Meredith Monk: Composer First
FRANK J. OTERI: I thought it would be interesting to do a whole issue about composers who have multiple identities, composers who not only get artistically or creatively fulfilled through writing music but through doing many different things. You immediately popped into my mind, because your creative work is not just composition, it’s choreography, it’s theater, sometimes it’s film, it has so many different components. And there’s the component of you as a composer [a priori] and the component of you as a performer within the composition. There are lots of layers. Do you consider yourself a composer first?
MEREDITH MONK: Yes.
FRANK J. OTERI: Why?
MEREDITH MONK: Because the heart of my work is the singing. I think of my work as a big tree with two main branches. One main branch is the singing and it started from my solo work, exploring the human voice and all its possibilities. That’s been a very strong discipline for over 30 years, working with my own instrument and discovering all the different possibilities. And then that goes also into making CDs, and, compositions with the Ensemble, and other groups singing this music. One branch is made up of all the different aspects of the music. And then the other branch is the composite forms, which could be operas or musical theater pieces, or installations, or films. And that’s where different elements are woven together into one big composition. But I always feel that those forms are put together, in a sense, musically. Even with images, it’s really thinking of rhythm as the basic underlying ground of everything. And not necessarily just metric rhythm, but rhythm, I would say, is the underlying ground of these weavings together of different perceptual modes.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, has that been the case from the very beginning of your work, or was it other things first and then music…
MEREDITH MONK: Well, you know, I came from a music background. I’m a fourth generation singer in my family. My mother was the original Muriel Cigar voice on radio and she was singing soap commercials. She was singing Blue Bonnet Margarine, all these jingles… So I grew up in radio. My mother was on CBS, ABC, NBC in the ’40′s, and singing commercials for soap operas every day. I had a lot of singing in my background. My grandfather was a singer, bass-baritone; and my great-grandfather was a cantor. Singing was a tradition in my family. So that was, in a sense, my first language. I was comfortable singing. It was my personal language. And then because I have an eye challenge, where I can’t fuse two images together, I was uncoordinated physically, and so my mother heard about Dalcroze Eurythmics, and took me to these wonderful Polish sisters Mita and Lola Rohm at Steinway Hall. Dalcroze Eurythmics is a way of learning music through movement; a lot of conductors study it to get coordinated physically. But for me it was really learning physical movement through the music, because as a young child, I already had a strong rhythmic proclivity.
FRANK J. OTERI: What sort of music were they using?
MEREDITH MONK: Dalcroze Eurythmics has a lot in common with the Carl Orff method; as I remember, there was a lot of work with rhythm sticks. I don’t remember the music itself but I remember improvising to music, and throwing balls in precise time, and exercises dealing with music in relation to parts of the body. For me, it was a revelation. It integrated sound, space and movement. I loved it so much, and so my whole body thing opened up. Having that background, experiencing the voice or music and the body as one was something that has influenced me without me even knowing it all these years. Because, also the way they teach solfege, for example… It’s done physically, so the low do is down here and high do is up here…
FRANK J. OTERI: Right.
MEREDITH MONK: You move your arms incrementally from down to up as you are singing the scale and at the same time you can read the notes on the blackboard. So you are getting sound, space and sensation simultaneously.
MEREDITH MONK: It’s more an overall body sense. You know, as I think back on it (…I only did it from the time I was 3 to 7, so I don’t remember it too well…), what I sense is that intuitive physical connection to sound and space, which I think is something I’ve always been interested in: the voice and space, and the architecture of the voice.
FRANK J. OTERI: So when did you decide, ‘Okay, I’m a composer’? When did composing become the focus, the creating of work, the disseminating of that work that you’ve created, both in terms of you yourself doing it and then other people doing it, with you or without you?
MEREDITH MONK: That’s a hard question, because it’s been such a gradual process. And I’m still struggling with it, even now, because I’m trying to figure out how much music I really want other people to sing of mine and how much I don’t.