I wish C.P. Snow could have been there. Had the author of the celebrated 1959 “Two Cultures” lecture been able to attend the Edinburgh International Festival Conversation between Philip Campbell (editor of Nature magazine) and multimedia artist Meredith Monk, I believe he would have been heartened by the effortlessly resonant conversation between two representatives from either side of the once irreconcilable science/humanities divide. The talk took place on the eve of the European première of Monk’s On Behalf of Nature.

Meredith Monk © Cameron Wittig courtesy Walker Art Center
Meredith Monk
© Cameron Wittig courtesy Walker Art Center

The title is taken from an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Gary Snyder entitled Writers and the War Against Nature. It features the phrase, “speaking on behalf of nature”. Monk’s omission of the word “speaking” makes sense when you hear her wordless vocal writing. She believes words to be so freighted with associations that their inclusion weakens any endeavour to express or to apprehend the ineffable. Reportage of the ineffable ought to be regarded as personal rather than definitive. And so this work consists of “extended vocal techniques”, music, choreography, costume, lighting and film.

The cast of eight, at first glance, appeared to comprise three instrumentalists and five vocalists/dancers known as Vocal Ensemble. However, some moments featured all eight in centre stage. Allison Sniffin, the musical director of Monk’s composition, played a major vocal role. The instrumentalists covered the bowed, the blown and the struck with violin, horn, clarinets (ranging upward from contrabass) keyboard, vibraphone, marimba and unpitched percussion. The music’s minimalist element seemed influenced more by Reich then Glass due to its melodic angularity, syncopated rhythm and sophisticated harmony. The wealth of counterpoint suggested many hours of compositional rigour.

Vocal Ensemble were very impressive. Despite near-constant choreography, shortage of breath was never a problem. Their “extended vocal techniques” – a radical departure from the European bel canto ideal – included melodic lines which were not only angular in themselves but often tangential to the harmony of the moment; a wide variety of consonant and vowel play in addition to various sound effects; and very impressive pitching, including moments where notes plucked from the silent air proved to be at pitch with instruments joining in after extended passages of vocal counterpoint. Also impressive and moving were several vocal two-part inventions, the most impressive of which climaxed with singers supplying alternate notes.

Monk had specified in the talk that the work was loosely in three sections, defined by colour, lighting and costume: blue sea; red earth; white air. My impression was that the movements intimated the emergence of life forms from the sea; birds taking wing; insect life, including rhythmic stridulations; the development of humanity, pair-bonding, society, ageing – and eventually, transport and industry. From here things appeared to go downhill. In the red earth phase, cries of alarm seemed to be raised; the injured Earth was injuring its inhabitants, both in the animal kingdom and in human societies living closer to the earth than we feel ourselves to be. In one particularly affecting duo moment, Monk’s anxieties were counterpointed by percussionist John Hollenbeck, eliciting the sounds of a distressed animal from a cuica. During this otherwise dark chapter there was one strangely joyous passage of bouncy, contrapuntal singing and energetic dancing perhaps suggesting that partying, and the materialistic joy it might represent here, also comes at a price.

The final white air phase, which contained some of the work’s most haunting music, seemed to be asking of us, “what now?” Arms extended, Monk placed one upwardly turned palm on the other before directing her fingertips at herself and then us. This silent gesture was repeated, the message feeling all the more powerful for its wordlessness.

What I loved most in the music was the harmony, whether in the form of synchronous notes or counterpoint collage. If pressed, I would have to say that it was tonal. However, pinpointing the key with speedy certainty at any given moment seems to be beyond the skill of ordinary mortals. The result was a musical language which felt at once grounded and mobile. The rhythmic nature of much of the music, coupled with the energising wide vocal leaps ensured that the “story” kept moving forward.

The work’s ecological ethos included Yoshio Yabara fashioning costumes from the cast’s old clothes. This was at its most effective when the many fringed layers of one dancer began to rise as she whirled, Dervish-like, across the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s bare stage.

This was one of the most unusual and captivating events I have attended for some time. The show has moved on and there is, as of yet, no recording. Perhaps, without the dramatic elements, the music might make less sense. Nonetheless, I feel quite bereft at the thought of not hearing it again.

*****