Dance Magazine, July, 2001 by Gus Jr Solomons

I NEVER THINK I AM A NOUN; I always feel like I'm a verb," says Meredith Monk, cryptically, when I ask if she thinks of herself as a dancer who writes music or a composer who used to dance. I finally catch up with her by phone in Budapest as she sweeps through a tour of Russia and Eastern Europe. "I've always fought against being categorized. I think everything feeds everything else." [] Monk's one-of-a-kind multimedia stage works--with Monk, now 58, writing and performing the music and choreographing the action--over the last three decades have won her a devoted avant-garde following. Her latest work, mercy, a large-scale collaboration with sculptor Ann Hamilton, premieres July 19 at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina.

Monk has been embraced by the worlds of dance and music alike. At Sarah Lawrence College, she concentrated in both fields under teachers Ruth Lloyd and Bessie Schonberg, respectively. Both women encouraged her creativity. "I don't think my life would be the same without the blessing of those two guides," she says.

Her first artistic discipline was music. "I just sang a concert in Russia," she bubbles. "My mother's father was a singer in Russia, so [the experience] was just an amazing thing!" Coming from a musical family (her mother was also a noted singer who had a career singing on radio), she studied piano from the age of 3. Her teacher eschewed the popular John Thompson Piano Books and exposed her to the likes of Kabalevsky, Stravinsky, and Bartok's Mikrokosmos.

To overcome difficulty with physical coordination, which was caused by a visual dysfunction, she studied the Dalcroze system of eurhythmic training. "Usually, what happens is, kids learn music through movement, dancing, and catching balls in rhythm," Monk says. "Most people were learning music through movement, but I was learning movement through music. Movement and music are so unified for me.' In high school Monk was already composing piano pieces.

Nowadays, Monk is primarily a vocal composer, although her music often deploys conventional instruments, from piano to Jew's harp. Her seminal musical works use what are called extended vocal techniques, such as overtone and throat singing, yodeling, keening, percussive sounds, and micro-tonality. Pitches are precisely notated. Her own voice is an instrument of enormous textural and dynamic versatility, in addition to possessing a three-octave-plus range.

The music of non-Euro-American cultures has been a big influence on Monk's work. Her first instrument was herself, but later she transferred her style to other single voices and even choruses. She has often written in an invented language, most famously in the opera Atlas, which was commissioned and premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 1991.

Still, she's never far from her other passion, dancing. "When I do a solo vocal concert, there's a strong gestural element in it," Monk says. "Even if I'm standing in one place, I feel like my voice is dancing. I think of the voice as a physical, kinetic instrument."

ALTHOUGH TECHNICAL MOVEMENT was not her forte, Monk grew to love dancing through her Dalcroze study. Another mentor, dance teacher Ernestine Stodell, encouraged her creativity. "I could always improvise, and I had a lot of ideas and a lot of imagination. So I think that my physical limitations became a catalyst for finding my own vocabulary. I had to find a very idiosyncratic movement style.

"Then I had the revelation around 1965 of singing---doing my own singing--that idea of exploring my own instrument: seeing all the things it could do, stretching the range, combining male and female within a voice, and so forth. By applying what I had come from in dance to my voice, I found I had a much more virtuosic instrument as a singer. But I would never have gotten to that place if dance hadn't been--as it continues to be--a part of my life. It gave me that approach of how to work with your own instrument that we all learn as dancers and choreographers."

Monk's work has long been technology-friendly, and her newest piece, mercy, continues that trend. While collaborator Hamilton insists. "It's very minimal in a lot of ways," she also says mercy--with two onstage musicians and up to seven dancer-singers--will include some high-tech touches. The dancers will carry tiny, battery-powered video cameras in their mouths, with the video feed projected onto a screen for the audience. Also, giant soap films will be created on ropes hung from the fly-loft, with lights then projected onto them. [In devising this facet of mercy, Hamilton used the research of Maarten Rutgers, an assistant professor of physics at Ohio State University, who has created long-lasting soap films that are several stories high. For photos, see the Web site] Most of the action in the hourlong performance will take place onstage, Hamilton says, though "We're planning a couple of parts that will use the whole auditorium in some way."

In preparing mercy, Monk and Hamilton have pored over accounts of mercy--and its absence--throughout history. However, Hamilton--who resists stating explicitly what the work is "about"--says, "We're not making a piece about [the massacres in] Rwanda or the Holocaust." Audiences across the United States will get a chance to make up their own minds: After its premiere, the work will be staged in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, and other stops (see "Meredith Monk in performance," below). In part because mercy will be staged in theaters of varying sizes and capabilities, Hamilton says, "It almost has to be the kind of piece that comes out of a suitcase."

The "homemade" look of Monk's art has stirred controversy. "We're purposely not doing a virtuosi kind of movement. It's more primal, not striving for that Western European tradition of line in space and geometry," she says, "It's more an axial idea of the body. When we did The Politics of Quiet [1996] the first time in Copenhagen, people really hated the folk dance; they said, `Some of these people are not dancers!' To me, the way they did the movement was so authentic! The idea of a folk dance is that everyone in the village can do it.

"It's the same with the singing: I really try to affirm and emphasize each person's vocal qualities." But the deceptively unpolished sound of her music, which gives it its unique character, is in reality very sophisticated. "You really have to have good intonation and a strong ear for rhythms," she affirms. "I taught Dolmen Music to six singers at Houston Grand Opera, and they said, `You want to hear all the places that we've been taught to cover up. We've been taught to smooth over everything, and that's exactly what you want to hear in our voices!'"

Aficionados of various disciplines have embraced her works. But, she declares, "I feel that the dance audience is the most advanced, spiritually and emotionally. Maybe, because my work is so nonverbal, the dance audience can read it; they understand it's a kind of poetic form."

Who are some of her favorite composers? "I like all kinds of music. One of my favorites is Caetano Veloso, a Brazilian popular singer; his music is amazing! Julia Wolfe, one of the Bang on a Can people, is a wonderful composer, really strong. I like Arvo Part, the Estonian composer, and I still love some of the classical guys from the twentieth century, like Stravinsky and Bartok.

"In the classical music world, the walls are harder to break down, so it's taken me quite a while. I've been commissioned by Michael Tilson Thomas to write my first orchestra piece for the New World Symphony," Monk says, adding, "It's daunting, and it will probably take me about five years!"

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