Meredith Monk: Composer First
FRANK J. OTERI: You said you did folk music and rock music. What’s your view of that music now? Do you listen to that music still, do you identify with performers in that world?
MEREDITH MONK: My early influences as far as folk music were concerned were people like Peggy Seeger and Cynthia Gooding. There was a real excitement in folk music, and there was some nice singing going on. And then rock… I was in a rock band called The Inner Ear for a while but I knew I needed to devote my energy to my own music. After I had been performing for a few years my early pieces where I was working with very primal, very edgy vocal qualities, there were maybe six months or so in 1968 when I got very depressed. I felt that maybe I had closed off my possibilities by getting too intellectual with my music. Then I heard Janis Joplin, and she blew me away. It was that idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder or the ear of the beholder, that beauty is anything you want it to be, basically. She was going back to a much rawer way of singing, anything could be possible with voice. Hearing her was a wake up call to remind myself that the freedom was really where my source was. And so, then I went back to really singing and composing full out, raw, very visceral kind of music.
FRANK J. OTERI: Did you get to know Janis Joplin?
MEREDITH MONK: I met her once at a party but I never got to know her, which I feel very sad about, but I did have the privilege of hearing her live, which was just unbelievable, a wall of energy coming at you. It was just extraordinary.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, one big difference between what you do and the whole popular music world today, is that music is so largely about electronics and amplification, and your music is almost ancient in its purity. It’s really about acoustic sound, acoustic phenomenon.
MEREDITH MONK: I think one of the reasons that I didn’t want to push into the rock and roll form… even though my first record was with Don Preston (we did a piece called “Candy Bullets and Moon”)… is that part of the pleasure is finding new forms. So that’s why I didn’t go into the rock field, per se. Jazz is the same thing – it has its own language. And I guess, for me, I was trying to find my own language.
FRANK J. OTERI: Although there certainly are people within the rock world who’ve challenged that notion…
MEREDITH MONK: Oh, yeah.
MEREDITH MONK: Sure. Definitely.
FRANK J. OTERI: Even people today, a group like Sonic Youth is questioning what it means.
MEREDITH MONK: Definitely. But, I just felt that I needed to go more into finding my own way of saying things, I guess, as far as form is concerned, for whatever reason, I have no idea! That was the way I was thinking.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, with jazz, it’s very interesting. I remember the first time I bought one of your records. I knew you were not a jazz artist, but I bought the record in the jazz section of the record store.
MEREDITH MONK: That’s probably because of ECM.
FRANK J. OTERI: It was on ECM, and people at the time couldn’t conceive of ECM as more than a jazz label, so at Tower Records, when it just had opened up on 4th Street and Broadway in New York City, I got my first Steve Reich record, you know, in the jazz section…
MEREDITH MONK: Right.
FRANK J. OTERI: …and a Meredith Monk record in the jazz section.
MEREDITH MONK: That seems fine to me. Because jazz musicians right from the beginning of the time that I was working vocally were very, very supportive of what I was doing. Extremely supportive.
FRANK J. OTERI: I know you worked with Collin Walcott.
MEREDITH MONK: He was one of my dearest friends. And then, you know, all those guys in Oregon, they were really supportive, and then Sam Rivers, I mean, there were people that were really saying, “Go for it!” From that world, the jazz world particularly, you know, so I felt good that it was in the jazz category, at that time it was fine with me, but I still feel like they don’t know where to put me in a record store. So then they just don’t put me anywhere! [laughs] So that’s been one of my problems. But getting back to the acoustic thing, I feel that the voice can do anything that a synthesizer can do. Until I stop being utterly fascinated with the human voice, I feel that I’ll pretty much stay with the voice.