An Interview with Meredith Monk
Meredith Monk is a fourth-generation singer, but the astonishing, otherworldly quality of her vocal music is a product of fifty years spent assiduously evading tradition. Her vocal techniques bubble up from her insides, she says, and are not extracted from influences or classical repertoire or the countless international folk traditions that her curious timbres sometimes recall. She yodels and croons, yips and caws, growls overtones and spits avian trills—a panoply of mouth sounds, all classified under the broad umbrella of “extended vocal technique,” a term Monk is at least partly responsible for defining.
Monk’s sensibility was born at the same time and in the same place (’60s and ’70s, New York) as minimalism and punk, and her music oscillates between the pristinely executed trance of the former and the grunting, primal abandon of the latter. Since the beginning, her composing has been married to movement, and her wordless songs often pair musical phrases with gestures and dance, a multisensory, artistic language that approaches timeless universality. Her films, operas, and site-specific performances are similarly interdisciplinary and, at their best, approach what the Germans call a Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork.
In 2008, I attended Monk’s performance of Songs of Ascension, an evening-length piece written specifically for a unique cement silo in Sonoma County, California, built by the artist Anne Hamilton. Under an open-air roof, Monk and her ensemble moved up and down a pair of winding double-helix staircases, voices rising and dipping with their steps, as if the singers’ throats had fused with the cylindrical, resonating tower. I interviewed Monk briefly on the day of that performance, and, six years later, I was able to speak with her again, at her loft in lower Manhattan, a few days after an intimate concert she gave at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, in the West Village.
Monk’s apartment is at the top of a five-story walk-up, a climb requiring wheezing endurance that speaks to the tenacity and agility of her voice, body, and art at the age of seventy-two. Inside, one of the rooms was a spacious dance studio containing her bed, a piano, a modest recording studio, and an ornamented, cushion-filled area she calls a shrine. For the last three decades, Monk has been a practicing Buddhist and has studied under the ordained Shambhala Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. In 2003, she took her refuge vow, and, later, her Bodhisattva vow, a Buddhist commitment to benefit all sentient beings. She and I spoke for almost two hours, during a period in which she was preparing a series of shows for her residency at Carnegie Hall. We discussed the difficulties of being a female composer in the 1970s, the neuroses of meditation, her daily work habits, and the ethics of emailing.
I. A TOUGH, YOUNG, FIERCE THING
THE BELIEVER: The room back there: you called it a shrine.
MEREDITH MONK: And a rehearsal space. A lot of pieces have been born in that place.
BLVR: And you record in there?
MM: I record when I’m working, because I still work with a four-track tape recorder when I’m laying parts down before my ensemble comes in to rehearse. I make the music by recording my voice four times to work out the counterpoint aspects.
BLVR: Do you notate your music?
MM: The vocal work that I do is almost un-notatable, so that’s where I really have to use the tape to get these tiny little rhythmic variations and the inspiration of the sound. Each piece is a different sound world.
BLVR: Is it difficult to re-create that sound world for performances?
MM: Some of the nuances get lost in translation. When I’m working on material and generating material, sometimes when I make a discovery it’s very spontaneous, especially if I’m working on a solo. And then what happens is when I try to go back to it, I can’t get all the nuances. So there will be years where I am trying to get what I got that first time, and then little by little, when I sing it all over and over again, it becomes so organic and embodied that I can free it up enough to kind of get back to where I started in the first place. But it’s through a discipline of working that I get back to that spontaneity.
BLVR: I saw you perform “Madwoman’s Vision” last week. It seems almost improvisational. Is it?
MM: Well, the form is totally set. It’s really almost like going into a trance state to do that piece—that’s why my solos are difficult to transfer to other people. If you listen to the album from [the film] Book of Days—late ’80s—my tempo is a little faster then it is now. But I really understand the form much more now, and you’ll see that the events are the same, but within those events I make discoveries every time. That’s the beauty of live performance.
BLVR: Would you say that other pieces require their own form of trance?
