Interdisciplinary composer Meredith Monk was born in 1942 and
grew up in the Tri-State area of New York and Connecticut. At an
early age, she began singing, dancing, and playing the piano. After
attending Sarah Lawrence College, in NY, she began work as a
composer of pieces that integrated several artistic layers of
music, dance, and visual art. Also credited with pioneering the
extended vocal technique, her voice is known for its wide range and
ability to move from growling low tones to a girlish, higher
register. Winner of numerous grants and fellowships, including a
MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1995 and 16 ASCAP awards for Musical
Composition, she joins the Mills Music Department as the Jean
MacDuff Vaux Composer in Residence from Feb. 2 to Feb. 14.
When did you start to get out more once you were in college?
When did you, and how did you start to do more shows and just get
out into the community?
Well, I was kind of making pieces at Sarah Lawrence.. I started
getting these glimpses of pieces that I would do that worked with
perceptions and weaving different perceptions together, in very
small forms. The transition of going to New York from Sarah
Lawrence was not a hard transition because I was so determined at
that time, I mean, I knew what I wanted, and in a way, it was one
of the easiest transitions I made in my life.
I graduated in June… by September, I was already presenting a
piece at a gallery. I was very determined and I think one of the
things that was kind of interesting about New York at that time was
that there were a lot of artists in a lot of different forms that
were questioning the perimeters of their different forms. It was
something that was important to me because as a child I had all
these different interests and in a way all my work was integrating
these different aspects of myself into one form as a kind of
different metaphor for wholeness, and yet in the world, at that
time, and especially, in New York, a lot of people were certainly
asking the same kind of questions…
Did you ever feel like you had to choose one? Did you ever
have this pressure like, “I should only be doing this!”, or, “Maybe
I’m only this…”
I still have that pressure! There are still those people that
just can’t understand that you can be working with different forms
and doing well. …We’re living in this world that likes to
categorize everything and put everything in a box to make a product
of it. A product in that, “You should make these Meredith Monk
pieces that look the same every time, so that they sell easier.” I
mean, that’s the old capitalist mentality-modification of
everything. So, to me, why would I start working on a piece if I
knew what it was going to be, anyway? The only reason to work on it
is to be discovering things. …Discovery is the only reason for
suffering so much. I mean, being an artist is really hard! And it’s
like, the discovering is everything! There have been times where
I’ve had to question that, not about discovery, but, why is it so
hard when people say, “Well are you this or are you that?” And I
always say, “Well, I’m not really a noun at all, I’m a verb.” I do
this, I do that, I’m engaged in doing these things.
When you are putting things together in your compositions, do
parts come one after another, does a whole image come together…
does it all come together as one image before you create?
Each piece is different. It’s been very rare that I’ll get that
one image idea that just comes and there’s the whole structure.
…It’s really more in a way like mosaic, you have all of these
tiles and the tiles go in different places in the overall. It’s not
linear at all, it’s put together as nonlinear.
When I was reading about you and your different projects and
compositions, the one that really struck me and really stayed in my
mind is Juice. I wanted to know what that process was like,
and especially gathering everybody and setting something like that
At that time I was very interested in subverted notions of what
going to any kind of performance was like so I was working a lot
with how you subvert the time and space of a performance. That
means that, first of all, it was a piece that was going to have two
parts, and take place over a period of two months and the audience
got one ticket for three installments.
The first one was a site-specific piece there were around a
hundred people, so I was working with the architecture of the
Guggenheim, which became part of the structure of the piece in time
and space, or it was a source of the structure. I was working with
the acoustics really strongly because I had a chorus of about
eighty people singing in that space and it began to feel like the
building was alive. I had people running against the spirals so it
looked like the room was spinning. It was really like working with
that space or dialoguing with that space.
And then a month later you went to the Minor Latham Play House,
which is a very obviously kind of proscenium stage, but I really
worked with that rectangular thing in a very “Wakeup!” kind of way.
Not like, “Oh, I’m just going to the theatre and I don’t have to
think about it.” More like, “What is this frame?” “What is this
thing that we go to all the time and never think about it?” And
then the scale went down from a hundred people to twelve people in
that second piece and you came closer in on these main characters
that were painted red like I had these people that were painted red
from head to toe, so you became closer with these characters, and
in the Guggenheim they were only one little element.
Then the third part was a month after that it was in a gallery
and it was all the costumes, all the boots, and 85 jew’s harps and
it was like a garden of all these objects that were used in the
other two installments and you could see it really close up. And
then it was a video tape, of the four red people but shot really
close, so all you could see was the face and you got a little
closer into them, and yet there were no people in that, it was more
like an installation. So it was sort of like a fluid and flexible
idea of time and space. And then memory of what you saw before
altered what you saw in the present.
On February 14, Meredith Monk will be performing several of
her own compositions in the Concert Hall.