Elements of a Poetic Whole

Over her 50-year career as a pioneering artist, Meredith Monk '64 has garnered Obie awards, Guggenheim fellowships, a MacArthur Foundation award, and widespread acclaim.

by Kevin Coyne, Photo by Laura Barisonzi

Meredith Monk

It is said that time changes all things, and surely the narratives that unfold on the following pages reflect this universal law. Yet they also remind us that some truths are, in fact, time-less. These stories reveal perspectives wrought through decades—insights gained by a pioneering alumna artist, a revolutionary faculty member, a groundbreaking health care curriculum, even a commencement address by humanitarian and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

We start with indisciplinary innovator Meredith Monk ’64. As a dancer, singer, filmmaker, composer, and choreographer, Monk has blazed a singular trail within New York City’s avant-garde art world, crossing and pushing boundaries along the way. The passage of a half century has shaped her journey as no other force possibly could. This year, as part of a celebration honoring Monk’s golden anniversary as a performer, the trail leads to Carnegie Hall.

In her sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence, Meredith Monk ’64 was assigned a project in her dance class that asked her to do simultaneously two things she had always done separately. It was the centennial of the Civil War, and her teacher—Bessie Schönberg, the longtime head of the dance department and a beloved mentor to her for decades after—asked each of the students to choose a song from that era and then move to it as they sang it.

Monk had come to Sarah Lawrence skilled in several disciplines and reluctant to choose just one among them. She had been moving to music since taking Dalcroze Eurhythmics as a girl, a music education system that Schönberg had studied, too, using the body to teach rhythm. She had been playing piano and reading music as long as she had been reading words. She was a good enough writer to publish a short piece in the alumni magazine in her first year. And she was a fourth-generation vocalist with a three-and-a-half octave range who, when she was 10, wanted to be an opera singer. “But I wanted to be Mario Lanza,” she says. “I thought the tenors had all the good things to sing.”

By the time she arrived at Sarah Lawrence, her tastes had broadened: Pete Seeger, Little Richard, Marian Anderson. For her project she chose a spiritual about the crucifixion of Christ: “He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word.” “I was able to sing the song but also to work with movement as a kind of counterpoint to the song because I knew the inner rhythm so well,” she says. “It was so natural for me. I had found something new. It was the beginning of … trying to integrate my singing and my music with my gesture, so that was very, very important.”

Maybe, she began to think, she didn’t have to choose. Maybe there was a way to alchemize all these disciplines into something new. “I had glimpses of a larger form that would weave these perceptual modes into one form,” she says. “I started composing vocal material and making choreography and bringing in objects and trying to kind of crack through traditional forms to find another form, to weave together these elements into one poetic whole.”

She has continued weaving those elements together as tightly as she weaves her long hair into her signature braids, producing an immense body of work—music, dance, theatre, film, much of it more accurately described if connected by hyphens rather than separated by commas—that has been celebrated this season, 50 years after she graduated from Sarah Lawrence and debuted as a defining artist of the New York avantgarde. Many of her early performances were in downtown lofts; in this, her golden anniversary year, they are in Carnegie Hall.

“People who forge their own path often find themselves doing it in isolation, starting as fringe artists, and as their work becomes more recognized they become more central to the musical establishment,” says Jeremy Geffen, director of artistic planning at Carnegie Hall, which chose Monk as this season’s holder of the Debs Composer’s Chair, the latest in a long list of honors for her that includes multiple Obie awards, two Guggenheim fellowships, and a MacArthur Foundation award. So wide and diverse is her influence, so resistant to categorization, that the list of friends who performed at a “Meredith Monk and Friends” celebration at Carnegie Hall in March included jazz clarinetist Don Byron, hip-hop artist DJ Spooky, and rock guitarist Lee Ranaldo. “I think it’s probably as much of a surprise to Meredith Monk as it is to anyone else that she’s gone from being an artist forming her own language in a sort of isolation to being lauded as one of the great composers of our time,” Geffen says.

Monk’s studio is large enough that the grand piano in the corner—a 1909 Steinway with a 1940 soundboard, a most traditional instrument at which she sits daily composing her most untraditional music—looks almost small. Her fifth-floor loft is of a size (about 2,000 square feet) and location (Tribeca) that is obtainable only by great wealth or patient longevity. She has lived in this rent-stabilized space since 1972, when the neighborhood was a frontier being colonized by artists, not a luxe suburb for Wall Street titans. It was furnished with nothing but a sink when she moved in.

