As the great and unclassifiable performing artist Meredith Monk ramps up a residency with her Vocal Ensemble at Duke Performances—offering a talk at the Nasher tonight and two performances next weekend—we continue our exclusive in-depth interview. On Tuesday, we discussed how Monk developed singing, dance, theater and more into a form of her own. Today we learn about the formation of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, the new remix album of her work, and the differences between Education of the Girlchild, originally performed in 1972, and Education of the Girlchild Revisited, the new version she brings to Duke Performances.
The Thread: When you started Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble in 1978, was it because the specialized demands of your music needed specialized musicians?
MEREDITH MONK: 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.
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. 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 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 still a struggle for me, 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 spiral 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.