Interviewed by Bob Turner
One of North America’s coolest composers, singers, and creators of new opera, musical theatre works, films and installations, Meredith Monk is a pioneer in “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.” Her work thrives at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound to discover and weave together new modes of perception.
Common Ground: You were obviously exposed to and influenced by the concept of multimedia in the ‘60s.
MM: I was one of the early people to work in that form, although when I came to New York there was a lot of thinking about how to stretch the forms and go across the boundaries. A lot of artists from different mediums were working together. Visual artists were doing dances and musicians were doing plays, so it was in the air. When I was still in school, I was making pieces like that, which I think was a personal necessity.
I’ve always believed since my early days that this thing of categories is a European tradition. If you think about other cultures or other times, like Indonesia, the more things one body does, the more honoured they actually are. In Europe, at a certain time, everybody became very specialized. Working with different perceptions is a great antidote to the fragmented world we live in.
CG: Your films had island titles.
MM: Ellis Island was a film I shot right before the island was refurbished. It was in ruin. It was the early ‘80s, and I was very lucky to be able to shoot there before it got cleaned up. The film has a very ghost-like quality.
CG: Were these social-political films?
MM: It had that layer in there. It’s all images. It’s almost a silent film. It has a little bit of written text, but it’s not a documentary. It’s between a documentary and a poetic film. There’s plenty of music, all the way through. But some of the images are harsh and you see this idea of making people the objects. No matter the dream, the reality of entering through such an ordeal as that was not a very happy experience. But in a way, the film is about my amazement of people who had that strength and vision of their dream and were willing to go through that. My grandparents were like that as well, as most of ours are one way or another.
CG: Most of North America came from some version of that.
MM: Some of the stories about Ellis Island are really, really shocking, like children sent back without their parents because of quarantine or people trying to swim across to New Jersey. It was desperate in some ways.
CG: What would you listen to on a deserted island?
MM: One of them would be Caetano Veloso, a Brazilian singer who’s my absolute favourite. I love Brazilian music. Three might be too little. I think maybe Mildred Bailey, the great jazz singer from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Maybe something by Bartok, the Microcosmos.
CG: How can we find our own voices?
MM: It’s hard to find your own voice because anything and everything is available. I think the idea of originality is very important even if it might be an old concept, but finding your own voice, in the largest sense of the word, is how we get to something new.
At the same time, all this information is coming in so fast. How do you integrate and get through all of that and find your own way? The artist’s job is an example of someone following their own vision and finding their own way.
CG: What do you have to say to younger artists coming up? You must have hit obstacles along the way.
MM: I’m still hitting them. In some ways it’s interesting because you’re working out of love and the obstacles help you build an internal strength. You get endurance. You find out what your real values are and what you believe in as an artist. Follow your dream. It’s a crazy thing to say and has been said many times, but I think in the world we’re living in now it’s even harder than you would think. You have to think carefully how you want to spend your time on Earth and then keep at it. Don’t get discouraged.
One day in the mid-’60s, I had a revelation that the voice could be like an instrument, that it didn’t have to have words. It is a language and within it is gender and landscape and character and different ways of producing sound. There are limitless possibilities in the voice.
CG: There’s an expression in my mind of “going deep,” which you do. I think it transcends the word “ problems.” Words are categories. They can be glib and light and dance on the surface, but with a note, or a vibrating string on an instrument, or a violin or voice, you can go deep, or not.
MM: The overall vocabulary of the voice doesn’t lie. It’s very honest. When you hear someone sing, you can tell within one note or two whether it’s an authentic sound or not. You hear right away if it comes from a deep place, because it comes right from the centre of the body. It is energy channelled from the centre. It’s a direct source to feeling.
I think direct experience is sometimes terrifying for people. Words become a kind of protection from experiencing something. Sometimes it’s not so comfortable to let that go, but there is a big, wide pallet of experience, feeling and energy, for which we don’t have words, that is conveyed directly to an audience in an open-hearted way. It allows them to also be in contact with that energy that they have.
CG: What is your purpose for getting people in touch with that?
MM: I believe art has the power of healing and it is an offering. In this world we’re living in, if you can offer people an experience where they can get in touch with the kinds of energies and feelings that we don’t have words for, it’s in a sense making everybody more alive. There’s a kind of magic that we sometimes lose touch with; the truth of the body and of perception in our lives, especially in the world we’re living in now.
So, my purpose is to provide an experience where people can feel that quickening again and question what is making you numb out from that vitality. It’s a way of creating and offering a figure eight of energy between these performers that are generous and vulnerable, and the audience.
I think that’s the beauty of the live performance. You can’t get the same thing in a record or film. The energy is going back and forth between the audience and performers like an infinity sign.
Meredith Monk performs at The Chan Centre, Saturday, November 12, 8 pm.