“The human voice is the first instrument. It is the direct connection to the deepest energies and feelings for which we have no words.” That’s what Meredith Monk says in an interview about the awakening of the countless potentials of her voice. This was in 1966 while she was working on her performance piece 16mm Earrings.
The solo performance that helped her break through seamlessly combined movement, film, objects, space, sound, text and instrumental music into a single unit, allowing multiple modes of perception to merge. At the heart of it all: her voice. “I realized that she herself could be the instrument. I could jump them, spin them, drop them. Hidden in it were very different personalities, different ages and landscapes.”
In the 1970s, the New Yorker created large-scale works with her artistic ensembles, such as the multimedia opera “Quarry”, which premiered in 1976 and was captured on film in 1978. In it, Monk, who herself has Jewish roots, deals with the Second World War and fascism, explored their power and symbolism choreographically.
Even though Monk, who turns 80 this Sunday, saw her work as interdisciplinary, she always saw herself first and foremost as a composer and singer. She has recorded groundbreaking albums such as Dolmen Music and Turtle Dreams for the Munich jazz label ECM, which she has been with for more than 40 years (and which is releasing a 13 CD set for her birthday this year). The acrobatic vocal somersaults and the continuously moving back and forth sounds that Monk coaxes out of her throat with unbelievable ease would be called “Extended Techniques” today.
Text plays a subordinate role here, the sounds rarely come together to form recognizable words. What is superficially much more expressive and sonorous about them. Her vocal explorations are framed on this recording by instrumental pieces. They are characterized by repetition and static, and often have a drone-like character. Björk described listening to “Dolmen Music” as a transformative experience and covered one of the tracks at her concerts.
Brian Eno and David Byrne are also self-confessed fans – the latter immortalized their music in the film “True Stories”. In addition, Monk worked on the soundtrack to “The Big Lebowski” by the Coen Brothers and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Nouvelle Vague”. In 2015 she received the “National Medal of Art” from the then US President Barack Obama.
Monk was well ahead of her time in her collaborative work, which took the original unity of artistic expression as a starting point. Today, when interdisciplinarity has long been considered good manners in theater programs and funding applications, her work seems groundbreaking and timeless at the same time.
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