The loft is airy and sunny but spartan, essentially two large rooms. “We’d have Sunday morning performances in here,” she says, sweeping her arm to take in the broad expanse of the studio, and then pointing back toward the living space. “I’d bake bread for the audience, then jump out of the sleeping loft and perform. I wanted to subvert the notion of how and when and where a performance was.”

She did a lot of subverting when she arrived downtown soon after graduation, at a time when Andy Warhol and John Cage and a host of other artists were doing a lot of subverting, too. She lived first on Bank Street in the West Village in “a tiny garret for tiny people, like an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ apartment,” and then in a loft on Great Jones Street. Her first performance, at an art gallery, was a solo dance called “Break,” but choreography soon became just one tool among many. In “16 Millimeter Earrings” she projected film on her own body, wore a red wig and a sphere on her head, read aloud from Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm, and, at the end, sang “Greensleeves” as projected images of herself and of a paper doll were consumed by flames. She was 23.

“I have to say I was quite a driven young thing,” she recalls. “I don’t know if I would have liked myself so much if I’d met myself then—yikes, I was intense. I was driven, absolutely determined. Sometimes I go, ‘Whatever happened to that girl? I need a little of that.’”

She is a small woman, 5-foot-2, with a large presence, warm, direct, and unpretentious. She was just 25 when she started The House, a collaborative company that performed the kind of border-crossing pieces she had first imagined in college.

Lanny Harrison ’65 was a year behind Monk at Sarah Lawrence, but didn’t meet her until she joined The House in 1969. “I instantly felt at home there,” Harrison says. She and Monk became close friends and performing colleagues, and fellow Buddhist practitioners. Among the photos of deceased family and friends that Monk keeps on a shrine below the tall windows in her studio is one of Harrison’s late husband, the musician Collin Walcott. “I could sing, I could dance, and I could express all these characters who were living inside me,” Harrison says.

Monk’s own partner is also on that shrine, the choreographer Mieke van Hoek, who died after a stroke in 2002. Her parents are on the shrine, too: Theodore, a lumber dealer in the Bronx, and Audrey Marsh, a big-band singer who was also the familiar voice in radio commercials for Muriel Cigars and Blue Bonnet Margarine. Singing is encoded deep in Monk’s genes. Her grandfather, an opera singer, and her grand-mother, a pianist, started a music conservatory in New York. Her great-grandfather was a cantor in Russia.

“I had some resistance about studying voice because my whole family were singers,” Monk says. “I think there was also a part of me that knew I wanted to create from a very young age. I was always making things up. I didn’t think that performing classical repertoire was going to give me the kind of space I needed for the creative part of myself.”

But Ruth Lloyd, who taught music at Sarah Lawrence, became, like Bessie Schönberg, a guiding force for Monk. “Ruth saw that being a musician was something that was very intrinsic to me, and Bessie helped me with the movement part. There was something about the two of them that was very important to me—there was this balance between these two sides of myself really.”

It was after that first season of dancing in New York that Monk found the road that led toward all the work that followed. “Because at Sarah Lawrence I had worked with singing and moving at the same time, I was missing singing a lot. So I went back to the piano, and I started singing Western European classical exercises, and that was when I had the revelation about the voice,” she says. “That was something that changed my life.”

The voice, she realized, “could be a nonverbal instrument.” When you sing, you don’t have to sing words other people have written, or even words you have written yourself. In fact, you don’t have to sing any words at all. “From that point on, exploring my voice and what it could evoke, delineate, uncover, and ultimately give to others became the core of my work,” she says.

“I could sense that it was very ancient,” she says. “Voice is the original human instrument, and it had that ancient power of time and of something that went right through the center of the body and right out the mouth, something coming through you. It could be male, female, or in between. It could be different ages; it could be different ways of producing sound; it could be characters; it could be landscape.

“I just recognized the potential, the richness of it, and also at that moment I had some kind of intuition that I was coming back to my blood. This might sound strange, but I think I felt I was born to do it and that it was my way of going back to my family—but with my own way. It was natural.

"I wanted to subvert the notion of how and when and where a performance was."

It was like blood. It had that depth of inevitability.”

