An electric organ stood in the corner of WBAI’s studio on January 23. Next to it was the only source of light in the room, an electric hurricane lamp which emitted a harsh glow over the crowd. Presently, Meredith Monk entered and took her place at the organ, suggestive shadows thrown on her face by the curious lamp. As she began to play, both the organ and the music seemed surprisingly conventional, considering her reputation for doing extremely unconventional things. It would have sounded almost like some old Protestant hymns, except that it occasionally developed rhythmic spasms and often fell into repeated patterns.
Then she began singing and the mood changed drastically: loud nasal sounds, disarming sounds, squealing sounds, wordless whines, and just plain caterwauling—an impression of a woman gone mad perhaps. It didn’t seem very disciplined or musical, but I wasn’t too surprised since she is basically a choreographer and probably doesn’t have much musical training. But then I started to notice that she was repeating some of those screaming phrases, and hitting exactly the same pitches every time. Before long my suspicions that she might be faking musically had to be completely abandoned, as it became clear that she was very much in control of her personal vocal language. And it is quite a versatile language too.
She uses at least three or four completely distinct types of vocal sound, several newly discovered consonants, new kinds of glottal stops, purposely-out-of-tune effects which I have never heard before, and a variety of other techniques even harder to describe. She also projects everything very well, and managed to fill the Free Music Store space quite adequately without amplification. And aside from being vocally astounding, it all seemed to mean something—something strange and plaintive, which was not at all hard to relate to after becoming acclimated to the new language.
After performing four or five short numbers in this style, the overhead lights went on and she danced a solo in silence. It was a very intricate dance with hundreds of little movements. It had a cool pedestrian quality, but incorporated many narrative and even pantomimic gestures. At times one could almost interpret them. But, as in her music, she never let you get quite that close.
It was a short program, but more than enough to convince me that I should look into ‘Key,’ her new album on the Increase label. Much of the album consists of the same music presented at the Free Music Store, but there are many additional sounds: footsteps, crickets, drums accompaniments, soft background voices, and three dialogues or ‘Visions’ which revolve around images such as ‘heavy rich perfumed roses,’ ‘a very thick plush velvet purple sofa,’ and a ‘thick pink-lipped monkey.’ With all these additional elements, the record becomes quite a bit more complex and theatrical than her live solo performance. But for me it is still the singing which has the strongest impact. One reason why her vocal style particularly impresses me, is because I feel it puts many musicians to shame. For some time, composers and singers, both in jazz and classical camps, have been attempting to extend the expressive range of the voice. But very few have broken as much new ground in such a personal way as Meredith Monk has. And she’s supposed to be a choreographer! Well, choreographers have certainly been influenced by John Cage. Maybe now it’s time for musicians to take a few lessons from a choreographer.