MM: Yeah, I think each piece is a world in itself. Some of the other pieces have to be more like jumping, or a different kind of energy—very present and very pointy. It’s hard to describe these things. Each song has a different set of parameters and requirements as a performer, and that’s what keeps it still very alive for me.
BLVR: Does this kind of performance trance have any connection with your meditation work?
MM: Well, there was never separation between me and my material. That was always my aspiration. I wasn’t trying to sell my material. I wasn’t trying to seduce with it. I was just being in the center, like on an axis. Sometimes when you’re performing, other thoughts come in, but you go back to that axis, and I think in meditation it’s that same process. In one technique, you’re just concentrating on your breath, even just on your out-breath, for example—there are so many different meditation forms—and then thoughts come, which they do, and you’re trying not to make any judgment on the quality of those thoughts; you’re trying to not be stuck in them, and it could go on quite a long time, that you’ve been carried away by your thoughts, but eventually you come back to your out-breath. So there’s something like that in performing, too. You’re trying to be one with your material. If you do have a thought that comes in, you just come right back to your material. The best times are when there are no thoughts coming in. You really are just one with what you are doing. That is the goal, if one would call anything a goal. In meditation there is no goal.
BLVR: You were talking about breath, which is also essential to singing. Do those practices connect for you?
MM: Actually, no, not particularly. I was interested in Buddhism because I felt some of the fundamental principles of Buddhism lined up with my aesthetic ideas. They have a lot in common, so it made a lot of sense to me. What has changed a lot because of Buddhism is that I want my work to be of benefit to sentient beings. That’s a very Buddhist idea. As a young artist I would have been too embarrassed to say that, actually, but now that I am as old as I am, I feel like there is nothing embarrassing about having that aspiration for your work. As far as breath is concerned, it’s a strange thing. In some ways, because I am a singer and use my breath in a certain way, it’s much harder to use my breath as a focus in my meditation, and sometimes I have been told by my meditation teachers to use my posture rather than my breath because I get very self-conscious about the breath.
BLVR: How were you different as a young artist?
MM: I was pretty tough. I was a tough, young, fierce thing trying to do my art. I was determined, and it was hard to make my way in the world. I thought I had to really fight my way through to be able to express myself in the way that I wanted to, especially as a female artist at that time. I don’t like to use the word struggle, but to this day, every time I begin a piece I am scared to death. In the beginning, it’s like flailing about in the dark, trying to find what this little idea could be that you could build from. So that struggle is always part of it. But I think it was more in terms of the world, just getting the work out and getting from one thing to the next. In the very early days, I think it was harder to get respect as a woman artist. It was a role not a lot of people were used to at that time. So there was a lot of struggling, even in terms of friendships, relationships, all that kind of thing, because people just weren’t used to a woman having her own vision. It meant you were threatening to some people. That’s what it was, and I was fierce about my own vision, and there was just no choice for me—it was like choiceless choice. That was something I felt like I had to fight for, die for, which I still do, to a certain extent. But after so many years it’s really more that it takes all my energy just to make each piece, and I just try to stay on my own path and that’s enough.
BLVR: How would you describe that path?
MM: I think it’s been very organic, and there’s no precedent for it. I remember one time talking with a tea ceremony master in Tokyo about how a tea ceremony lifestyle is very prescribed. You do this, you don’t do this, this is what you follow, this prescribed path. You could say that an opera singer’s life is like that. I remember reading Beverly Sills’s autobiography, and it’s the same: at a certain age you sing this type of role, and later that type of role, and I thought, I don’t want that. I am just finding my way step by step without any precedent.
BLVR: You began with musical theater. Did that have prescribed roles?
MM: I went to Sarah Lawrence, and I actually made a combined performing arts program because you were allowed to create your own program there. And so I was in the voice department and I was in the dance department, and then I also did some theater work there. So I wouldn’t exactly call it music theater, really more kind of inter-media or multidisciplinary forms I had kind of glimpsed when I was at Sarah Lawrence, so I tried combining voice and movement, and using objects, and became very visual, and it was just glimpsing these different aspects and how you could weave those aspects together.
