Sing for the Moment: Meredith Monk's "On Behalf of Nature"


Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk leans in On Behalf of Nature. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Experimental vocalist and composer Meredith Monk did not make a hip-hop record. But a prime inspiration for her 2016 album, [|On Behalf of Nature] (ECM) is repurposing, the same creative construct that informed early hip-hop artists, who created beats and melodies from fragments of sampled sounds.

But Monk's decision to use repurposed things -- musical ideas and material objects -- was also a metaphorical extension of On Behalf of Nature’s main theme. As Monk wrote in the album’s liner notes about her compositional process:

"As I began working on the music for On Behalf of Nature, I asked myself the question: 'How would one make an ecological art work, one that didn’t make more waste in the world?' What came to mind was the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and his notion of bricolage: the process of assembling or making something from what is already at hand. In pre-industrial societies, one object could function in many different ways by an act of imagination."

Taking incomplete phrases and themes from her notebook, Monk assembled these fragments into what became On Behalf of Nature, a wordless meditation on our fragile ecosystem. In the age of climate change -- and climate deniers -- the piece shines a solar-powered spotlight on the issue without resorting to didacticism.

On Behalf of Nature isn’t just a recording, though; it’s also a full theatrical performance that the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble, which also includes instrumental musicians, has performed around the world since 2013. But to make sure the live performance doesn't pull focus from the music, the choreography includes simple gestural movements, plain recycled outfits -- “We did not buy anything for the costumes. Everything was [old clothes] used again and re-created into a new form,” Monk told Pulp -- and a minimalist stage show to accompany a musical landscape that’s more expansive than what’s heard on the CD.

A professional singer since 1965, Monk’s avant-garde influence is felt in modern artists as diverse as [|Joanna Newsom], [|Maja Ratkje], and [|Björk], who told Monk she heard Dolmen Music (1981) when she was about 16.

Now 74, Monk’s extended technique vocals, which include all sorts of whoops, clicks, trills, and primordial utterances, are still stunning.

We talked to Monk before her Ann Arbor residency, which begins with a Penny Stamps Lecture Series talk on January 17 at the Michigan Theater and culminates in a performance of On Behalf of Nature on January 20 at the Power Center, sponsored by University Musical Society.

Q: This month is the fourth anniversary of the debut performance of On Behalf of Nature. How has it changed in that time?
A: The beautiful thing about live performance is that it can change and grow and it’s a very organic process. So, I think performing it a number of times all over the world -- in a way, the changes are very internal. I don't think if you looked at a video of the form now and at that time there would be that much change. But I think the inner rhythms and the groundedness of the performers and that sense of interdependency of the performers has just grown.

Q: Since movement and gesture are such an important part of your stage artistry, how do you go about writing down or documenting these physical elements along with your compositions in order to convey the music and moves to the other performers?
A: Very good question. Most of the keyboard or instrumental writing, I can notate conventionally. But vocally and some of the textural aspects and the different kinds of ways of producing sound in the voice, I convey it through the oral tradition in rehearsal. The images, gestures, and movement really work hands-on in rehearsal. I have my own notes for those aspects in a notebook, and I present that material in rehearsal and shape it in rehearsal.

Q: On Behalf of Nature came out on CD last year, allowing more people to hear the work. But do you have a preference as to how the piece should ideally be experienced -- in performance or listening at home?
A: They’re two different experiences. A live performance piece, you are getting a multi-perceptual experience, so it’s the way these elements are woven together. Especially in On Behalf of Nature, music is the driving force and the images and movements are chosen to be very transparent and simple so you can literally hear the music. My question in On Behalf of Nature was, “When you have a piece that is very rich musically, how do you make a live performance piece that doesn’t call upon a habitual behaviour that we have as people that when you see something and music is playing at the same time, you actually think of the music as an accompaniment?” because we’re such a visual society. But I wanted you to hear the complexity of the music, so I deliberately made the visual elements and the movement elements very, very simple and very transparent so that you that literally can hear through those elements and you’re not stuck in the visual aspect of it.

Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble

Monk's cloister of musicians and vocalists performing On Behalf of Nature.

The album is a different experience. ... I rewrote it [for CD] ... What I love about the album and even just the music concerts, it allows you as a listener to have your own imagination. When I remake the forms for CD, I will compress a little bit in terms of time, because I’m weaving gesture and music together in the live performances; the duration might be a little bit longer. Then I’ll also reorchestrate and enrich forms for an album. For example, the “Water/Sky Rant” in the live performance has a lot of movement and the vocal aspect is not as developed and complex as what I did on the album. I’m trying to convey the same feeling you get as a listener, the same emotional palette when you listen to the album as when you see it.

Q: The performance reviews I’ve read for On Behalf of Nature say it offers little narrative and is open to interpretation by viewers/listeners. Was that ambiguity something you knew you wanted from the beginning even though the piece is making a strong comment about nature?
A: Very conscious. I was just not that interested in doing a kind of polemic or political tract about the ecology because I feel that is better done by a playwright or someone who works with a lot of text. I really wanted to convey, in a sense, the essence of the danger of what we’re losing, the interprocesses of nature, and the interdependence of human beings and nature. And just by the depth of that emotion -- this piece is kind of like an elegy -- that you’d leave [the performance] and maybe find your own way to work with that as a person in this world.

Q: You first started performing in 1964. How has your voice changed over the years?
A: I think my voice has gone down a little bit, but it still goes wide. It’s kind of a natural development in human beings. As Joan Baez beautifully said, “Gravity affects everything -- even your vocal chords.” So, there are still some pieces from the '70s that are in the repertoire when we do something like the quartet concerts or if I sing a solo concert and do some of the really early a capella pieces, even from the late '60s and from Songs from the Hill which was [recorded in] ’76 -- those are the a capella pieces -- and I still enjoy doing them. I didn’t feel too much change until maybe in my 60s in range, but basically, you just have to let go of the sadness of that and what’s really important is the impulse [to create]. And as an older performer, in a crazy way, I feel emotionally there’s even more of a depth [to the older pieces] than when I was young. You get in touch with what’s really essential in yourself and what you have to give, which is your life experience, and the music is just a vehicle for that. I was somewhat more virtuosic as a singer in my 20s, 30s, and even 40s, but when I hear those performances and then I hear one that I've done now, I have much more of a sense of letting space coming into it so you really can take it in emotionally. In a way, I wish I knew that more when I was a younger performer.

Meredith Monk performs On Behalf of Nature on January 20 at the Power Center, including a pre-show discussion in the lobby at 7:30 p.m.; [|tickets and more information here]. But Monk & Co. are busy for several days in Ann Arbor. Monk [|will be interviewed] at 5:10 p.m. on January 17 at the Michigan Theater as part of the [|Penny Stamps Speakers Series]. Longtime Monk collaborator Ellen Fisher leads a free dance workshop at the YMCA on January 20 at 2 p.m.; […|register here]. And Katie Geissinger from Monk's vocal ensemble will hold a vocal workshop on January 18 at 6:30 p.m. in room 2038 of the Earl V. Moore Building. Space is limited and singers must RSVP; [… information is available here].

Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.