Meredith Monk

ACO’s Monk’s Sphere at Carnegie Hall

“Meredith Monk’s music invites us into new worlds,” said Derek Bermel, the artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra, on Friday, November 21 at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. “The key word being ‘invite’; it doesn’t ‘push’ us, it invites us.” Bermel’s succinct summary of Monk’s music extended to the four other composers featured on the program, dedicated to the memory of violinist Mary Whitaker. All five works performed by the American Composers Orchestra as part of their evening labeled “Orchestra Underground: Monk’s Sphere” were rich, bright, and inviting. Each of these rich, bright worlds was different and startling.

The concert began with the world première of A.J. McCaffrey’s Motormouth, a piece inspired by his toddler son’s obsessive joke-telling and the repetitive yet slightly varying forms and punchlines that were spun out in the hilarity. Motormouth is a musical imitation of this process, with tuba and strings and then percussion sailing along with a rhythmic, motoric sense of travel or of being sent along in an overlapping, repetitive coasting. The pizzicato and hollow plank-plunk of the percussion mirrored McCaffrey’s high energy familial environment, and proved to be a contrast with the textures of the next piece, Ian Williams’s Clear Image (orchestrated by Andrew McKenna Lee). Fusing the pre-recorded sounds of electronics (which he performed himself in this world première) with the disciplined playing of the Orchestra, grounded in reality, the piece zips and gasps along from its opening electronics solo to a quixotic tuba solo to a final peaceful cadence. Williams’s opening electronics performance sounded like someone scrolling through a ringtone menu, skipping flightily from one blippy pattern to the next, before the eventual entrance of the orchestra. Clear Image was more vertical than the previous piece, but maintained the same bright and inviting tonal feel.

Ian Williams (Battles live @ Villa Ada Roma) - Photo Flickr/Flavia (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ian Williams (Battles live @ Villa Ada Roma) – Photo Flickr/Flavia (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Theo Bleckmann’s My Brightest Garment used electronics in a totally different way; rather than setting the tone, they came in at the very end, as his short, beautiful piece built up to its climax, a loop of vocal and orchestral playback resonating throughout the motionless stage. My Brightest Garment is best described as a wondrous and intense movement towards an ultimate disappearance, just like in life and death. It was meant to illustrate “death as a vanishing act, a magic trick of sorts,” and used a repeating five-bar pattern as its base. Following this stunning première was Loren Loiacono’s Stalks, Hounds, which found its inspiration in a Barbie Dream House sound effect that had been borrowed from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Fascinated by the decontextualization of Ravel’s work into a commercial children’s toy, Loiacono incorporated impressionistic, puddling sounds, complete with twinkling harp and swelling strings, into her quickly-shifting soundscape.

Theo Bleckmann - Photo Amanda Stockwell

Theo Bleckmann – Photo Amanda Stockwell

The final work was the only one not composed in the past three years, and the hub from which these preceding spokes extended: Meredith Monk’s Night of 1996, orchestrated by Monk and Allison Sniffin. Monk’s piece, which like Bleckmann’s depicts the mysteries of life and death, consists of repetitive and unusual sounds and textures, ranging from the eight groaning and chirping and wailing voices of the members of the Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble to the bouncing instrumental lines, churning along like the wheels of a train. The piece blurs not only the line between instrument and voice, with both ensembles humming and wheedling and echoing each other, but the line between genres, as Monk establishes that the orchestration is thought of “somewhere between an orchestra and a band.” The variety of recurring sounds roamed from the animalistic and eerie (with the vocal lines almost evoking wolves howling to each other) to the startlingly pure and dark and abandoned. In contrast to Bleckmann’s “disappearing act”, the piece seemed to fade in and out in spits and starts, encompassing many lives overlapping and intertwining across time rather than one solitary poof.