the series of musical events. It takes a different kind of listening. It’s a very hands-on kind of music. How do you show how that works, how that lines up? In a way, it’s music that should be taught in the oral tradition. But I’m trying really hard to figure out how to make it so that other people can perform it. At least a score, of sorts, is a way of delineating what the process of the piece should be.
What prompted you to expand your musical palette beyond the human voice?
I think what’s been really interesting for me is that for many years I felt that the voice could do everything, but now I’ve learned that I can work with instruments as voices. I think what’s been so wonderful about working with these instrumental forms is that the richness then comes back into the music I write for the Vocal Ensemble. I guess I always felt that I wanted to leave a lot of space for the complexity of the vocal work, so I would make the accompanying instrumental aspect be very simple and transparent. And now I see that both aspects can be equally complex. It’s very exciting for me.
How do you think these years in New York City have stylistically influenced you?
When I was younger, my big influences were Satie, Mompou, Bartók, and the Stravinsky children’s pieces. I loved that very transparent and to-the-bone kind of piano writing. But as this anniversary year has approached, I’ve been trying to think about writing a memoir. I started to wonder, “What was my first sound? What’s the first sound memory that I have?” Growing up in New York, it’s a garbage truck. But sometimes I think that my music is a kind of antidote to New York, mostly because it’s very pastoral. Usually, I think my work is about either nature or the universe. So the city doesn’t inspire me that much sound-wise, except for some particular pieces. For example, there’s one piece called urban march (shadow). I wrote it in 2001 as part of mercy, and we premiered it in July of that year. And then 9/11 happened. The strange thing is that my image was of these empty streets at night near Wall Street. I have no idea why. Sometimes I feel like artists are antennae. They really can kind of sense, even predict, what’s going to happen. I always feel that artists are connected to the world in an essential way.
After 50 years, to what to do you attribute your longevity?
It’s amazing on some levels, kind of astounding actually. I’ve been very lucky that my voice has held out. I have a wonderful teacher with whom I’ve been working for the last 30 years. I’ve just been very, very fortunate that my voice is still healthy. And I’ve always liked the idea of seeing what an 80-year-old voice will be like. The beauty of being a composer is that you can really find aspects and qualities within your own instrument as life goes on.