Interview: Meredith Monk / by Brian Howe

In the early 2010s I interviewed dozens of world-class performing artists for The Thread, the blog of Duke Performances. Since the blog is no longer online, Duke Performances has kindly given me permission to repost some of the interviews here, which I will do from time to time.

As a singer, dancer, composer, choreographer, filmmaker, installation artist, and more—not compartmentally, but all at once—Meredith Monk broke a lot of new ground on her way to becoming one of the most iconic and original performing artists of our times. Her vocal innovations, known to academics as “extended techniques,” still elude codification after half a century, and her pioneering interdisciplinary work heralded the unbounded medium-mixing of the latter 20th century and beyond. But it’s the uncanny beauty of her voice and the originality of her vision that continue to captivate music, dance, and theater audiences worldwide.

Could you tell us about your background before your public career?

MEREDITH MONK: I come from a family of singers; I’m the fourth generation. My great-grandfather was a cantor in Russia and my grandfather was a bass-baritone who came to America around the 1890s. He sang all over the New York area and opened a music conservatory up in Washington Heights. He also played violin. My mother was a singer on radio and television in ‘70s variety shows, and also sang jingles. So I did have a lot of music in my early background. And I studied Dalcroze Eurhythmics at a very early age, which ended up being much more influential than I realized. I did an opera for the Houston Grand Opera, working with more classically trained singers, and they were having a hard time getting some of my rhythms. They said, “Is that the Dalcroze background?” and I said, “Hmmm, maybe it is; I’d never thought about it that way!” I also went to Sarah Lawrence, where they had a combined performing arts program where you were allowed to create your own program. Then I came to New York and started working on pieces and presenting them.

Did any of the specific traditions the singers in your family came from become especially important in your work?

Coming from a family where it’s hard to find your place as a singer, and coming from both a dance and music background . . . When I was at Sarah Lawrence, I was in both the Voice and Dance/Theater departments. I was studying classical lieder singing and a little bit of opera. I earned my way through school partially by playing folk music at children’s parties; I always loved folk music very much. Dance was much more physically challenging for me and because of that, I found ways of making a personal or idiosyncratic movement style out of necessity. One day, while doing classical vocalizing, I realized the voice could be like an instrument, with no text; that within the voice were myriad possibilities of sound, of gender, of landscape, of character. In my voice, I had a more virtuosic instrument to start with. It was like anything was possible. When I had that revelation, I had the feeling that I was coming back to my blood,  coming back to my family, but in my own way.

So you had to invent a space for yourself in the family rather in the same way you invented a space for yourself in the art world?

In a way, yeah. I always wanted to push through to new ways of doing things in relation to the human voice, the most ancient instrument. I had a feeling of its primal power. At the same time, I was also working with combining these different elements into one form. A lot of people weren’t working that way. I feel like I was always trying to work between the cracks of what we think of as art-forms to find another form. So in a way it’s true; same process.

When you started making the kinds of vocal and interdisciplinary works you’re known for now, there was really no blueprint for them.

Exactly, and in some ways I feel very lucky. In a way, it was a lonely path, but I also think of that as a blessing. You can go into the necessity of what you’re trying to say. By not having a precedent, you really are compelled to explore very deeply. Now, I think it’s harder to find your own voice with all the clatter of information, being able to hear anything and everything. I would imagine that makes it very difficult for a person starting out now to find their own authentic way.

Did you feel like it took awhile for people to start understanding what you were doing?

What was very encouraging to me at the very beginning of my vocal work were the jazz musicians, people like Sam Rivers, and I was very good friends with the group Oregon. The immediately saw what I was doing musically and were very encouraging. And there were audiences in New York that were very open to it; pockets of cultural sophistication around the United States. But really, I found one of my best audiences after I had already been working for many years. My first time in Germany in the late 1970s, the audience completely understood what I was doing. The writing about it understood it poetically, emotionally, and also that it was technically challenging.

Do you remember encountering resistance in the early days or just incomprehension?

I remember one place in the Midwest, when we were on tour in the early ‘70s, where someone was like, “Is that singing or is that crowing?” [Laughs] So a little of both, I would say.

To what extent did you devise these forms because you wanted to integrate all the things you could do versus trying to meet a need you perceived in the culture?

