Meredith Monk: Composer First

9. Transmission

FRANK J. OTERI: We talked a little bit about other performers performing your music, and notation, and what do you do? It’s the immortality question. What happens 200 years from now when a group of people gets together to perform ATLAS?

MEREDITH MONK: [laughs] ATLAS, I think, would be one of the easier pieces.

FRANK J. OTERI: Okay, Dolmen Music.

MEREDITH MONK: Dolmen Music would be quite challenging.

FRANK J. OTERI: I was looking at the score.

MEREDITH MONK: The score doesn’t match the performance. My friend Steve Lockwood wrote out the score, bless his heart, but when I looked at that thing where it’s a 3/2 cello line and there’s a 5/8 against it… I said, “Steve, we could never sing it like that in a million years!” Because what he did was he made the bars of the singers match up to the 3/2. So every 5/8 bar is different, whereas that’s not how we’re thinking about it at all, we’re thinking, there’s no way, again, it’s the same thing as I said with the hocket, there’s no way that you could learn it so that each bar is different. Someone’s in charge of 1& 2& 3& 4& 5& | 1& 2& 3& 4& 5&. Then, within that, there are all these variations and ways of throwing it around. And the 3/2 is the longer cycle, so in fact, the way to notate the piece would be to notate all the 5/8 bars as close as you can get, and then you just put your 3/2 under that.

FRANK J. OTERI: So that was not a piece that had been notated, your transmission of it was completely aural.

MEREDITH MONK: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: O.K., so 200 years go by…

MEREDITH MONK: And, these poor people, I mean, I would never, never ask a group of singers to try to learn it from the score the way it is.

FRANK J. OTERI: 200 years into the future, a group wants to do Dolmen Music, since it’s one of the most important pieces of music of the latter half of the 20th Century…

MEREDITH MONK: Oh, my God, thank you. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: And, you know, they want to do this piece. What do they do? What’s their source material? Do they go back and listen to the recording?

MEREDITH MONK: There are funny things in the recording, too… There’s one less phrase because someone was singing flat and so we edited it… [laughs] It was really funny, you know, when we were working with these Houston Grand Opera singers. Trying to sing Dolmen Music was pretty trippy. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

MEREDITH MONK: You know, first of all, I won’t be around to even care about it one way or the other… I’m being facetious because, really, it’s an issue that I’m thinking a lot about. Because it’s not so much an immortality thing; it’s more a generosity issue. It’s really more about letting other people have the experience, because the experience of singing Dolmen Music is really wonderful.

FRANK J. OTERI: I bet.

MEREDITH MONK: You know, or singing Invisible Light, Act 3 of ATLAS.

FRANK J. OTERI: Uh huh.

MEREDITH MONK: You’re just floating after you sing that. So how do you transfer that to other people? I feel incredibly honored that my music is going to be the featured music for the Lincoln Center Festival this summer. It will be a retrospective of 3 concerts in 3 different places. And we’re going to go back to Dolmen Music again.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, terrific.

MEREDITH MONK: Andrea [Goodman]‘s singing it, and Paul [Langland], but Bob [Een] can’t do it, so I’ve got to have a cello player and teach Bob’s part to somebody and get a new bass because Julius [Eastman] died in the interval. We’re doing the Turtle Dreams Waltz also, but with new singers… So I think maybe I’ll be able to answer your question better after July…

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ll be singing in this as well?

MEREDITH MONK: I’ll be singing and so will Ching [Gonzalez]. I wanted to teach it to people who are in my ensemble now, so it’ll be Theo Bleckmann and Katie [Geissinger]. So that we could actually perform it once we get it in our voices.

FRANK J. OTERI: One answer for this “200 years into the future question” is, something along the lines of the traditions of raga singing in India where there are garanas and teachers pass down traditions, and there are certain kinds of garanas and you study with the teachers from that tradition, and perhaps people who’ve been in your ensemble will later transmit this music to another generation, and those people will pass it on to another generation…

MEREDITH MONK: That’s so far what we’ve been doing. But I think that there’s something to be alert to, which is that sometimes there are things that I feel that I can’t explain very well. Sometimes it is very hard to articulate how they work exactly. So sometimes things get lost a little bit in the translation. It’s comparable to the way that computer music programs square things off to make them work out within a system. And, I think, with my music, a lot of what happens, the excitement, is between the barlines… between the cracks, rather than within the barlines. So if you square it off too much, some of the excitement gets lost. So that’s the only danger of it. But basically, we have been doing that. The San Francisco Chorus is going to sing some of the things from Invisible Light, the Third Act of ATLAS in the American Mavericks Program this year, so Katie will go out there and do the preliminary work with them. Randy Wong will be out there, and then I’ll come out and Theo, Kathy, Randy and I will be sort of the four anchors of the chorus. But basically she’ll go and teach it to them. She’ll go out and work with them.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, have there been performances of your work that you have had nothing to do with at all that have been satisfactory?

MEREDITH MONK: The closest to that was a group called the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, Dick Grant’s group out in the Bay Area. He asked about doing some music of mine, and I listened to the chorus and I thought it was a really nice sound, you know, that it was not too vibrato-y, it just had a really nice sound. And he just seemed like he was very sensitive as a musician. They did a preparation of that music – I did work with them 5 days before they sang the pieces, but I must say that even when I got there, they were in pretty good shape. I mean, you know, it wasn’t me not doing anything with them, but they had gotten the ground base of everything and so for me it was much more just working on nuance and process.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, did you work with the people in Musica Sacra who did Return to Earth?

MEREDITH MONK: I did, but that was a pretty short rehearsal period. That was that thing of going into a situation where you have 4 rehearsals.

FRANK J. OTERI: And were they working from scores?

MEREDITH MONK: They were working with Wayne before I got there, and they were working more from a map… they did not work from a score because again with that piece, if you were reading it bar by bar, it would take 10 years to learn. You could never sing it. It’s too hard to learn it that way. It’s better to have a map and to know that the “bay-ohs” come in, and they fade in, they fade out, and this happens and then that happens, and then when that person does that, that happens, and you know, it’s more like blocks of material and these events happen within this block. But if I listen to that recording, there are some things I feel could have been more delicate. Musica Sacra are a remarkable chorus and I respect them, because I always say to them, “you’re the Rolls Royce of choruses,” [laughs]. I mean, they’re remarkable. A lot of them have perfect pitch… I mean, they’re amazing! But there were certain principles of that music that if I’d had more time to work with them, I think they would have understood better. In Return to Earth, things fade in and out. Something begins and the next thing slowly fades in and later goes out, and you never know where it’s coming from or where it went. And the subtlety of those crescendos and decrescendos, I didn’t feel that they really quite had that. That feeling of “Where did that come from? I didn’t hear that and suddenly I hear that.” You know, that kind of thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

MEREDITH MONK: The subtlety, I didn’t think they quite got that.

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