Meredith Monk celebrated her 50th composiversary with a thoughtful look across her eclectic catalog of compositions, beginning with her first songs in the late 1960s to present compositions just gaining attention. “We’re going to take a trip down memory lane,” the composer joked just before commencing the program with a selection of early works for solo voice.

Monk performed four of her songs written over a span of almost 20 years, and the first of these, from Juice (1969), was one of the first that she had ever written. Monk showed off her technical finesse by utilizing a melodic form of overtone singing while exhibiting her use of not only elongating and emphasizing vowel sounds, but also stretching the duration of consonants. These first four songs perfectly exemplify how several of her compositions are not to be defined by lyrics. While her performances often tell a narrative story, the words do not necessarily drive the plot forward, rather the music and choreography take that responsibility. From just these songs as well, we can see an influence of Southwest Native American vocal music and chant as well as a sophisticated control of the mouth and lungs. For example, Click Song from Songs from the Hill (1975-1976) shows how the voice can be percussive and does not always have to be purposed for long, legato phrases. Monk described the song as a duet for solo voice because the hummed melody ardently scampers through a coherent field of tongue clicking. The final of the four songs featured a juice harp (Jew’s harp) as an accompaniment to the composer’s steady hum. The twangy sounds of the Ozark instrument highlighted Monk’s inclination toward the whimsical nature of music and life in general.

Monk described Hips Dance from Volcano Songs: Duets (1993) as being the opposite of the Click Song; instead of a duet for solo voice, Hips Dance is a solo for two voices. While the vocalists were equipped with different vocal ranges and weights, the two vocal lines intertwined so succinctly in pitch and color that it was almost impossible to distinguish between them. Vocalist Katie Geissinger intuitively adapted Monk’s concept and performed it with only the highest level of artistry. Vocalist Theo Bleckmann also demonstrated a mature comprehension of Monk’s intentions when he joined the other two vocalists for Panda Chant I from The Games (1984). The title might be a bit misleading because the piece has nothing to do with a bamboo-eating creature. Instead, it evokes thoughts a psychotic train ride from the rhythmic accentuation of the word “panda”, and the stylization of the male and female vocals, one sounding like fleeting beatboxer while the other interjects tidy yodels.

Bleckmann and Geissinger performed Hocket from Facing North (1990), which is like a game of Pong for the two vocalists. The form, taken from a style predominantly used in the 13th and 14th centuries, alternates a melody built from notes passed between one voice and the other, in a sense blending the two together into one singular line. In Monk’s Hocket, the two vocalists begin by passing the accompaniment figure back and forth to braid a solid foundation before the hocket-style melody to finally emerges. The performance from these talented vocalists was certainly one of the most interesting on the program.

Dolmen Music (1979) is one of Monk’s most defining works, and it rightfully closed the first half of the concert. Vocalists Sidney Chen, Ching Gonzalez, Andrea Goodman, and Naaz Hosseini joined the aforementioned three along with cellist Brian Snow. In this piece, the cello introduces a chant-like melody in the instrument’s extreme register at the end of the fingerboard on the lowest string. Three women and three men sit on opposing sides of the cello and often appear to operate in dialogue and harmony. The women intuitively take the chant from the cello and the men follow; however, the chant quickly morphs into querulous dialogue before reverting back to the chant’s conclusion. The composition goes through a series of episodes in which individual voices, or groups of voices, leave the congregation, sometimes to go off on a tangent and sometimes to join another in gentle meditation.

Like her woven vocal lines, the second half of the program included Monk’s newer works from mercy (2001), impermanence (2004-2006) and On Behalf of Nature (2013), strung together in a sort of uninterrupted theatrical work. Here, woodwind aficionado Bohdan Hilash, percussionist John Hollenbeck, and the multi-talented Allison Sniffin joined the vocalists to illuminate Monk’s writing for instrumentalists. Influenced by minimalism and neatly tonal, her instrumental writing does not expand technical prowess like that of her vocal writing, but in any case, Monk’s newer works have a heightened emphasis on choreography and bring the performers closer together through non-musical means. For instance, in impermanence, “skeleton lines” draws much attention to the group of vocalists making sharp gestures with angled arms and heavy legs while the “band” performs a kind of speakeasy soundtrack. The set of compositions worked very well to make up a cohesive story, ending with “core chant” from mercy, which has recently been featured on the soundtrack to the HBO television series True Detective.

Monk encored with one of her “Breath Songs”, jokingly adding “if I don’t pass out.”

 

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