Meredith Monk | »Femmes4Music«
Portrait of Meredith Monk
a Digital Feature
Sun, November 20, 2022 7 pm CET, Concert

As a pioneer of extended vocal technique and interdisciplinary performance art, Meredith Monk is one of the world's most influential and important contemporary artists. Throughout her career, which has now spanned 60 years, the musician, who sees herself as a composer and singer, has created a very unique body of work that needs to be seen as a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Playlist »Femmes4Music« – Meredith Monk

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When asked to describe her artistic creative process, U.S. singer, composer, dancer, performer, choreographer and filmmaker Meredith Monk (* November 20, 1942, New York) replies, »I work between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema.« As an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary artist who, throughout her career, has deliberately defied the artificially set boundaries between art forms in academia, it is precisely these cracks from which Monk draws inspiration. Although she uses her own three-octave voice as her primary instrument and means of expression, in her work the enchantress of the voice always moves between music and movement, light and sound, image and object.

Monk is the fourth generation to grow up within a family where singing is a tradition - her mother and grandfather have classical vocal training, and her great-grandfather is a cantor. From an early age, she received singing lessons and also learned to play the piano. Since Monk suffers from strabism (squinting due to an eye balance disorder) and related movement restrictions, she takes a course in rhythmical musical education (Dalcroze-Eurhythmics) that goes back to the Swiss composer Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. As a result, she learns to control her body movements through music in a playful way. This combination of sound, space, and movement involving the body as a whole paves the way for all her future artistic development.

She studied vocals, composition, dance and theater at Sarah Lawrence College, one of the leading liberal arts colleges. After successfully graduating in 1964, Monk returned to New York and immersed himself deeply in the vibrant inner-city art scene, where, through the experimental breaking of traditional conventions, a highly creative attitude of »anything goes« dominates. There she became acquainted with the local Fluxus movement around Dick Higgins and Jackson Mac Low, as well as the Judson Dance Church in Greenwich Village, where dancers, visual artists, and composers give avant-garde performances, in which she participates several times.

»Femmes4Music« – female composers in focus

As in video art, women are still far from being sufficiently visible in music. Yet sound art in particular, whose boundaries to performance and conceptual art are fluid, has produced many outstanding female artists. With »Femmes4Music«, ZKM presents female composers born between the 1940s and 1960s whose works have achieved great international renown. 

Online in Livestream
Sundays on November 20 / 27 and December 4 / 11 starting at 7 pm

In 1966 Monk published her solo performance »16 Millimeter Earrings« for voice, guitar and tape. This multimedia work combines vocal and instrumental music, recorded sounds, light, movement, text as well as film as a fusion of different modes of perception in one work for the first time and provides her with an early breakthrough.

At this time, she begins to discover her own voice as a virtuoso instrument and gradually explores the full and, for Monk, universal spectrum of the human voice, in which she sees the origin of music, through experimentation with breath, phrenic, and vocal sound gestures such as whispering, sobbing, trilling and microtonal flickering, overtones, humming, croaking, wheezing, laughing, moaning as well as throat singing. Monk consciously chooses to not use concrete language in most of her compositions. Instead she concentrates on using this abstract means of vocal expression to give the audience a direct phenomenological approach to her music that is not colored by the limiting filter of language.

As a result, she develops an idiosyncratic vocal practice, strongly emphasizing rhythm and variations, which only later enters music history under the term »extended vocal technique«. She subsequently composed a whole series of solo pieces for unaccompanied voice as well as for voice and keyboard instruments, although electronic organs were mostly used.

In 1968 Meredith Monk founded the nonprofit organization The House with the aim of supporting interdisciplinary approaches to performance art. Although visionary women are perceived as a kind of threat in the deeply male-dominated art world of the late 1960s, she always asserts herself with persistent discipline in the implementation of her artistic ideas and quickly makes a name for herself. In 1969 she was the first artist ever to realize a work in the rotunda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where she performed her work »Juice: A Theater Cantata« for 85 voices, Jew's harp and 2 violins, written in the same year. Over the next few years, she continues to develop both her vocal technique and her compositional skills. During this period, her works become increasingly complex.

»Quarry: An Opera« for 38 voices, harmonium, 2 soprano recorders, and tape (1976) exemplifies this development which culminates in the founding of her vocal ensemble Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble in 1978. Through her work with the Vocal Ensemble, she expanded her compositional toolkit in terms of musical structures and forms. Other important large ensemble works by Monk include »Vessel: An Opera Epic« for 75 voices, electronic organ, dulcimer, and accordion (1971) and the almost entirely nonverbal work »Atlas: An Opera in Three Parts« for 18 voices, 2 keyboards, clarinet, bass clarinet, sheng, bamboo saxophone, 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, French horn, percussion, and shawm (1991).

In the 1980s, Meredith Monk makes the films »Ellis Island« (1981) and »Book of Days« (1989). Throughout her career she composed a rich repertoire of instrumental, vocal, and ensemble works. Beginning with the album »Key« (1971), she has also released a whole series of internationally acclaimed studio albums to date, most of them through the Munich-based label ECM in collaboration with music producer and label owner Manfred Eicher. For the ECM debut »Dolmen Music« (1981), inspired by the millennia-old French megalithic site »La Roche-aux-Fées«, she receives, among other awards, the German Record Critics' Prize, which is awarded by industry independent music critics.

