Marveling in the human voice at Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble’s 50th anniversary

“I’ll sing one more before I collapse,” Meredith Monk laughed after her 50th anniversary concert at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, an evening of solo and ensemble vocal music that drew her year as the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair to a close. She then launched into “Breath Song” of Songs from the Hill (1976), which entailed more panting than singing as Monk traversed the tricky rhythms and sometimes startling terrain of her early composition. The repetitious yet constantly-permutating patterns of “he-he-ho” were simple yet, dare I say, breathtaking.

To rewind a bit, the concert had consisted of selections from ten major Monk works ranging from 1969 to 2013, beginning with Monk’s solo selections from Juice (1969), Songs from the Hill (1975-1976), and Light Songs (1988). Throughout these songs, Monk’s three-octave range was on full display, as was her range in not just notes but sounds. During “Porch,” the surreal overtones of her guttural throat-singing mingled with a wordless wheedling, while others consisted of smoother repeating syllables and another incorporated the boinging of her jaw harp. But perhaps most impressive was “Click Song no. 1” from her a cappella song cycle Light Songs, a “duet for solo voice” that entailed an impossible blend of melodic humming throat noises with percussive clicking mouth noises as Monk defied reality and dueted with herself.

Along with collaborators Katie Geissinger and Theo Bleckmann, Monk then regaled us with a series of songs in which two or three voices acted as one. During “Hips Dance” from Volcano Songs: Duets (1993), Monk’s and Geissinger’s humming and throaty breathing became so intermingled that it was hard to tell from whom the sounds were being propelled at any given moment; similarly, during “Hocket” from Facing North (1990), Geissinger and Bleckmann lobbed musical ideas back and forth with such precision and speed that it felt like watching a version of Wimbledon using hums and bleats rather than tennis balls. And during “Panda Chant I” from The Games (1984), all three joined their voices in an overlapping refrain of “panda, panda, panda” so that once again plural voices merged and reduced to a single (if hyperactive) voice.

Dolmen Music (1979) was the first piece Monk composed for the Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble. Although Monk was only joined by one of the singers (Andrea Goodman) from the original performance, the other four vocalists (Bleckmann, Sidney Chen, Ching Gonzalez, and Naaz Hosseini), along with cellist Brian Snow, easily immersed themselves in Monk’s early exploration of “the ensemble possibilities of unison, textures, counterpoint, weaving, etc.” With the men to the left of Snow, and the women to the right, the visual formation of musicians seemed to mirror the issues of communication and division expressed through the piece. The soft vowel sounds of the beginning dissolved into gibberish from the men’s side. The women eventually chimed in in ascending modal sequences; as the narrative shifted, the women were the ones shrieking and spatting. These symmetries and geometries of sound and narrative continued from sections of sublime unison to wobbling syllables and a vocalist using sticks to strike Snow’s cello. Despite the howling and wailing, and the fact that not a single word was sung, the musicians ended in a triumphant unison.

After intermission we were plunged into a continuous series of selections from Monk’s more recent music, the musicians and vocalists migrating across the stage in softly brightening and dimming lights, beginning with “braid 1 and leaping song” from mercy (2001). During mercy, Monk sang front and center as musicians Allison Sniffin, Bohdan Hilash, and John Hollenbeck drew out long peaceful tones from their instruments (violin/keyboard, woodwinds, and percussion, respectively) off to the side. Monk’s voice unfurled into a gentle jangling indecipherable cooing and cawing; for “braid 2”, she was joined by four other vocalists, whose voices, along with Hollenbeck’s xylophoning, created a more calming palette. The concert also featured two more selections from mercy falling at the end of the program. During “masks”, all seven vocalists (Monk, Bleckmann, Geissinger, Chen, Gonzalez, Bruce Rameker, and Ellen Fisher) stood in a clump near the instrumentalists before reassembling in a semicircle across the stage for “core chant,” which was another ponderous, almost mournful work, like a requiem with no words but with the occasional click of the teeth or whir of the tongue.


Meredith Monk

The selections from impermanence (2004-2006) were likewise heavy with the grief Monk was experiencing while composing them. Through “maybe 1/maybe 2,” minor themes were joined by the haunting, solemn textures of vocalists joining each other one by one, while during “skeleton lines” amusing choreography (hopping like woodland creatures, freezing in wacky positions like children during a game of Red Light, Green Light) was accompanied by vocal cawing, a thudding drum, shaking maracas, and interlacing voices. Only Monk and Bleckmann sang “totentanz,” which consists of jarring yet jubilant repeated patterns accelerating into a frenzy before descending exhalations. Geissinger and Monk then sang the sorrowful “between song,” which featured the first sung words of the evening: “between the lipstick and the lips,” “between the skull and the brain,” and so on.

In between these emotional and personal meditations were selections from Monk’s most recent completed work, On Behalf of Nature (2013), which she describes as “a poetic meditation on our intimate connection to nature and the fragility of its ecology.” During these selections, which included “Dark Light,” “High Realm,” “Letter H,” and “Life Cycle Duet,” the vocalists sang drowsily across the stage from each other, swaying or bouncing in place, with the now-sparse instrumentation creating an atmosphere that seemed to evoke a wordless, though always meaningfully-expressed, dread of the unknown. On Behalf of Nature starkly yet subtly expresses the fear of the disastrous state of the planet, resisting the temptation of “political” art to tell rather than show. Only Meredith Monk, an artist who has so fearlessly explored the possibilities of the human voice for the past five decades, could become a spokeswoman for a vital issue—without speaking a word.