Meredith Monk: Composer First

4. Seeing vs. Listening

FRANK J. OTERI: This century has seen so many battlegrounds for what the future of music should be, from the very beginning to even now that we’re in a new century, but there was a very concerted rebellion that happened against academic music in the 1960s when the whole minimalist movement came up, and then an equal rebellion in the more entrenched academic world when people turned back to tonality. And people were saying, we want to create music where you can hear the structures rather than just stuff that you can see. Now, you sort of take it one step further: these are not only structures you can hear, but that you can actually feel, physically. And I remember being at a performance that you did at the Church of St. Mark’s in the Bowery, I guess it was last year, it was this very nice solstice celebration…

MEREDITH MONK: The Celebration Service, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: And I thought this was so interesting, and I was reminded of an essay that Steve Reich had written 30 years ago about how he wanted to have this conductorless music where someone was making a pattern, and they would change the pattern, and that would be the signal that would allow everybody to go on to the next place. So you wouldn’t get a visual cue, you’d get an aural cue that you could hear. Then I saw your ensemble, and they were touching each other, they were making movements and the cues were tactile rather than visual…

MEREDITH MONK: [laughs] I know which piece you’re talking about!

FRANK J. OTERI: I thought this is so cool because you can just picture the conservatory-trained classical musician in an orchestra saying, ‘don’t touch me!’ You know? [laughs]

MEREDITH MONK: Right. That’s very interesting. I never really thought about that. I guess I think of my music as very visceral; it’s very sculptural in a certain way. And it starts right from the center of the body, and then it goes from there. So that’s already this visceral way of thinking of the body and the voice: a kinetic way of singing. So again, it’s something I’ve just taken for granted. But when I started working with classically-trained singers for ATLAS, for example, at the Houston Grand Opera, I realized it was hard to find that, because the Western classical tradition is about standing and planting yourself. There’s an idea that if you plant yourself, that you can get your notes. But, in fact, there is a relationship between the vitality of the voice and the freedom of the body, not having to necessarily jump around in space but working with the unfettered use of the whole body. I like to call it the dancing voice and the singing body. I think that relationship makes for a much more lively kind of singing all around. ATLAS made me realize notions that I had just taken for granted or that I had been working with all these years but then when people are coming from another planet into this planet, you begin to look at it in a different way, yourself. I think what Steve was thinking and writing about is something that happens a lot in Indonesian music or Balinese or Javanese gamelan, which is, there is a sound signal and then a pattern changes. It needs that aural acuteness; my music does also. I’ve never liked to use paper, particularly not to teach anybody the music, because you lose that fine sense of listening. Paper memorization is one step too many. It’s like the memorization of the eye. Even people who have photographic memories are one step away from the music itself.

FRANK J. OTERI: They’re not hearing it. They’re seeing what’s on the paper, and then they’re playing or singing.

MEREDITH MONK: I don’t think that all of my music, particularly the solo pieces, transfers that easily to another singer, unless it’s from the aural tradition of me really teaching somebody what the parameters might be, to keep the freedom, but the rigor at the same time.

FRANK J. OTERI: And that’s something that notation can’t communicate…

MEREDITH MONK: I don’t think that you can completely capture the essence or the principles of my music on paper. A lot of what I do seems less complicated than it is by looking at the score. So I’m struggling with it right now, because at the same time I’m feeling that I want to be open-hearted and let other people sing my music if they want to. I think that some of my music, like the hocketing in Facing North, could not be easily learned from notation. Actually, I did write out the melody of the hocket that Bob [Een] and I were singing, and we tried working on it that way. We found that the body is actually faster than the eye and faster than the mind. So, in fact, in a form where you’re throwing things back and forth that fast, you’re slowing yourself down by having that visual image in your mind. You’re one step away from the actual action.

FRANK J. OTERI: We’re such a visually-oriented society and sometimes we have to overcome that. I always get upset when people say things like, “Oh, I went to see a concert last night.”

MEREDITH MONK: [laughs] Yeah, right.

FRANK J. OTERI: Aren’t we hearing concerts?

MEREDITH MONK: Uh huh.

FRANK J. OTERI: When people say they’re going to send me a tape or a disc or something, rather than saying, “I’m looking forward to it,” I’ve been trying to get myself in the habit of saying, “Listening forward to it!” Our language is so visual; our metaphor are mostly visual. I have a very close friend who’s blind, and even he’ll say, “When am I going to see you?”

MEREDITH MONK: Right.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is really bizarre, because he never sees me! But it’s built into our language. It’s ingrained in us; we have these visual words that affect everything we do. And even music, the only non-visual art form we have ever fully developed, has been made visual through notation, through conductors, through cueing, through things along those lines.

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