Celebrating the Quiet, Restorative Power of Art

Composer Meredith Monk sifts through history and memory for cultural healing

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 premire 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."

Last summer, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts held a multimedia retrospective of Monk's work. Among the relics were storyboards for "Atlas," her 1991 tour-de-force for the Houston Grand Opera; squiggly scores for works like "Dolmen Music" (1979); and an eclectic collection of footwear dating to "Education of the Girlchild" (1973).

Her performance pieces aren't for everyone, though. After watching a video of "Turtle Dreams" (1981), one visitor remarked, "It's neither fish nor fowl. It's not music, and it's not dance."

A fourth-generation musician, Monk learned to sing before she could talk and learned to read music before she could read books. When she was three, her parents enrolled her in Dalcroze Eurythmics, a class that taught coordination by integrating sound and movement. "I remember doing activity rhythmically," she says. "Passing a ball between my hands to the beat, or looking at a musical scale on the wall, moving my arms in space, and singing."

With so many musicians in the family, however, Monk sought a niche of her own. For many years, she believed it was dance. Then, while staying at an artists' colony in 1965, she had an epiphany. "I think my whole life changed at that point," she says. "I was sitting at the piano vocalizing when I realized that the voice can have the flexibility of the body, the range of movement of the spine or the foot."

Deeply contemplative, Monk remains concerned about the here and now. She is less interested in escaping the present than in reclaiming the past as a way to prepare for the future. "The voice is a language in itself," she says. "It's the original human instrument."

Meredith's message

"The Politics of Quiet," an oratorio for 10 singer-dancers, two instrumentalists, and two children, was inspired by the artist's reading of Willa Cather, who viewed the technological innovations of the early 20th century with skepticism. As the new millennium nears, Monk seems to share that perspective.

" 'The Politics of Quiet' is about slowing down enough to experience the moment," she says. "It's about shadow and light coexisting. Ultimately, it's about the human voice and singing together as a metaphor for listening to each other."

* After the Sept. 27 performance of 'The Politics of Quiet,' it appears Oct. 4-5 at the Power Center for the Performing Arts in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Oct. 10-13 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Monk sings Oct. 31 in Darmstadt, Germany; Nov. 12 in Naples, Italy; and Nov. 14-15 in Cagliari, Italy. On Nov. 4-6 and 8-10, she will perform "Volcano Songs" a 1994 solo about life, death, rebirth, at the Festival d'Automne in Paris.

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