BLVR: Did you study eurythmy?
MM: Eurythmics. That’s very different from eurythmy. Do you know the difference?
BLVR: Eurythmy was Rudolf Steiner’s thing.
MM: Right. Eurythmy is very much about articulating space, what the sound of a word is. These certain gestures that come from phrases like the bluuuue shooooes. Eurythmics is totally different. That was created by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, who was a Swiss composer at the end of the nineteenth century, and he was very interested in Swiss folk music—the way [Béla] Bartók was interested in Hungarian folk music. He composed pieces and he taught at a music conservatory, and he was having a hard time teaching one particular student rhythms—the student just didn’t understand how to read or do rhythm. But he noticed that the student was walking in a very graceful and flowing way, so he just had a revelation that he could teach that student rhythm through his body because the student had a very good sense of his body. So he started developing these physical exercises. I started studying eurythmics when I was three, that was the beginning of my studies, and it was a wonderful way to begin, because it was an integration of the body, the ears, the voice, and space.
BLVR: Your mother was a singer. Did she study this as well?
MM: No, she didn’t study it, but she took me there because I have strabismus, which is a condition of the eyes where you don’t fuse two eyes into one image. I think I had a coordination problem as a little kid and so very simple things were not so easy for me, like, say, skipping. I mean, I walked and everything, I had some coordination, and somehow she heard about this program where children were learning music through their body. I was actually learning my body through music. I am a fourth-generation singer. So because of my mother and her father and her grandfather, I had that musical capacity at a very young age.
BLVR: How have you developed that study in your own music?
MM: Well, all my music is very embodied, and that is why I have often used people who come from both a music and a dance background. I was thinking this morning when I woke up that one thing I feel like I have done is to get the singers to actually use space as an ally, which is very unusual in the classical music world. They are just not trained to do that.
II. GLOTTAL BREAK
BLVR: Do you have a daily routine?
MM: My ideal day, like when I am on retreat or not running around in New York, is to start by meditating. The whole morning is what I would call maintenance. So it’s meditating, then physical exercises, vocal exercises, piano exercises, lunch, and then it’s usually siting down and trying to compose work.
BLVR: You are a strong advocate of ongoing practice?
MM: Oh, definitely. Discipline! That’s the only way. My voice would never have held out all these years if I had not had a teacher I still work with and [if I had not] been vocalizing just about every day. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
BLVR: Is your teacher classically trained?
MM: She is a classical teacher, and I have been with her for about thirty years. It’s regular classical exercises, but she works not only with classical singers but also with Broadway people, because they do this belting and hurt themselves, and she knows how to teach them properly how to use the lower register. And also, what I really love about her teaching is that I still sound like Meredith. Even though I’m doing classical exercises, I still sound like myself. There’s no sense in trying to make everybody sound the same or have some kind of principles that are so rigid. I have known voice teachers like that and it just doesn’t work. I want to just sound like myself, but a very strong and flexible self.
BLVR: Have you ever studied with non-Western teachers?
MM: That’s a misunderstanding. Everybody goes, “Oh well, you know, you’re doing that overtone and you must have gone to Mongolia!” or something like that. But actually, no, that’s not the way I work at all. Really, I work from the inside out, so really from the very beginning, from the mid-’60s, when I made this discovery about the voice as an instrument for myself, I always just used myself. It would be the way a dancer goes into the studio. You know, I go into the studio, and I work with my own instrument, and then what comes out has to do with the world that I’m working in. It’s really discovering things in my own voice, my own vocabulary. If you’re not just doing a pear-shaped tone with your voice, there are certain sounds that might remind you of certain places because it’s transcultural, like the glottal break exists in five or six or seven different cultures. When I discovered overtones, that actually came from playing the Jew’s harp, so, you know, it’s just a very inside-to-outside way of working. It’s not at all going to different cultures and taking something from them, converting them. It has nothing to do with that.
