Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Cleveland Institute of Music
February 21

Making memories at Mixon Hall.

America’s premier avant-garde vocalist seemed as dazzled to be in Mixon Hall on Friday night as the small audience was to see her. “It’s wonderful to be here in this gorgeous space,” Meredith Monk said when she took the stage, with an admiring glance and gesture at the glittering glass backwall. Later she described both the look and sound of Mixon as “exquisite,” and departed with a final sweep of her arm, as if to include the room in the cause for applause.

As a site-specific performance artist, Monk is more sensitive to her surroundings than most singers. And Mixon’s atmosphere and acoustics are superb. But the truth is that Monk doesn’t need a special setting to properly showcase her groundbreaking work. The style, approach and content of her singing is so compelling and innovative, it has riveted audiences from Lincoln Center to the Venice Biennale – only two of the many places she’s taken her songs, dances, operas and films over the past 50 years.

Monk’s performance at CIM offered an overview of her vocal compositions reaching back to her 1971 release Key. Not presented in strict chronological order, the pieces represented less an arc of development than an inventory of her tones and techniques. Lyrics are spare in Monk’s songs; most of them employ nonsense syllables or pure sounds arranged in formal structures and delivered in a dizzying, sometimes startling array of effects. Seeing her in person adds another dimension, as she takes on different moods and personae, often in the space of a single song.

Even calling her pieces “songs” is a bit of misnomer. Monk uses her voice not to imitate the sounds of instruments, but as an instrument. It can hit high, clear operatic notes or drop to a low rasp. Traditional techniques like phrasing, breathing and scatting are only the foundation for noises (clicks, squawks, screeches), animal calls (howls, squeals, yips) and characters (a gruff male, a cackling female) that give her music a strong visual quality and emotional impact. In concert she typically performs with a microphone, as she did at Mixon, which adds an electric resonance to the sound.

Singing a cappella in the first half of her performance, Monk encouraged the audience to visualize the desert landscape of New Mexico and then brought it to life with atmospheric selections like “Porch” and “Descending.” Close on the heels of those spiritual evocations were dashes of the humor that keeps her work from becoming pretentious – a raucous cascade of buzzing, chirping, clicking and rattling in “Insect,” and the repeating “meow meow meow” set to music in “Lullaby #4.” She finished her opening set playing a Jew’s harp, noting that she recently had to replace it and promising to do her best on “my new ax.”

Monk spent the second half of the performance at the piano, offering more recent work and glimpses of her personal life. Pieces like “Gotham Lullaby” and “Travelling” showed that she’s not averse to melody, or using the keyboard to provide propulsive rhythms. The lament of “Last Song” from her 2008 release Impermanence reflected both the frailty of life and loss of her longtime partner, Mieka van Hoek. “The Tale” from the opera Education of the Girlchild offered an inventory of items the character hadn’t lost (“I still have my mind”). It also provided Monk with a self-deprecating line when she realized she had almost forgotten to play the shruti box set up at the side of the stage: “I still have my memories!”

The long and complex “Madwoman’s Vision” came with a detailed introduction that offered an important insight into Monk’s work: What may sound like nonsense patter to everyone else is in fact a private language to her, which she uses to build characters and narratives. Listening to it, one realizes that although lyrics are traditionally used to convey the message of a song, they actually get in the way of its deeper meaning. Monk’s music forces you to change the way you listen, focusing on the musical quality and emotional content of the vocals rather than their literal sense.

It takes a bit of mental rearrangement to get there. Once you do, music will never sound the same.

For more on Meredith Monk:

The Jew’s harp is an ancient instrument that goes by many names and has many variations. For more on its history and use:

Photo: ML Antonelli

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