Thursday, May 17, 2007
Meredith Monk. May 16 2007. Kanbar Hall, San Francisco
Meredith Monk is an avant-garde aborigine. Now in her 60s she reinvents every imaginable kind of sound, whether it’s Tuva throat singing, Pygmy ululation, Bantu clicking, Balkan harmonies or the rhythms and noise of the natural world. Lucas Hoving used to tell the story of Monk in comp class at Sarah Lawrence where he taught and she went to college. When he asked his students to invent a movement phrase with a body part leading, for instance, the dancers would perform recognizable modern dance shapes, aping Graham or Limon. Monk, instead, he said, cocked her head to the side, yanked her ear up, and in a high-pitched clutter of syllables led herself across the dance floor like a wayward child being handled by an angry teacher. Hoving roared with laughter and knew instantly that Monk had a rare and magical imagination. In the ensuing decades she’s built a sound landscape so richly textured and vividly colored, so imaginatively wild and weird, that a program of Monk is both playful and also mystically austere. It reminds me of a laughing crow on the New Mexico mesa or in an otherwise empty cave.
As the intimate evening got underway in the packed Kanbar Hall, she said that the voice is the first instrument, and it is the perfect instrument to transverse gender, age, species and state. She was dressed in a simple, elegant red dress overlaid by a sheer black handkerchief-cut jacket for the first set, her long braids falling behind her, her face a mix of elf and priestess. In the second half she changed to white, and the vibrations of the color added apt counterpoint to her first playful then more mournful sets.
It was an evening of many old favorites and an audience of dance and music family—literally as well as artistically: one song was dedicated to her niece, who was in the audience. The concert opened with excerpts from “Songs from the Hill” (1977), “Light Songs,” and “Volcano Songs” and in the second set included “Traveling” (1973), “Gotham Lullaby” (1975), “Madwoman’s Vision” from her 1988 film “Book of Days,” and segments from her opera “Atlas” (1991). In 2003 she was invited by Rosetta Life, a British hospice project to work musically with the dying who wished a last public act of expression. From that she built a funny-sad list of “lasts” to a series of minimalist, hypnotic chords called “Last Song”—last song, last breath, last minute, last ditch, last dance. Monk’s own partner, Mieke van Hoek, had died the year before of cancer, a loss that upended everything in her own life, Monk said, even calling into question her role as an artist.
In her use of the voice, movement is a given, not only because she learned to move and sing through the integrated methods of Dalcroze Eurythmics, but because sound to her is a form of movement. For Monk everything in nature has its own rhythmic and harmonic reality as it does for Kathak artists, and she makes us see the sonic dance that she hears all around her, her voice bending notes with exquisite delicacy, sound circling because of her ability to alter its trajectory, music lurching and sputtering, skipping and flying, words breaking down into their elemental sonic parts. Narrative is replaced by what she calls mosaics of meaning, and emotion isn’t applied as much as it is unearthed from humble yet virtuosic bits of sound looped round and round until they envelop us in resonances that nudge, soothe or tickle. The effect is to bring us back to long-ago memories of made-up languages and elaborate vocabularies of nonverbal noises; to take us back all the way to where we began as preverbal creatures inventing and decoding meaning, riffing with a sonically busy world.