Her voice is an instrument as instantly recognizable as a Miles Davis trumpet or a Jimi Hendrix guitar. It is, she says, “the core of everything” in her work, from a cappella solo recitals to operas and films. It covers three octaves now, but it can still evoke an entire cast of genders, ages, eras, and planets. She works on it daily, doing an hour of vocal exercises and then sitting at the piano chasing after new compositions, conjuring phonemes with it. Because she’s not singing in any one language, she can sound like every language. Her work can sound like a baby’s babble, an auctioneer’s patter, Pentecostal glossolalia, chanting Trappist monks, ululating Arab women, overlapping conversations on a Latvian bus. It crosses both geological and cosmological time. It evokes Andean shepherds, Pleistocene birds, mammoths traversing the tundra, benevolent beings of light beaming across galaxies, maps of lands that no longer are, or maybe never were, or haven’t yet been.

“‘Folk music from another planet,’” Monk says, quoting a favorite critical assessment. “I love that. I could go for that. It’s trying for a universal utterance.”

She aims for a similar universality in the movements, imagery, actions, and costumes that animate many of her works. “It was very new, but in some ways she was harking back to something very ancient, and I think that crossed a lot of boundaries,” Lanny Harrison says. “That’s because there’s very little English language, but also because the images that went along with the music are also very cross-cultural. There’s something that goes back into the folkloric world, into what the world holds in terms of tales and stories and myths.”

When Monk composes a new piece for voices, she often records herself singing it, then gathers her ensemble in her studio to learn it. “We work for years on a piece sometimes,” she says. “By the time we perform it, it’s in the bones.”

Katie Geissinger has been part of the ensemble since 1990, almost half of Monk’s career. “It wasn’t difficult,” she says about shifting from classical and musical theatre singing to Monk’s almost wordless songs, “and I think it’s because her work comes from a place beyond language, so you’re expressing something more fundamental, something across all human experience, a basic human utterance as opposed to any kind of factual pronouncement.”

Like many American jazz and new-music artists, Monk is held in especially high regard in Europe, where she has often performed, and where there is no language barrier for her, as there is for other vocal performers. “It’s like a string quartet,” Geissinger says, “where you can go anywhere in the world and people accept it as music and don’t need a specific language to understand it. Everybody’s on equal footing.”

In recent years, the scale of Monk’s work has gradually shifted away from the large multimedia pieces that marked the middle of her career, like Quarry (1976), a child’s-eye view of war with a cast of 40, or Atlas (1991), an opera commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera. Her tone has shifted, too. “It was very brash, my sensibility at that time, and it was very sharp, extremely sharp, and I think my sensibility is softer now and very pure,” she says. “I feel like I’ve stripped away a lot.”

Monk has been elevated to the pantheon of composers, with her works published by the august Boosey & Hawkes, in the company of Bartok, Copland, and Stravinsky. “I think more about composing and singing now,” she says. “But little by little I’ve come to the point where I also am totally satisfied with a concert of music. I feel that I’m totally represented.”

"My sensibility of that time...was very sharp, extremely sharp, and I think my sensibility is softer now and very pure. I feel like I've stripped away a lot."

As this season’s Debs Composer's Chair, Monk was commissioned to write a new piece that was performed at Carnegie Hall in February, one of the events in her anniversary celebration. She had a limit: eight musicians. Her first plan was to use six instruments and two voices, hers and Geissinger’s.

“But then I thought, ‘Use this to learn,’” she says. So she wrote it instead without voices, one of the few purely instrumental pieces she has composed. “One of the great things about Sarah Lawrence is that you were always taught to love learning, that learning was going to be something that you were going to do for your whole life. And I love to learn, so I’m learning to use the instruments as voices now. I’ve always used the voices as instruments, and now I’m using the instruments as voices.”

Then she needed to name it. “It’s always hard to find a title, worse than making the piece,” she says. She called it “Noir” at first. “But the whole piece is not dark, it’s really working with dark and light. I started thinking about film, which is always inspiring to me, and the light of film noir, which is lit with a key light and backlight. They don’t use fill—that’s why you get that very harsh front light on the one subject and the rest of the frame will be very dark with the shadow coming from the back. And then I started thinking about backlight, and about how this piece does have some very shadowy parts—dark and light are within one piece—and I was thinking also about how when you have a subject in backlight you get a kind of glow around it, and when you read that word ‘backlight’ you also get a landscape or image of space rather than a close-up kind of thing. I thought that was very close to this piece.”

And so “Backlight” it became, as the composer who works without words found her way to the perfect one.