Over the last four decades, composer Meredith Monk has achieved a virtually iconic status in the world of contemporary music. An artist whose style defies definition, she combines music, movement, film, location, and aural tradition to create memorable experiences that have inspired audiences and peers alike.
A musical pioneer, Monk broke new ground through her exploration of extended vocal techniques. Treating the voice as an instrument (rather than as a tool for conveying language), the composer's style of singing experiments with different textures, colors, characters, and landscapes. It develops a way of storytelling that, while reminiscent of an ancient form of expression, is also revolutionary in its imaginative and introspective use of sound.
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in the 1960s, Monk rapidly became a fixture in the New York new-music scene, experimenting with combinations of music, movement, film, and location to create groundbreaking works that often took place far from a traditional concert hall. Monk's solos are inspired and emotionally raw; her large, site-specific pieces have become the stuff of artistic legend (she's created works for such places as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Roosevelt Island). She's received acclaim for her films, including Ellis Island and Book of Days (which aired on PBS, was shown at the New York Film Festival, and was chosen for the Whitney Biennial), and she has appeared at and has been commissioned by some of the world's most prominent venues and organizations, including the Houston Grand Opera, the New World Symphony, and the Kronos Quartet. Now she is working with the publisher Boosey & Hawkes to preserve her work through a catalogue of more traditional scores. And she has a loyal fan base that returns to see her again and again.
"I've been very lucky over the years," says Monk. "Somehow, when I first came to New York it was a wonderful time‹it was that exciting time when there was the 'Downtown' world of artists from different disciplines exploring new possibilities, and in a sense there was kind of a built-in audience. And I think that my audience has stayed with me over the years‹it pretty much has been a word-of-mouth kind of audience."
Monk is currently celebrating 40 years of making music, and she, along with Carnegie Hall's Artistic Advisor Ara Guzelimian, developed the Making Music marathon concert, which takes place on November 6. Monk suggested the idea (she'd recently had one at Mills College in California); WNYC's John Schaefer became involved as curator; and the team decided to have the afternoon feature other musicians and composers interpreting Monk's work‹a totally new concept for her.
In addition to Monk and her ensemble, performers will include some of new music's most notable names: John Zorn, Terry Riley, DJ Spooky, pianists Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Alarm Will Sound, harpist Zeena Parkins, and the Icelandic rock star Björk.
"One of the things that I'm very interested in with this concert is that it's very risky," says Monk. "I have no idea what some people are going to do with this music and whether it is even going to sound like my music at all. The element of surprise is very exciting."
In January Monk will hold a professional training workshop for The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, working with 15 participants who will be coached by five of her ensemble members. Since her work is in the aural tradition, Monk realizes the importance of working closely with those who want to perform it.
"My work is a balance between freedom and discipline," she explains. "It's very intricate and very precise. Within that precision there is freedom. But you have to know what the parameters are, and you have to know what the principles are. That's what's interesting about the workshop, because as much as we can, we'll pass on the real spirit and the real principles of how we sing this."
As much as she hopes that others will continue to perform her music, Monk is aware that there are some aspects of it that she's unable to teach. For those who have been to her performances or worked with her, there is the realization that, although the music will live on, the true experience‹the living art‹will only be around as long as she is around.
Meredith Monk's CD Mercy is now available in the Shop at Carnegie Hall. The Shop is located on the First Tier level of Stern Auditorium, adjacent to the Rose Museum.
Karissa Krenz is a frequent contributor to Playbill.