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.
Now Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble visits Duke Performances for a two-week residency that includes classes and lectures and culminates in two performances of Education of the Girlchild Revisited on November 2 and 3 at Reynolds Theater. In Part 1 of our exclusive, in-depth interview, we learn about Monk’s development as an artist, setting the scene for Part 2 on Thursday, where we discuss Education of the Girlchild Revisited and an exciting new remix album of her work.
The Thread: 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. 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. They 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 . . .
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 like a contradiction—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.
THURSDAY: MORE WITH MEREDITH MONK