Many works from the 70s and early 80s have a strong political undertone, as Monk deals a lot with existence in American society during this period. These works include »Quarry«, a reflection on World War II fascism, and »The Games«, a science-fiction opera for 16 voices, bagpipes, Flemish bagpipes, noise whistle, Chinese shawm, and synthesizer (1983). She realized both works with her longtime collaborator, theater director, video and installation artist Ping Chong.

At the same time, »The Games« marks a landmark in respect of the artistically transported content, as she turns to Buddhism from 1985. Since then she actively practices Buddhism, which results in a different perspective on the world and the elementary basic structures of life. For her, music should therefore no longer be a mirror of society. Rather, she sees music as having an inherent healing power enabling the possibility of transformation in order to create a better world in harmony with the principles of nature. This is particularly evident in her current trilogy of music theater works, »On Behalf of Nature« (2016), »Cellular Songs« (2018), and »Indra's Net« (2021), the latter being a commission from Mills Performing Arts.

Already in 2020 during the pandemic, she releases »Anthem« in collaboration with her Vocal Ensemble and the contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound. This piece is part of her music theater »Indra’s Net« which bases on the Buddhist concepts of interaction, cause and consequence. The recordings, made through the internet with the help of the specially developed »Jamulus« software, represent a completely new approach for Monk, who otherwise prefers to work in physical interaction, because all of the performing musicians are in separate rooms during the recordings.

Additionally, she realizes »Rotation« as an audiovisual installation in 2021 with the financial help of a Kickstarter campaign. This work is also composed as part of »Indra's Net«. During the pandemic, Monk works harder than ever before in her life. If nothing else, this time is »an incredible lesson in patience and endurance, and flexibility« for her, as it brings life's impermanence into sharper focus.

In collaboration with the internationally renowned New York contemporary music ensemble Bang On a Can All-Stars, she releases her most recent album »Memory Game« (2020). The release includes some of her stage pieces from the 1980s and 1990s, which she repeatedly performs live, but of which no adequate recordings exist until the time of this release.  

Although Meredith Monk is often mentioned in the same breath as minimal music composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and La Monte Young – due to her mostly simple and repetitive instrumental accompaniment – she does not see herself in this field. Rather, she sees the origins of her musical mindset in the song tradition of folk music, its physicality, and the oral transmission of repertoire. »So when I was using repetition (and I still do, to this day), I was thinking more about the way folk music has a verse and a chorus and how the underlying instruments, which play repetitive patterns are accompaniment« she explains.

Hardly surprising then, that Monk never shies away from proximity to current popular music and culture. She describes herself as the »aesthetic mother of Björk«. The latter discovered Monk's music as a young woman and was particularly fascinated by »Dolmen Music«. Later, she even covers »Gotham Lullaby« (which is part of this album) in collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet. Hip hop artist DJ Shadow sampled »Dolmen Music« on his all-samples album »Endtroducing.....« (1996) in the song »Midnight in a Perfect World«. Monk herself, in turn, sees great parallels in terms of her compositional style in the piano accompaniment of Radiohead's »Everything In Its Right Place« from their album »Kid A« (2000). In addition, her music is also used in the Coen Brothers film »The Big Lebowski« (1998), in Jean-Lu Godard's films »Nouvelle Vague« (1990) and »Notre Musique« (2004), as well as in »True Stories« (1986) by director and Talking Heads singer and guitarist David Byrne.

For Monk, it is important that her often modal instrumental accompaniment sounds simple and unfolds in space so that she can make her vocals, which hover between prehistoricism and futurism, as complex as possible. Thus, the vast majority of her compositions are also not created on the basis of scores, as the magic, essence, or principles of her music are not capturable on paper for her, but stand between the staves. Instead, she uses seismographic drawings and/or collections of ideas captured on tape, and works out her music in an active process of creation only during rehearsals. Exceptions to this are works for ensembles or works for other musicians, such as »Indra's Net«, in which she does not perform herself.

Monk has received numerous honors and recognitions in the course of her career, which now spans more than 60 years. These include a Grammy nomination for »Impermanence« in the category Best Small Ensemble Performance (2008), a MacArthur Fellowship (1995), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1972, 1982), three Obie Awards (1972, 1976, 1985), two Bessie Awards (1985, 2005), a Yoko Ono Courage Award for the Arts (2011), Musical America magazine's Composer of the Year Award (2012), a Doris Duke Award (2012), appointment as an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic (2015), and the highest American award for artists of special merit, the National Medal of Arts (2014), presented by Barack Obama.

In 2014-15, she is appointed resident artist to the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair at Carnegie Hall. In addition, Monk, who holds 10 honorary doctorates, has received commissions from Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony and New World Symphony, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and the Kronos Quartet.

The ZKM | Karlsruhe sincerely congratulates Meredith Monk on her 80th birthday.

Author: Dominik Kautz

Composers of the series »Femmes4Music«
Meredith Monk (*1942 in New York City, USA)
Kaija Saariaho (*1952 in Helsinki, Finland)
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (*1939 in Miami, Florida, USA)
Jennifer Higdon (*1962 in Brooklyn, New York, USA)