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Meredith Monk in fine fettle after 40 years

Meredith Monk and vocal ensemble, November 12, 2005

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

More than a cult figure, perhaps something less than a legend, composer/singer/choreographer Meredith Monk celebrates her 40th year as a performer this season. She brought selections from her work to the Chan Centre Saturday evening with the aid of a small coterie of singers and instrumentalists.

Monk’s artistry is defined in three overlapping areas: her command of virtuoso “extended techniques” for the voice; her interdisciplinary performances; and her work as a composer. Saturday’s program successfully encapsulated these aspects of her career in three separate sets.

The first, Music for Unaccompanied Voice, was an astonishing demonstration of Monk’s unparalleled technique as a singer. In five selections, most from the late 1960s, Monk demonstrated the range and subtlety of her vocal mastery in short, easy-to-digest snippets of music. Their brevity kept any compositional issues at bay and, unlike so much music for overt virtuoso display, they never outwore their welcome.

The second half of the program was devoted to Turtle Dreams (Waltz), a dance/music/film hybrid from 1981. This was a vivid reminder that Monk emerged during a time of sterile academicism that blighted mid-century American music. The revolutionary simplicity of Turtle Dreams retains its potency: simple, obsessive keyboard patterns, a fairly formal vocabulary of movement (with a few more flamboyant gestures that demonstrate that Monk is invariably her own best interpreter), and a slightly zany black-and-white film. It stands up surprisingly well.

But first Monk’s more recent work was sampled in eight selections from Mercy (2001). In the last few years Monk has turned to projects – such as work for orchestra or string quartet – that imply a certain rapprochement with classical traditions. Despite the ingenuity of Monk’s vocal idioms and a nice ear for instrumental colour, Mercy (or at least those sections presented Saturday) isn’t a complete success. Though many of the individual excerpts were inventive, one can sense a certain frustration in the uneasy blend of ideas and the unsure proportions. In late middle age Monk seems to yearn for big statements in big work, but the relative shallowness of her compositional technique betrays her.

Monk’s enchanted though somewhat sparse audience of Vancouver stalwarts didn’t mind: they were there to pay homage to a hero. If the artistic values that animate Meredith Monk’s life’s work have become increasingly fragile, all the more reason to celebrate now.

Mon Nov 14, 2005