Meredith Monk: Composer First

6. Instrumental Music

MEREDITH MONK: The instrumental thing, for me, is much more a kind of carpet, or a stabilizing force that the voice can jump from, can spin from…

FRANK J. OTERI: …kind of like the continuo in Baroque music

MEREDITH MONK: You know, it’s like being on a carpet, and then the voice can have total freedom with that; the voice can always jump off from it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, you have written some non-vocal works. You have written a few instrumental pieces.

MEREDITH MONK: A few. [laughs] I’m working on one now! [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: How did those happen? What led you to… was that performer driven? Was that through work with other pianists like Nurit Tilles and Anthony De Mare?

MEREDITH MONK: Well, I never actually wrote anything for Tony. He basically played some of the pieces that were solo piano pieces or piano and voice pieces and solo arrangements of group pieces. Coming from the piano as a young child, it would be organic for me to write some piano pieces. For example, I wrote a solo piano piece called “Paris” which ended up being a kind of overture for a chamber music theater piece by the same name that I made with Ping Chong. I liked the idea of having a funny pianist as a character within a theatrical context. First he comes in, does an exaggerated bow, opens up his music by unfolding it like an accordion, and then he sits down at the piano and plays the piece. It seemed that the solo piano was the right sound for Paris; I didn’t really need a vocal line for that piece. But I generally think that my instrumental knowledge is much less developed than my knowledge of the voice. So now I’ve been very interested in trying to open that up a little bit and have been working on orchestration.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you would be interested in writing, say, for a symphony orchestra?

MEREDITH MONK: Well, I actually have been asked by Michael Tilson Thomas to write a piece for the New World Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. Instrumental or with chorus?

MEREDITH MONK: He said to try to stay with orchestra and maybe add a few solo singers. It will definitely have singing in there, too, but to think about working with a full orchestra is daunting, so I feel like it’s something that I’ve been cautious about. I’ve deliberately kept my instrumental writing very simple. I know for some people, it seems simple-minded, but for me it’s more a way to provide a lot of space in the sound so that the vocal parts can be as complex as possible. That’s been my strategy.

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of working with instrumentalists, that whole tactile notion of music, how does that translate? Because here you have people who are equally entrenched as a result of their training into what you can do and what you can’t do.


FRANK J. OTERI: And a lot of the vocal stuff evolved because you, as a singer, knew it could be done.


FRANK J. OTERI: And you could do certain things on the piano because you play the piano. It comes out of your own performance.


FRANK J. OTERI: But what happens when you deal with, you know, “Well, what can an oboe do?” Or “What can a French horn do?” And you talk to somebody who says, “Well, this can’t be done.”

MEREDITH MONK: Well, I’ve had wonderful experiences with instrumentalists, like the group of people who played ATLAS, which was a little chamber orchestra. They were so open to even giving suggestions from the pit, which was pretty amazing. And I think that they really appreciated that I was really interested in hearing what they had to say. My French horn player had a whole new mute sound that I had never heard before. I was really open to suggestions even though the music was pretty much complete by the time we started rehearsing. There was a lot of give and take. And, if you’re usually sitting in the pit, that never is allowed. So, so far, every instrumentalist that I’ve ever met that wanted me to write something for them, has been totally generous and interested in showing me what the instrument can do. And I think that a lot of musicians are wanting to try to open up the instruments to other possibilities.

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the problems with working with symphony orchestras is the rehearsal schedule. It’s absurd. You get 2 rehearsals, 3 if you’re lucky.

MEREDITH MONK: That’s right.

FRANK J. OTERI: And that’s it. And your music really is about, you referred to your performers earlier in this conversation as “midwives.”

MEREDITH MONK: [laughs] Patient midwives.

FRANK J. OTERI: People in symphony orchestras are not ever able to be midwives. They’re playing the same repertoire over and over again largely because it’s repertoire they know, they don’t have to rehearse it.

MEREDITH MONK: Well, you see, the thing that’s so wonderful about Michael is that he understands my process very well. His idea, which we haven’t gotten to yet because it’s going to take years of my studying instrumentation, is for me to go down to the New World Symphony, which is an ensemble of young performers, and try some material, to do the same thing that I do with my ensemble. See how it works, let them play with it a little bit, do this, do that. And then I’ll go back and work on it some more, and then go back again and then finish it. And then for something like the San Francisco Symphony, it would be a finished score, but basically, we’d use the New World Symphony as a way of playing with some of the material, and he feels that these young performers would just love to do that. That’s the thing that is so beautiful about him as a conductor. Even hearing him do something like the Rite of Spring… He has a series in San Francisco called American Mavericks, and so I’ve been doing that for about the last 3 or 4 years. And they were doing a Stravinsky program the day before my concert, so I went. I mean, it sounded like those guys were cooking. I mean, they were cooking! And you know what a symphony orchestra situation is, but you felt that they were improvising even though they weren’t. It was so lively, and I feel that Michael really understands that the idea is to let people play, to get out of the way of the players, even as a conductor of a symphony orchestra.

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