BLVR: Would you say that, in general, you don’t study other people’s work?
MM: Yes, it’s very true. I do not. I’m very adamant that each of us is unique on the planet, so I feel like my job is to find what my unique voice has to say. That’s my job, so I don’t go to the outside to find it.
BLVR: Do you do much reading?
MM: I love to read; I’m a complete book fanatic. There’s never a day that goes by that I’m not reading.
BLVR: Do you find any conflict between the Buddhist perspective and the discursive, left-brain reading of text?
MM: Well, that’s why I rarely use text, because I feel like my work is actually very much about trying to offer an experience where people could let go of their discursive mind for an hour and a half. I mean, I’m not thinking they could let go of it completely, because I wouldn’t be foolhardy enough to think that, because I can barely let go of my [own] discursive mind for one microsecond. I do have a contradiction, because I also love to speak and I love language. I love English. I love language, and I love to read, but as an artist I trust that nonverbal communication more.
BLVR: And the image you trust?
MM: Yes, I trust the image and I trust sound, for itself.
III. WITH YOUR PHONE NEXT TO THE PILLOW
BLVR: When you were coming up, do you think there was a sense that there was more freedom and more free thinking in the world of contemporary art than, say, music?
MM: Yes, I think that the visual arts were ahead at that time, but I was lucky enough to come to New York when all of the artists from different forms were one community. You know, the downtown world was really like the visual artists, the musicians like Phil Corner and James Tenney, the Fluxus people, the dancers at Judson Dance Theater, the playwrights, the poets. Visual artists were making dance pieces and dancers were being in plays and musicians were writing poetry. This idea of weaving together the elements became a kind of antidote to a very fragmented world that we were living in. You know, before the word holistic came in, it was a sense of making something very whole that affirmed the width of our human capacity for perception.
BLVR: When you say “fragmented,” are you referring to the compartmentalization of disciplines?
MM: Yes, I think I was very much responding to the Western European world, where the art forms really got separated during the times of the kings. You know, ballet became this one form and then singing/opera became standardized. I always think it came from the Newtonian kind of idea that this universe, these atoms, are all finite and controlled by God. In the Middle Ages, there was alchemy, which was based on magic and transformation and trusting nature, transforming nature. Then when this more positivistic mentality came in, it was mankind over nature, and this sense of control over nature, and then this sense of the separation of the elements. So I think that intuitively as a young artist I wanted to go back to more of that magic and the oneness of art with natural forces.
BLVR: Do you think now, particularly with the culture of distraction—
MM: Oh, definitely. I do think that art can be a counterbalance to that. We are all addicted, to one degree or another. It’s just how conscious we are of our addiction and what we do about it. I do email, but it’s really kind of figuring out how you are still present in every moment of your life.
BLVR: And how do you maintain that?
MM: I just try to keep that in mind. I think that is one thing meditation is very good to work with. Your mind can be going a mile a minute, but at least you’re aware of that, whereas when you’re going a mile a minute at the computer, you’re actually not aware particularly of what’s going on, in your body or your mind. You’re just aware that you’re very tired after a certain period of time. You start to ache.
BLVR: Does the commerce side of art make your mind race?
MM: There’s a beautiful book by Lewis Hyde called The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Ah, it was so affirming for me, because sometimes I—we— struggle with the financial aspect. It’s really hard and I get discouraged and think I’m just this terrible failure, and then realize, No, I’m actually not. I’m not really responding to the commerce things so much as I’m responding to the sense that I have been given something and I want to give back. It’s like a circle rather than a tit-for-tat kind of exchange, which commerce is. And so when I talk to the young people, that’s what I tell them. And then I always say, “You guys should know that you’ve been had. There are four or five people who are making quadrillions of dollars off your addiction.” You know, so it’s not to say these are not tools that we could use, you just have to be sure you’re using the tools and the tools are not using you. There’s a difference between being used and using. And it’s really hard; I’m not saying it’s easy. But you might want to just decide you’re not going to sleep with your phone next to the pillow. There are actions you can take just to be a little bit more aware of how carried away we are by all this.
