Meredith Monk: Composer First

8. Indeterminacy and Conceptualism

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you feel that your work is at all connected to the work of John Cage and indeterminate music, and the post-Cage conceptualists like Robert Ashley or Alvin Lucier or other people who were doing things at that time you started your artistic explorations?

MEREDITH MONK: I feel like I must have been a hermit in New York or something, [laughs], because I really didn’t know that much about it at that time. The first time I ever heard Bob’s work was in 1970 at a festival in Santa Barbara, and that’s also the first time I ever met Pauline Oliveros. Ashley was in the ONCE group, and I had read a lot about the ONCE group but I had never heard their work. The first time I heard Alvin’s music was in 1974 in Sonic Arts. The Sonic Arts Union was Alvin, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman and Bob Ashley. And I was just blown away by all 4 of them, and I remember saying to them, “If I can call myself an artist and you’re artists, I’m really proud to be part of the same race,” you know? [laughs] I just felt that their work was absolutely amazing. But in my beginnings, I definitely was not aware of their work. I was aware of people like Philip Corner and Malcolm Goldstein. They were friends of mine. Dick Higgins was a friend of mine. And I loved what they did, but I felt that for me it was really more about going to some sort of source, which was singing… Just going right back to the instrument itself. That was really how I was working, for better or for worse.

FRANK J. OTERI: Although it’s very different, Robert Ashley’s work has mostly evolved along similar lines, thinking about the voice, and thinking about new theater forms, but his work is much more about text and language.

MEREDITH MONK: His exploration of language is really, really powerful.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, where do you fall vis-à-vis somebody like Cage, who really opened up the doors for a lot of this.

MEREDITH MONK: Well, I became friends with John at the end of his life. I sang his piece Aria for him upstate, and we hung out and cooked mushrooms that he had picked that day. [laughs] So we got to be really good friends. Also, in the ’70′s, in the mid-’70′s, I sang for some of Merce‘s events. I sang with my organ and the Cunningham Company danced, and that was the first time I actually really met John, and he was very supportive of my music at that time. During the time I was at Sarah Lawrence one summer, there was a class that Merce was giving, which was called “Suite by Chance.” We threw coins and made movement material and then found different kinds of permutations by throwing coins and putting different phrases together, different parts of the body together. I enjoyed it very much, but I think that intuitively, I knew that it wasn’t the path for me. I think that one of the first energizing principles for John was to try to get away from habitual patterns. And I think that in the beginning of my work, I hadn’t gotten to habitual patterns that you have to break down! [laughs] So it was really more an organic kind of way of working.

FRANK J. OTERI: And in some way, your work is about creating new types of habitual patterns.

MEREDITH MONK: Well, after doing all these pieces all these years, I have to find ways to get past my habitual vocal patterns and try to find new ways of working with the voice, and I think as you go along and you’ve been doing a lot of work over the years you’ve got this backpack of your own history weighing you down.

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the things that’s so difficult is people expect to go hear a new piece, and for it to sound like what they know, but if it sounds like what they know, they’re upset and they’ll say, “Oh, it’s just the same thing again!” But if it doesn’t sound that way, they’ll think, “Well, what’s this about? How does this connect to the work?”

MEREDITH MONK: Exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: The other night I was watching a videotape of The Politics of Quiet, and I was blown away by some of the harmonies that were going on in the third act. They’re completely unlike anything I’ve heard from you before, but it was fabulous. I heard it as an extension of what had gone on before, but it was going somewhere new, I thought.

MEREDITH MONK: I keep trying. I like to put myself in risk situations. I don’t like to say the word “like” because the process is sometimes incredibly painful, but it’s more this idea of trying to start from zero as much as possible. And it’s being able to tolerate hanging in the unknown for a while. Because otherwise you’re just repeating what you know already. It’s more of this thing of the unknown. Flailing about for a while, and that’s why again my ensemble‘s so patient, because they see me flailing about, trying to find what I know I’m looking for but I don’t know what it is. And that’s not an easy process, but I think it’s the only way that you ever find the mystery. You know, it’s really the only way that you get to a renewal of creative energy. It’s the R&D part of the field rather than the production line aspect.

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