Meredith Monk is – among other things – a composer, a pianist, a dancer, a choreographer, a film-maker, a playwright and a curator. But above all she is a singer. Her voice is a truly remarkable instrument. Listen to her piano songs such as Do You Be, or her staged works such as Atlas, and she can resemble a babbling child, a primeval shaman, or a shrill, operatic mezzo-soprano. She integrates animalistic grunts, growls, chuckles, chirrups, howls, gasps, whispers, clicks, squeaks and yodels into her vibratoless, three-octave range. Some of what Monk does could be described as “sound poetry” but it is never ugly or wilfully experimental. This is music that can tell stories and convey emotions without words; music that can be joyous or mournful, comforting or distressing, often all at once.
“When I first came to New York, I had a revelation that the voice could be an instrument,” says Monk. “The human voice could delineate shades of feeling. It could contain landscapes and genders and characters. It could reflect the body. I started to think what a spinning voice could be, what a jumping voice could be, how could a voice move like a spine or a hand? I was very aware of the ancient power of the voice. It’s why I consciously tried to pull my range out, to find unorthodox ways of creating sound using my entire body.”
She’s talking to me via Zoom from the loft apartment in Tribeca in which she has lived since 1972, with only a tortoise called Neutron for company. Monk’s musical peers include her fellow downtown composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, friends she is often lumped together with. “They were always much more conservatory based,” she says. “As a singer, I was rooted in folk music and the body. And I was never really a minimalist: any repetition in my music comes from the folksong tradition.” Where Glass’s instrumentals often invoked early forms of baroque and renaissance composition, Monk’s vocal-based work reached much, much farther back into musical history – investigating the prehistoric roots of music itself.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that before there was language there was music,” she says. “I’ve never studied world music; I don’t love the idea of going to a culture and exploiting it. But, by just going into my own voice, my own instrument, and exploring it deeply, you start to come across sounds that have been created by people across the world, throughout history. Each of us has a unique vocal language, but we’re also part of the world vocal family. Finding my voice was a lonely process – in a good way. When I started investigating these extended vocal techniques, the people who were most encouraging were jazz musicians like Sam Rivers, Collin Walcott, or Naná Vasconcelos. They were the ones who were saying ‘Girl, go for it!’”
Monk’s music has attracted many prominent fans. David Byrne befriended her and asked her to score and choreograph a scene in his film True Stories. Brian Eno invited her to his studio on 8th Street in 1978, telling her, “your music is so beautiful; people aren’t doing beauty enough now.” In 2015 she was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Obama. A 2012 tribute album, Monk Mix, featured covers and remixes of her work by the likes of Caetano Veloso, Nico Muhly, Don Byron, DJ Spooky, Lee Ranaldo, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Gabriel Prokofiev and Björk. The last is perhaps her most high-profile fan – Björk has talked about being utterly transformed by Monk’s 1981 album Dolmen Music, and the two met in 2007, via a radio show.
“I felt like an aesthetic mother to Björk,” says Monk with a laugh. “What she does is so different from what I do, yet we have so much in common. By the end of that radio show, we were both in tears, sharing our visions of music. We ended up writing a load of duets together – I still have the tapes – and we keep meaning to complete them. I was going to fly to Iceland, and then she was going to meet me in New Mexico, but we can never find a window to do it. But we’re still in touch. I have a lot of love for her.”
Monk was born in New York in 1942, her mother a pop session singer, her father a lumber merchant. At the age of three she was diagnosed with a visual impairment called strabismus and her mother, noticing that she seemed physically uncoordinated, signed her up to a programme called Dalcroze Eurhythmics that integrated music with movement. “Dalcroze is an incredibly integrative programme; all elements of music are physicalised,” says Monk. “For instance, you move your arms in certain positions as you learn the do-re-mi scale. And that has influenced everything I’ve done. It’s why dance and movement and film are so integral to my music. It’s why I see music so visually.”
It’s possibly why she fitted so comfortably into the downtown scene when she moved back to New York in 1964. “I was always into ways of combining different perceptual modes or artistic disciplines, like the Fluxus artists,” she says. “I loved how painters were doing very interesting movement pieces, poets were making music, playwrights were making dances, people were pushing the boundaries of their respective artforms. That ended in the 70s, but I never stopped weaving together those disparate elements.
“I was recently invited by Vijay Iyer to teach a class called interdisciplinary composition at Harvard. I noticed that a lot of students were composing on their laptops all day. So I thought, right, let’s work on embodiment. You’re going to compose an a cappella vocal piece, outside, and you’re going to film yourself performing it! You make music in a very different way when you experience it physically.”
Monk still has the enthusiasm and work rate she had half a century ago (“curiosity gives me a lot of energy”), but she will turn 80 this year, and is increasingly writing work that she doesn’t necessarily have to perform herself. That is difficult, however, because her music is often inextricably linked to the idiosyncrasies of her vocal performance. Famously, the manuscripts of her work often look like seismograms, or electrocardiograms, filled with wiggly lines and impressionistic instructions.
“It’s difficult music to score,” she says. “The performer has to truly feel my music, physically, before they can perform it. It has freedom but it’s also very rigorous. When other people want to do my work, I insist that they work closely with me or members of my ensemble before they even start. It is challenging to pass my music on. I think my latest piece Indra’s Net could ultimately be done in my absence. But it will be sad for me!”
Monk’s forthcoming show at London’s Royal Festival Hall, her first UK date since 2013, will find her performing from her most recent album Memory Game, a collaboration with the New York ensemble Bang On a Can. “They are a generation younger than me – very urban, edgy, in-your-face. I’m more plangent, primordial, visceral, lyrical. So I had to find pieces that were midway between these two sensibilities. I decided to revisit theatre pieces from the 1980s and 1990s that I played live but didn’t really record properly.”
Can a composition ever truly be finished? “That’s a beautiful question,” she ponders. “Live performance shows us that each composition is an organic entity. When you first perform a piece, it’s like an infant. As you go along, you learn more about it. You might come to a place where you’re satisfied with the form, but I like to leave room for play and growth.”