BLVR: Has Buddhism helped you with this?
MM: It’s helping, yeah. It does help. Sometimes I’m even able to step back, which is pretty good. I think we’re always reacting to things, and my teacher [Pema Chödrön] says, “Count to ten before you push the send button on an email when you want to make sure you get even with that person” and you’ve got to make sure that person knows that you’re right. And she says, “Count to ten, step back, or look at it the next day and don’t send it right away.” You know, she’s a very practical teacher, and what she teaches is very inspiring. I am very fortunate to be her student.
BLVR: I sometimes send those emails to myself and see what it would be like for me to receive it.
MM: That’s a good technique.
BLVR: When you say she’s your teacher…
MM: My formal teacher, yeah. I see her about once a year. She lives in Colorado and in Gampo Abbey, in Canada.
BLVR: Have you had other Buddhist teachers?
MM: Nope. I started formally doing my practice in 1985. The way I even got interested at all in Buddhism was that I was asked to teach in 1975 at Naropa Institute, but I was pretty skeptical about organized anything, really. So I hovered about, you know, and I noticed right away, the audiences, when I performed, the sense of them taking it in, their silence and expansiveness and the depth of their understanding. I realized right away that there was a link between my aesthetic principles and the people who were studying Buddhism. But it was about ten years until I actually really began studying formally, and then you can, in the Buddhist tradition, take your refuge vows, and then I asked Ani Pema if she would be my teacher formally. So that’s part of the process.
BLVR: Why her?
MM: I read something that she wrote about one meditation teaching, tonglen, which is about giving and taking, where you take in the pain of somebody else, or the world, and then you breathe that in and then breathe out air and light. Not light as in goody-goody, but air, ease, and spaciousness. You know, space. So I was very moved by that. Ani Pema is a wonderful writer. She wrote a book called When Things Fall Apart and The Wisdom of No Escape. I feel that she’s profoundly honest and straightforward. It’s not like everything is going to be wonderful—Buddhism isn’t that, anyway. That’s a big misunderstanding. Everybody thinks, Oh, if you meditate, you’re going to be so nice or everything is going to be fine, or you’ll be happy all the time and you’re going to be smiling all the time. It’s not that at all; it’s actually the opposite. It’s that you become much more aware of the edge and you actually lean into your pain. But there’s a difference between pain and suffering. The pain exists in life and is very much a part of life. Having lost a partner ten years ago, I realize that my grieving was what millions of people were going through simultaneously. So pain was part of it, but suffering comes from us making something more out of pain, from us making our stories out of it or holding on to it for dear life or manufacturing something in our mind that extends it or amplifies just the straight pain, which is part of life. So I think that she teaches that a lot, and also that if you can be aware of the way you accelerate violence in yourself and your own mind or with other people, then all that does is just go into the violence of the world. If you can actually be aware of what that is in yourself, you’re doing something. Being more mindful of it, that awareness just starts radiating out into the world and can stop that momentum of violence that turns into war between people. When you hear the news, it’s so obvious. It’s so obvious.
BLVR: You were saying earlier that you want your music to be a voice for certain attitudes and behaviors.
MM: Well, my music—I really try for a full spectrum of feeling in my music. My music is not all angelic. Some of it is dark. Some of it is funny. Some of it is very sad. Some of it is very joyous. So I feel like if I do a concert, hopefully this whole spectrum is in there.
BLVR: Is the idea to quell this internal violence with music?
MM: I think quell is the wrong word. It’s about being aware of how tiny it starts. It can just be walking down the street and you go, Ugh, I don’t like that person for some reason! Then you don’t like anybody like that person. It’s just seeing how it operates in yourself and realizing that everybody has that. So it’s not quelling, because I think quelling is a kind of repressing, and that will never work. With the music, it’s about opening up space for people and making something that they can experience in themselves, in their own way. It could be memories. It could be that they feel more themselves when they hear the music. They feel more alive. They feel that magic. That’s what I’m trying for.