Celebrating the Quiet, Restorative Power of Art Composer Meredith Monk Sifts through History and Memory for Cultural Healing

By Christopher Reardon, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Celebrating the Quiet, Restorative Power of Art Composer Meredith Monk Sifts through History and Memory for Cultural Healing


Christopher Reardon, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Wherever she goes, Meredith Monk seems to find a space that lends itself to contemplation. Not long ago, she sat in a leafy courtyard at the Union Theological Seminary, a few steps from the bustle of Broadway, and mused about her prolific career as a composer, singer, filmmaker, choreographer, and dancer.

"I have always believed the arts can have a healing influence," said Ms. Monk, a slight woman with ethereal eyes and long, braided hair. "We live in a culture where televisions and computers are constantly bombarding us. I want my work to open the senses rather than numb them."

The restorative power of art in a rapidly fragmenting society is a central theme in "The Politics of Quiet," Monk's latest fusion of music, dance, and film. First staged in Copenhagen in July, the piece will have its American premiere Sept. 27 at the Lied Center for the Performing Arts in Lincoln, Neb. (See below for subsequent dates.) Slew of new works Long acknowledged as a pioneering force in the performing arts, Monk has never been in greater demand than now. In 1995, she received a $315,000 "genius" award from the MacArthur Foundation. This year, for an encore, she won the $25,000 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement in modern dance. As if to justify these honors, she has delivered a slew of new works in recent months. Besides "The Politics of Quiet," she composed a nonsectarian musical service to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American Guild of Organists in July. She has also released a new recording, "Monk and the Abbess" (Catalyst/BMG), that sets her music beside songs by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century nun. "I'm interested in breaking down the boundaries of the conventional performing arts," says Monk, who runs her own dance troupe, The House, as well as her own choral group, the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble. "I could always take comfort from {French filmmaker} Jean Cocteau because he saw making films as a way of writing poetry in a different dimension. In a way, that's what I'm trying to do." Monk fashions herself a musical archaeologist, an itinerant composer who sifts through the sediment of history and memory to reveal an archetypal past. Her trademark is a vocal technique that peels back the accretions of language to reach the essence of human speech: breathing. She works with phonemes - monosyllabic whispers, gurgles, and howls - rather than words, and from these elemental utterances she constructs lush melodies and closely layered harmonies. The effect is vaguely like listening to choral music in a foreign tongue. Her work is hard to pin down. You can call it either postmodern or primitive, depending on whether you take her utterances to be a deconstruction of language or its precursor. In the "Grove Dictionary of American Music," critic Gregory Sandow writes that "at times Monk sounds as if she might be singing ethnic music from a culture she invented herself. …

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