As a young person in my early 20s, there were these different interests I’d had since a child, and I think there was a kind of psychic urgency to integrate them; to use all the possibilities of a human being. But at the same time, I was very much aware of the fact that the attempt to weave together human perception was also a way of affirming the central modes of perception of the audience. In relation to the culture, I think it was an intuition about how if you could make a holistic form that integrated all these perceptual elements, which really come from the most ancient accounts we have of performance as spiritual practice, that was also a kind of antidote to the fragmentation and specialization of our culture. So I think it had both aspects.

We’re still getting to the point where female composers are afforded the same due as their male counterparts, and you’ve been at this since ‘60s. Has gender been a tool or impediment in your career?

I have pretty much tried to do what I wanted to do over the years, and I’ve always felt that I have been able to. Every once in awhile, though, I suddenly get knocked over the head and realize certain obstacles do have something to do, in the world, with this notion of gender. Especially in the classical world, though in a way, I’ve always wanted my music to not be in any world particularly. But in the classical European musical tradition, there’s a certain way of thinking about how you make a composition, and I think it’s been very difficult for women who are working with another kind of prototype. If you’re a woman in the classical world that is doing the kind of male approach, then I think you’re accepted, but if you’re doing an alternative, I think it’s been difficult. Not with the musicians! The other musicians are so encouraging. But I think, what would I say . . .

The canon-makers?

Right, the canon-makers. And it’s not to say that all women work in the same way or that all men work in the same way. People coming to music with different ways of hearing and seeing, having different goals—that’s most interesting, the diversity.

Could you explain the term “extended vocal technique” a little bit?

When I first started, of course, there was no term. [Laughs] Now it’s sort of like school, and I have a hard time with that myself.  Sometimes people try to codify these ways of using the voice—they have names for them and everything—and for myself, it takes a lot of the mystery away. To me, when something happens that really has power, it’s because I’ve allowed something to come through that I don’t have words for. I’m not trying to make a “technique” in quotation marks. But I think the definition is basically working with the voice as an instrument and exploring all its possibilities.

Codifying extended techniques seems almost like a contradiction in terms—how can something be both extended and circumscribed?

Exactly! It’s like a recipe, “I’m going to put a little vocal trill over here and then we’re going to mix in a little of this, a little of that”—I would never work that way! To me, sound is like a world, and you’re really exploring the dimensions and principles of that world. When I’m working on a piece, I’m always asking the question, “What is the voice or what are the voices of this world?” I’m trying to start from scratch every time.

When you started Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble in 1978, was it because the specialized demands of your music needed specialized musicians?

 I first had another group called the House, a wonderful ensemble, when I was making what you would now call musical theater pieces. I was doing most of the complicated singing and playing, working more from a theater or dance background. So I would make very simple things for them and more complex things for myself, in a large tapestry of images and movement and music and objects and light. I never used to audition in those days, but after Quarry, an opera I did about World War II, I did audition for a chorus of about 28 young people who were really good singers and movers. I got very inspired because I realized I could explore more complex textures by not always doing solos myself. I chose three women from that group and developed a piece I had begun as a solo, called Tablet, and I made the four parts equal in complexity, each voice a very different color. That was the beginning of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble.

A year later I added three men, and that’s when I made Dolmen Music. Through the late-‘70s and most of the ‘80s, I was doing some theater, but I was really working more with this ensemble, touring all over the world. I think I intuitively knew that this music was going to have to be organically made. In those days, I never handed a score to these people; I basically made the piece on those particular voices. It’s a really hands-on way of making music, which I like. Sometimes we do bring in scores if we don’t have much time, but it’s still a lot of work to bring those pieces to life. I know what the contrast is now because I’ve written, in the last ten years, orchestra pieces and string quartets. In those situations, you have to have a score because there’s hardly any rehearsal. My way of doing things is very labor intensive; the music is just in the bones.

Do your pieces typically begin with gradual deliberation or sudden inspiration?

Each one is different. Education of the Girlchild, the solo that I’ll do down at Duke, is one of the only times in my life where, I think I was lying down, and I got the whole image and structure of the piece in my mind. That’s very unusual. There’s one other piece called Do You Be where I felt like it just came from another power, and in one afternoon the piece was there. But usually, I work more like a mosaicist —I have a little tile over here, a little tile over there, trying to understand the structure of the big mosaic over a long period of time. It takes a lot of patience to put these different elements together. Musical structure is like that for me too.

