Innovator asks art's 'what if' questions

For 35 years, Meredith Monk has been breaking artistic boundaries.

A composer, choreographer, performer, and filmmaker, as well as a pioneer in "extended vocal techniques" and site-specific work, Ms. Monk has changed the landscape of 20th-century culture as one of America's most celebrated multidisciplinary artists. Her awards range from numerous industry awards to a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship, and she has more than 100 works to her credit, including an opera, "Atlas," commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera.

What has driven the petite, unassuming artist for more than three decades is the joy of day-to-day discovery, the act of unearthing, reforging, and creating something new.

"It's curiosity," Monk explains simply, "the 'what if' questions. It's fascinating to be in a position where you're always learning ... those moments of discovery are worth everything. And then you share them."

With each work, Monk creates a new world, a new culture, with its own laws and mythologies. She talks of the bricolage idea of taking ordinary things and playing with them in unusual ways. Her imagery is layered, often surreal and intentionally ambiguous.

"Art is a mystery, one of the only ones left," she says. "By allowing ourselves to be in the unknown, that's how creativity comes." She breaks down the usual sense of a proscenium stage, creating a "dialogue with the space" that often finds performers in or surrounding the audience. She also often intermingles time, integrating past, present, and future as simultaneous realities.

A fourth-generation singer with an extraordinary timbral palette and a three-octave range, Monk has always considered the voice as a language in itself, universal and possessing a primal sense of immediacy and directness.

"The voice speaks right to the emotions, even those we don't have words for," she says. "It's so totally connected to the center of the body ... text seems almost redundant."

This spring, Monk and her 16-member vocal ensemble have been touring her highly acclaimed "A Celebration Service," an hour-long work that mines the universal quest for spiritual fulfillment.

It is a touchingly devotional yet nondenominational work that serves as a kind of retrospective of much of Monk's vocal work over the past three decades, weaving new and previously composed songs with spoken texts, the material ranging from an ancient Buddhist conundrum to a 20th-century Osage Indian initiation song.

Some of the songs, like "Dawn," are constructed of fairly simple modal melodies complemented by rich plangent harmonies. Others, such as "Fields/Clouds," pulse with vibrant, energetic rhythms. "Quarry Weave #2," from the 1976 "Quarry," is first done as a participatory round, returning later as a circular sweep of cascading harmonies in an eight-part round by Monk's superb performers. "The Celebration Dance," from her 1996 work "The Politics of Quiet," is a joyful romp of claps, stomps, and prances that unfolds with unpretentious sincerity.

"A Celebration Service," she says, was created in part as a reaction to the daily bombardment of useless information our culture currently seems to spew out. "I had been wondering how to make a form that offers a sense of sacred space. The community, the communion experience is still very valuable. I think it's nice to offer people a space in time where they can let go of the discursive yakety-yak that's going on in the mind all the time."

Monk's first gallery audio-video installations, "Shrines," drawn from a major retrospective last summer at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, just showed to great acclaim in New York. She currently is gearing up for a fall tour with her ensemble, "The House," of her most recent music-theater piece, "Magic Frequencies," a charming and provocative sci-fi flavored work that plays with the idea of different realities existing simultaneously.

Whatever the project, Monk's overarching goals are always the same.

"Art can offer a template of what behavior could be, how individuals can work together with generosity of spirit and hope, with people's spirits uplifted and hearts opened," she maintains. "When we look at things in a fresh way, we feel more alive.... Art has healing potential.... We need it for our souls, our spirits, our minds, our hearts."

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