Meredith Monk: Composer First
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, as a composer, and as an audience member, I thought it was very interesting, that in The Politics of Quiet, you were not performing.
MEREDITH MONK: That was my first time! That was my gift to the Ensemble. [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s a wonderful piece. How did it feel being in the audience, seeing other people doing this, and not being part of it?
MEREDITH MONK: Strange. [laughs] I know some people think that they have more control by being in the audience. I know people who want to direct and they don’t want to perform in their own pieces because they feel like they have more control. I feel like I have less control! [laughs] I’m too nervous sitting in the audience. It’s all an illusion anyway, but I feel that I have more influence if I’m on the stage. [laughs] But that process was very interesting, because it is hard for me. It was very difficult. I wanted to find material that was worthy of these remarkable performers, I wanted to have each person have a shining quality of uniqueness (…which is what I always like to do…), where you really saw who these people were, and heard who these people were, and I think for some of the performers, who come from the singing actor background, I didn’t give them anything that they could hold on to. Working that way was a little bit my reaction to ATLAS. After doing something as narrative as I’ve ever done in my life, I felt I wanted to go back more to stripping away all those elements, and going just to the essence of these human beings. So the piece seemed to want to be simpler and simpler on every other level than music. Every time I tried to add theatrical elements, it didn’t want it. So a lot of my process of making a piece is saying to this piece, “Please make yourself known,” and trying to find the laws of the world that I’m working within. And then, if I listen, the laws of that world come across very clearly to me, and I know, no, it doesn’t want this, or it does want this, or it needs that, or it doesn’t need that. So, you know, I think for them as performers, until they started getting feedback from some of their friends, they were nervous because they didn’t have characters they could hold on to, they didn’t have any masks on any level, it was just essential Tom Bogdan, essential Ching Gonzalez, essential Katie Geissinger. And so it was very naked for them. It was very vulnerable. When I’m working on these forms, I don’t know what the form’s going to end up being, and I think what ended up happening with The Politics of Quiet is it became a kind of non-verbal oratorio form.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, this whole question of using verbal language, to use words or to not use words… There are pieces of yours over the years that have incorporated texts, but it’s been very spare.
MEREDITH MONK: Minimal texts…
FRANK J. OTERI: And there’s been a clear avoidance of text in order to get beyond its sonic limitations, to free the voice from its constraints, because once you’re dealing with texts, you’re dealing with another art form, you’re dealing with another type of comprehension, you’re dealing with “chin up,” I suppose.
MEREDITH MONK: Right. I think of my music as being more “stateless.” It’s not American, or this or that. It’s more about knowing that the voice is a language in itself that is very eloquent. And it can really delineate energies and feelings that we don’t have words for. So in a certain way, I really believe that the voice as an instrument is universal. And it speaks very directly to the heart, and so that’s why we have been able to perform all over the world and people respond to it very directly. And I think that that is the beauty of the voice; that’s the power of the voice. When you add language to it, you’re doing two languages simultaneously. Plus, in a sense, you’re imprisoned by the rhythms and cadences of that particular verbal language. That can be interesting if it leads you to some new rhythms in your music. Working on Three Heavens and Hells was very interesting because I had to find a way to free myself from those cadences and work rhythmically with my own impulses. Going back full circle to the beginning of the interview, rhythm is really important to me. So I don’t like to feel that I have to adjust my rhythmic impulses to something else, which is the cadences of language.