Meredith Monk’s ‘Our Lady of Late’ at Town Hall on January 11 was the closest thing to a perfect concert that I have heard for some time. She has as much control over her singing as she does over her dancing, and her music shows as much originality and genuine inspiration as her choreography. Not that there is anything special about the notes themselves. In fact, a conventional score of her music would probably not look particularly impressive. But when her relatively simple melodies are sung the way she sings them and embellished with the many ingenious vocal techniques she uses, they are indeed impressive.
Dressed in white, she looked very small and distant sitting alone in the middle of the Town Hall stage. In front of her was a little table with a goblet on it. Her only accompaniment was a soft drone created by rubbing her finger around the rim of the goblet. Throughout the hour-long performance, her eyes were focused down on the little table. This visual image changed only a few times during the concert when, in a ritual gesture, she lifted the goblet and drank a small amount of the liquid, thus raising the pitch slightly for the ensuing music. The concert was beautifully framed by off-stage solos played on some sort of bell by Colin Walcott at the beginning and end of the concert.
The singing is split up into perhaps 20 short pieces. There is not a great deal of contrast between the pieces, but each has a slightly different character. Most of them are sung with a relatively nasal sound, but some are more open. Most of them follow simple scales, but some veer off into unpitched guttural qualities or speech-like patterns. Most of them have a clear pulse, but some are more free rhythmically. Most of them follow a consistent line, but one remarkable one does not. In this piece she sings contrasting phrases, alternating between a rather gruff voice and a meek, high voice. This lion-and-mouse dialogue verges on humor, but the atmosphere is so strange and severe that one doesn’t feel much like laughing.
Perhaps what makes ‘Our Lady of Late’ so extraordinary is not so much her approach to voice placement as her attitude toward language and phonetics. In her 1973/music-for-the-planet-earthious big vocal work, ‘Key,’ one can pick out an occasional word or phrase. But here, Monk completely avoids anything which might be taken as intelligible English. Most of the time she doesn’t even use familiar vowels and consonants. Occasionally there is something that might pass for an ‘n’ or an ‘o’ or some other English phoneme, but most of the time her singing has nothing to do with English or, so far as I can tell, with any other language. She has found her own vowels and consonants and evolved her own very personal language.
The Natural Sound Workshop does not have technical control and discipline which marks Meredith Monk’s style, but they too have developed an extensive vocabulary of unconventional vocal sounds. In their concert on January 10, they brought off a number of effective musical moments and some nice theatrical ones. They used the space of WBAI’s Free Music Store particularly well, sometimes encircling the audience and often moving around so that their voices drifted through space.
Director Kirk Nurock’s new piece ‘Night’ is a rich collection of choral effects, each of which lasts about 10 seconds. The rather monotonous pacing did not always seem appropriate to the mysterious quality of the musical material, but the sounds themselves were all quite ingenious and well performed. Theatrically the high points of the evening were Gershon Freidlin’s parody of the concert soloist, complete with elaborate entrance and exit procedures, and an amusing bit where Bryant Hayes made his voice go haywire by breathing helium gas out of a balloon.
For me, the highlight of John Gibson’s concert at the Kitchen on January 9 was a tape collage called ‘Visitation.’ In a way, it is more like an aural seascape than a piece of music, for it begins and ends with the sound of ocean waves. Out of the waves emerge a lot of jingling sounds, some long electronic tones that just wander around, bleating effects, and metallic sounds, which sometimes resemble wind chimes, adding much to the outdoor mood. I always used to have difficulty accepting Richard Strauss’s wind machine and Edgar Varese’s sirens, thinking that literal sounds had no place in music. But lately a number of composers have been using sound effects and, when they are recorded and mixed effectively, as in Gibson’s piece, I find them quite musical, as well as suggestive.
One of Alvin Curran’s pieces, heard at the Kitchen on the 1973/music-for-the-planet-earthious evening, also involved sound effects. Here a recording of bird calls was used as the background for an instrumental work called ‘Under the Fig Tree.’ The soft blend of flute, trombone, viola, and electronics, backed up by the birds, was quite lovely in a fluttery sort of way. I was very surprised when I later found out that the score to this piece consists of a mere page and a half of conventionally notated melody. I don’t know how Curran and his fellow performers managed to make such a rich texture out of that little page and a half, but they did it very well. Curran’s concert as a whole had an unusually relaxed atmosphere. The music seemed more concerned with setting moods than with anything else. The performers were not out to impress anybody. And when something didn’t go quite right, it didn’t seem to matter very much. It was a pleasant evening.