MEREDITH MONK: I think that the revelation I had as a singer came around 1965. I came to New York in 1964. At Sarah Lawrence, I was in the voice department and I was in the dance department. And I was also doing some theater, too. I had designed a program for myself called Combined Performing Arts where two-thirds of my program was in performing arts. I had one academic my last year and they let me do it, which was great. I had also done a lot of folk singing. I earned my way through college partially by singing at children’s birthday parties with my guitar, and I had been in one or two rock and roll groups. So I was doing more folk and rock kind of forms, and doing lieder singing, and opera workshop at Sarah Lawrence, and writing some music. But when I first came to New York, my pieces were more gesture-based with a kind of cinematic syntax and structure. I was thinking a lot about images. How you could perform images that would cut in the way that film does? How would these very disparate elements go together? The sound aspects of those works were tapes that I made myself. In those days, there weren’t multi-track tape recorders, but I was working with a two-track tape recorder and then layering. But at a certain point, after being in New York for one year and doing a lot of performing in different galleries and churches and places like that, I really missed singing a lot, straight out singing, so I sat at the piano and started vocalizing. There was a one day sometime in 1965 when I realized, in a flash (…it really was a flash experience…), that the voice could have the kind of fluidity and flexibility of the body, say, like the articulation of a hand. That the voice could be an instrument and that I could make a vocabulary built on my own voice the way that I had in movement. In movement, I had had a lot of limitations physically. That was to my advantage on a certain level because I had to find my own idiosyncratic way of moving. In some ways, technical limitations are good, because you have to find your own way. So then when I applied that same principal to my voice, I already had a more virtuosic instrument to begin with because of my family legacy. It was as if the whole world opened up, and then I realized that within the voice there could be different textures, colors, ways of producing sound, different genders and ages, characters, ways of breathing, landscapes. The other aspect was that it was also my way of going back to my family tradition and yet doing it my own way. Because it was always hard in that family to find your own spot as a singer.
MEREDITH MONK: Right. Exactly.
FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s so interesting hearing other people singing music and hearing you sing your work, which sort of defies the notion of tessitura and range. People are able to sing much wider areas of pitch bandwidth, if you would, than the classical tradition says they can.
MEREDITH MONK: In Houston, when I was teaching 6 singers Dolmen Music, the soprano couldn’t sing F below middle C, for example, because she said, “I’m a soprano,” and I said, “Gee, well, Monica Solem, for whom I made that part, sings up to high E’s and sings that F.” And then I realized, wow, the soprano won’t go below middle C… We never think in those terms, and also I do a lot of things with the men singing falsetto and the women singing way down and, you know, there’s always this real fluid thing about sound; sound and gender.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, so when you first formed the Ensemble, you weren’t working with classically-trained singers. Where did these singers come from?
MEREDITH MONK: Well, those singers that I’m thinking of… Andrea Goodman, Robert Een, Paul Langland… they were people that were in my music-theater work of the mid-’70s. Actually, the shift to the Ensemble came when I was working on a piece called Quarry, and it was a big opera with about 42 people in it. There was a chorus of 28 young people that I auditioned who were really strong singers and movers. I had a lot of fun working on big choral sound and movement pieces with them. So it was very inspiring and then I chose three of the really strong singers from that group – Susan Kampe, Andrea Goodman and Monica Solem – and made a piece called Tablet. Up to that point, in most of the more theatrical, operatic pieces, I was doing most of the singing myself. I was also performing solo music concerts at that time. In the music-theater pieces, I was singing with keyboard, organ or piano, and then if there were people singing other parts they were much simpler, because I was working with people that came more from movement or acting backgrounds who could sing, but didn’t really have developed musical chops. But when I had the chorus, there were some wonderful, wonderful musicians, so I made this piece Tablet, and each of the vocal parts was as complex as the others, so it wasn’t that I was the soloist and I had my backup group. That was a breakthrough for me, and then with Dolmen Music in 1979, I added the 3 men, so then I was exploring what men’s voices could do, you know, what was going on there, even though Julius Eastman was also singing falsetto in that piece. We were all flipping back and forth from high to low. Working with that group was very exciting for me because it was a way that I could make my textures more complex. So I could work with more complex forms in terms of color and texture, I could really play with vocal landscape.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, with pieces like that, you work very closely with the singers involved, you workshop them, for even the solo pieces. Let’s go back even further because you made a comment about how it would be difficult for another singer to take on a lot of the solo work that you were doing. Are there notations for those pieces? Are they the same, were they fixed, completely fixed pieces, as it were, in our conception of what that means?
MEREDITH MONK: [laughs] I would say a little of both! Well, let’s see, if you listen to Songs from the Hill in 1976 and now, because I’m still singing it and still find those forms extremely challenging, you would know that they were the same songs and there’s one section, another section, the third section, and another section. So those forms have pretty much stayed the same. But you can hear how from one performance to the next, there’s a difference. Because if I’m inspired and something interesting comes up at a certain place in the material, I might stay there a little while and then go back. Again, it’s the tree and the branch metaphor. I’m on the trunk of the tree and I’m going up, and then there might be this little branch where I hang out for a while, but then I’ll always go back to the trunk again. So the form will be the same, but within it there is space to be inspired in the moment. The parameters are quite defined, so the challenge is to convey the intricacy and precision as well as the freedom of it to another singer. And even syllabilization, how one thing works and how something else doesn’t work… It’s really hard to explain it sometimes; the impulses are very hard to explain.