MEREDITH MONK: I feel like I’ve been more successful transferring the group pieces, particularly the choral pieces…
FRANK J. OTERI: Are those pieces worked out before you even work with the singers? How much of it evolves through the process of the workshopping?
MEREDITH MONK: There are different gradations. Usually I come in with my material, I work alone for quite a while, and then I come in to the rehearsal and I try the material. So in that way I’m really lucky, I’ve got these people, and I can hear it right away. Then I go back and work alone again, and then I’ll work again with a group and then I’ll finally put it together. That’s the standard format. From time to time, I have come in with the forms totally complete, but I prefer to teach them orally than to have them on paper. But I have come in from time to time with something on paper. That happens more when we don’t have a lot of rehearsal time. The way I usually work is labor-intensive. It really is.
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s interesting.
MEREDITH MONK: These performers are so patient. They’re like midwives, it’s like giving birth to this thing and I’m working right on those voices, you know, right there, “Okay, Theo, try singing that note. Katie, you sing that.” And then I remember that, when Nurit Tilles, that wonderful pianist who came in to work with us, around the beginning of the 1980s, I guess around 1983, she was amazed at how Robert Een and Andrea Goodman could learn material in one rehearsal and come back the next day with it imprinted in their minds. Then if I wanted to change something, they could re-learn it in the new way.
FRANK J. OTERI: How do you choose the people you work with?
MEREDITH MONK: It’s a very intuitive kind of process. For example, I was teaching at Oberlin in 1974, and making a new piece there. And Andrea was a student. She wasn’t even in the Conservatory but she was a very good musician. The first day I walked into Oberlin, I met my next door neighbor – this guy Michael who was a keyboard player – in the dorm, and somehow got to singing Sacred Harp with him. Andrea heard us and she knocked on the door and came in and started reading through these Sacred Harps pieces. I heard that she had a wonderful voice and was very musical so I asked her to be in my piece. So then, after she graduated from Oberlin, she came to New York, and I said, “do you want to be in Quarry?” So that was that.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
MEREDITH MONK: The same with Robert Een. He was in Minnesota. We worked with a chorus of local performers for our production of Quarry there. I had sent a few members of the original cast to do some preliminary work with the chorus. When I went to a rehearsal and saw Bob, I said, “Who is this amazing person?” They said that he wanted to sing and when I heard him, I gave him as much to sing as I could in that production, he sang so well. A few months later, he came to New York and walked into a rehearsal and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world, and then later he moved to New York to become a member of the Ensemble. So in those days, it wasn’t really so much an audition process as who naturally gravitated to this work. I started working with many of these performers from the time they were in their early 20s. They grew up with this way of thinking of things, and this way of working with the voice, so I didn’t have to go through the same process that I did with some of the people that I worked with in ATLAS, where I had to break down some of the Western European thinking about the voice. Coming back to notation, I remember, in 1994 we did American Archaeology, which was a huge outdoor piece, and we only had 2 weeks of rehearsal. So there were music pieces in the show that the group learned from paper. But basically our process is more oral or aural tradition. With the hocket from Facing North, that was even in the process of working on the piece. There is no way that you could learn and perform a piece as fast as that by reading from the page. There’s no way. It has to be in the muscle memory of your vocal cords.