A double-album of remixes of your work is coming up. How did that happen?

Paul Miller, who is DJ Spooky, came to me around 2005, in my 40th year of working. We did a four-hour marathon at Carnegie Hall where a number of people were doing their versions of my music. I had never done that before. Some people were just playing my music, interpreting it, and some were really making things that I had never heard. Some worked and some didn’t, but it was very exciting to see what people did with the music to make it into their own. From that, Paul said, “I know a lot of remix people and they would love to remix your music.” I think it took awhile for me to open to it. Little by little, particularly after that concert, I realized that’s part of the joy of being surprised. So Paul had people he wanted to ask and I had people I wanted to ask. I also proposed that it would not just be remixes, but also people’s interpretations, like Björk’s interpretation of “Gotham Lullaby.” She really kept the integrity of the piece but found her own way of doing it.

So you weren’t necessarily into remix culture at the time.

No, I didn’t know that much about it, to be honest. The idea of it is interesting. I like the idea of passing on this energy to another generation of musicians, letting them get inside this way of doing things and find their own way in it. I think the ones that are really successful on the remix CD are the people who stayed with the feel or atmosphere of the composition but found their own way of expanding in another direction; I think those are really beautiful.

Education of the Girlchild Revisited, which you’re bringing to Duke Performances—has the solo or your perspective on it changed since you first mounted it in the ‘70s?

Uh, yeah. [Laughs] In the original, it started with a group piece, with six women main characters, and the second half was a solo. In this “revisited” version, the solo comes first. When I made the solo, which is kind of a journey or reverie of one’s person life starting from old age and going back to a young woman, I was more the young woman’s age. Now I’m somewhere between the middle-aged woman and the old woman. So it’s very interesting, because in 1972, it was like my fantasy of what my old age would be, and now, the piece is more like my memory of what my body and voice felt like as a young woman. So it’s crazy and it just keeps on changing and changing as I go along.

It’s so interesting to go back to it. It’s an extremely intense piece, an almost no-drama piece, with very slow movement, very meditative but physically intense. Where it was like, “Oh well, that wouldn’t be so hard to do,” now it’s like, “Oh gosh, my body!” [Laughs] I can jump around and move pretty easily, but to get that concentrated control is really challenging and fascinating. When I feel that I’m on top of it, there are really three characters in that solo, and those personas are really coming through me, and there’s a sense of transmutation or something. It’s a sustained 35 minute solo with no break at all.

And then the second half, Shards—we were going to Paris and they were very interested in that late-‘60s, early-‘70s period, as a lot of people in Europe are. I knew I couldn’t do the Girlchild group piece because it was too big a production. So I took the music I was writing around the time of Girlchild, such as from Key, my first album from 1971, as well as some music from Girlchild itself, and I made a new form with three other women that are in my ensemble now. It was so exciting to come back to the material with them and make a brand new form. We love doing the piece, which is more like a music concert with simple images and movement.

You’re giving a talk at the Nasher tonight called “Archaeology of an Artist”—is discussing the work a meaningful part of your process?

I’m really enjoying passing on to a younger audience what this process has been, encouraging them to really follow their own path, because it’s a difficult time in history to be an artist, to have the courage to do what you believe in. It’s not that it isn’t a struggle still for me in a lot of ways, but maybe I’m someone who can tell them in a certain way, “You can do this, it will manifest in a different way than it did for me, but you can do what you dream.”

Is the concept of mythic postures recurring over time important in your work?

Absolutely. Archetype, personal myth, universal myth, all those layers. I think what my work says a lot is that life always goes on, and there is this cyclical or spiralic aspect of life.

You have so many means of expression at your disposal; how do you decide which combination is right for a given piece?

Sometimes I don’t really know what the form is until I’ve done the piece. There’s a piece called The Politics of Quiet where I had the music already when I walked into rehearsal, but I just could not find the theatrical images. I tried everything for months on end. The music was very simple, geometric formations of the ensemble in space, and I realized after we had done the piece that it was like a nonverbal oratorio form. So that’s part of the process, trying to understand what the balance of elements is, what the piece wants and what it needs, what’s extraneous. It’s not an easy process. Hanging out in the unknown is really painful, and you have to be able to live with that. It’s almost like being a detective or something, and you just try to follow the clues.