Meredith Monk at the National Sawdust Theatre.
Maybe it’s a post–11/9 condition, a porousness to emotion, but whatever it is (or isn’t), Meredith Monk, who performed last night at the National Sawdust Theatre in Williamsburg, spoke to me as no other performer has in a while. By the simplest of means: made-up words (from the Monkian lexicon) and a handful of minor chords at the piano. I guess this is what the critics mean when they talk about the “transfiguration of the commonplace.” She faced us at audience level, on a stage barely larger than a living room. “I think we’re all in need of lullabies now,” she said as she sat at the piano, and played her “Gotham Lullaby” from Dolmen Music: her cries, hesitations, and pauses nearly brought me to tears. I was not alone.
Born in 1942—six years after Steve Reich, seven years after Philip Glass—Monk is the perhaps the best-known female member of the generation of New York minimalist composers who revolutionized American concert music in the 1970s. She shares some of their predilections: an incantatory use of repetition; an unabashed embrace of tonality; a fascination with non-European, often sacred and ceremonial, forms of expression; and, not least, a blurring of the distinction between composer and performer. Like Reich and Glass, she is of Jewish origin, with an awareness of the fragility of civilization; like them, she has explored some of the great questions of modern life in her operas, particularly our destructive relationship to nature, what Adorno and Horkheimer called the “dialectic of Enlightenment.”
Yet her work, long overshadowed by her more famous male peers, is in no way an extension of theirs. (Monk says she was not even aware of their work until the early 1970s; her path has always been a solitary one.) It has a distinctive humility, a kind of écriture feminine averse to bombastic, monumental gestures; even her large-scale works feel like conversations among a group of friends, rather than Statements. Reich and Glass performed some of their first concerts at the Whitney because mainstream concert halls initially spurned them; but Monk, who started out as a choreographer, emerged from the world of New York dance and performance art, and her music is, at its core, an art of the body: its irrepressible need for expression, its conversion of flesh into word.
Or wordlessness, rather: for Monk’s singing draws on an entirely imaginary language—a language she invented to express something more intimate, more visceral, than words could achieve. In Monk’s voice—and in the voices of the extraordinary singers in her ensembles—we hear a startling range of sounds, from guttural bass notes to birdlike shrieks. A theater of voices, not unlike the experimental theater of the 1960s, when directors like Jerzy Grotowski worked closely with small troupes of actors in the woods, seeking to transcend the merely performative, the boundary between performer and audience. This, I think, is what accounts for the almost physical impact of Monk’s music: it strips us of our defenses just as the greatest soul singers do.
At the Sawdust Theatre, Monk, a diminutive, lithe yet strong woman, appeared as she always does: wearing a waiflike skirt, her hair pulled back in her two signature braids. I have been listening to Monk’s work for more than two decades, but it was only when she began singing that I became aware of how hungry I was to hear her—it’s the kind of hunger you experience only when you encounter live art this nourishing. She sang new, “cellular” songs; old favorites, like the devastating “Do You Be”; and selections from her 1991 opera, Atlas, and her most recent work, On Behalf of Nature.
Throughout the concert (presented by the World Music Institute) she offered her art like a gift, expecting nothing in return. At one point—a shock for many of us in the audience—a tall blonde woman suddenly walked up to the piano, and gave it a friendly knock. A fan? No, a collaborator, who joined Monk in song, echoing her in canons. Another singer, also blonde, also female, arrived just as casually moments later, and together the three of them launched into a riveting passage from Atlas. The music moved between states of joy and pain, ecstasy and terror, as if Monk were walking the line between the promise of life and the abyss into which we’ll fall if we fail to honor it. We’re closer to the latter this week. To listen to Monk last night was to remember all that we have to live for.
Adam Shatz is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, and a fellow in residence at the New York Institute for the Humanities.