Swinging Modern Sounds #55: Meredith Monk, Composer

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It’s in the nature of American serious music that its real mavericks—like Charles Ives, or Harry Partch, or John Cage—are often hard to fathom with respect to genre. We just don’t exactly know how to talk about what these composers do. Or what they do is so various that to pigeonhole it with respect to a single impulse is to do violence to a legacy.

So it is with Meredith Monk.

There have been a great many Meredith Monks. Even in speaking of her as a composer of vocal music, we limit her range, because the vocal music of Meredith Monk is never conventional vocal music at all. Because while she was making vocal music, Monk was also choreographing movement, making films, mounting stage shows. To think of her as the singer and bandleader of the vocal ensemble has always been to underrate the output.

In the last ten years, Monk has emphasized a whole new facet of her jewel, that of the “traditional” composer. Since so much of her vocal music was created through trial and error, and memory, Monk’s compositional side has not been self-evident, though she’s wrote music as far back as her student days. With two recent major orchestral works now under her belt, and a new release of her piano music just out from ECM, the idea that Monk is not a heavyweight contemporary composer (in the same league as Reich, Adams, Ingram Marshall, Terry Riley, et al.) is an idea more apparently sexist and inexplicable than it ever was before. Whatever minimalism is or was, the simplicity of gesture and rhythmic concentration at the heart of the movement (not to mention its origins in New York City, in both serious music and underground rock and roll and jazz) was much in evidence in Monk’s work coterminously, if not prior, to some of the work of the more widely recognized voices of the period.

The new album, Monk: Piano Songs, which collects decades of piano compositions—all of them notable for the same jittery, nervous, passionate momentum that animates Monk’s vocal music—makes the case for Monk as a composer with renewed fervor. It’s a beautiful, unearthly album, melancholy by turns (on tracks like “Ellis Island” and “Phantom Waltz”), but also furious, mercurial, and sometimes even funny.

The year 2015 will mark 50 years of playing in public for Meredith Monk, indisputably one of America’s most important musical voices, whose only crimes are endurance and a restless creativity. I sat down with Monk in her West Broadway loft (where she has lived since the early 70s) in early May, a week or so before attending the launch of Piano Songs, at which the pianists, discussed below, played most of the duets on the album in a live setting with great brio and spirit. The show was tremendously exciting, but not as memorable—nothing could be—as having Meredith put on an LP of her mother singing show tunes while she made salmon and greens for the two of us. Few things in my life have been as instructive for me as learning from this great artist about how to live and practice the creative arts.

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The Rumpus: Why the piano and why now?

Meredith Monk: Oh, my goodness. Ten years ago I did a marathon concert at Zankel Hall, and John Schaefer and I were curating it together like who would we have on this program? I had written piano music for Nurit Tilles, and for Double Edge, and sometimes for me and Nurit to play together over the years, and a few other pianists had played it. So I originally suggested Double Edge, but John Schaefer wanted to try something else. He wanted to try having people play my music that had never played it. You know, just to see what that would be like.

He suggested Ursula Oppens. I mean, I think she’s a goddess on the piano. She’s a magician. One of my favorite pianists. She’s extraordinary. I was like, “well, I don’t know if she’ll want to play it, but great.” And then, I knew Bruce Brubaker because he was teaching at Juilliard and I had done one master class or a lecture kind of thing with him. He was open and very interested. He’s a specialist in new music and when I was working on a score book, a book of pieces for Boosey and Hawkes, he came and tried out the pieces for me to see whether the notation was accurate. So I suggested Bruce, and Bruce and Ursula played three pieces at Zankel Hall, and that was the beginning of thinking about this. I think we started talking about recording right away.

That was a long time ago. It took that much time to pull together these pieces, you know, to make an album. Some of the pieces, the ones that they played at Zankel, were already finished. But some of the other ones really had to be written out more clearly. And some of them I even recomposed. And in some cases, Bruce arranged pieces that were not originally written for piano.

Rumpus: Was Manfred Eicher (of ECM) instrumental in the decision making at all?

Monk: No, not really.

I’ve always written piano music over the years. My main core energy has been in the vocal music, so in a way, sometimes I don’t feel like I took piano seriously. But the years I was doing the duo concerts with Nurit, I started thinking about how the piano stands up for itself. And I wrote her a piece called “Steppe Music” in the late 90s that was like a 30-minute solo for piano, so I was definitely thinking about it at that time.

Rumpus: Did you score out the pieces or did you make them on the four-track?

Monk: I think when I was working on the pieces, I overdubbed on the four track. That’s my usual dinosaur-like method. But “Paris,” which was my first piano piece, I wrote out by hand. The whole score.

Rumpus: That’s 1972?

Monk: 1972, yeah.

Rumpus: What happened in 1972, when you turned your back on the organ suddenly?

Monk: I just had the longing to go back to piano. I bought a piano that was the same kind of piano I had when I was a child, which was a Hardman Peck, 1940s Art Deco-looking piano, those brown pianos. I have pictures of me as a little tiny girl playing a little Hardman Peck piano.

Rumpus: Is that an upright?

Monk: It’s an upright. It’s quite a small upright, and it’s got these Art Deco arms around the edge of the piano. It’s a very nice-looking piano. My mother was a singer and my uncle had a piano store up in Meriden, Connecticut, so I got a piano from him. I bought it from him, or from a factory that he suggested up there.

And, I don’t know… I just felt I wanted to go back to the intimacy of the piano. The reason I chose the organ at the beginning, when I was working with voice, was to have the organ be more like a landscape. It had scale, very large scale, and it had that sustain, the possibility of sustain, so the voice could really move on top of it. The organ could hold notes. And for some reason, after that experience I felt like I just wanted to get back to the intimacy of the piano.

The first thing I did when I got that piano was to write “Paris.” I’ve always felt that the piece holds up by itself as a piano piece. We performed it in this loft. I had just moved into this loft. And the audience came and we were up in the sleeping loft and we had little curtains and there was a little face that came out and we did, “Mesdames et Messieurs, welcome to the house!” We had this whole little prologue. And Ping (Chong) was doing it in a falsetto voice and this woman was mouthing it and then they came into the studio and then the first thing that happened was this man came out and bowed to them and opened up his music and played “Paris.” Later on, it became the accompaniment for a movement section, you know, but I always felt that it was a piano piece. That was really exciting for me. I actually wrote it out by hand. That whole piece.

Rumpus: On the staves and everything.

Monk: I notated.

Rumpus: In the liner notes to Piano Songs, you spoke of having written piano pieces in your student years.

Monk: Very simple 32-bar pieces. Very Gershwin-esque kind of pieces. I had just come back from Paris—I didn’t really know about Atget photographs, but after people heard “Paris,” they said, you know, this reminds me of the Atget photographs of working class Paris at the turn of the century. At the same time, I was very into Buster Keaton and silent comedy, and I wanted to have this piece be episodic, almost like a silent film. You know, it’s probably my most episodic piece. I always think of it as it as this little man that kind of goes from one thing to another, from one episode to another.

Rumpus: That would mean that you have characters in mind when you write for piano, in the same way you sometimes do for voices?

Monk: Sometimes. Sometimes not. In that one I did. It’s very lurchy and awkward, and I was trying to convey that to Ursula, who’s such a graceful pianist: the little man is trying really hard and he doesn’t make it, and then he finally gets it. You know, I have little internal scenarios for the action, but when you listen to the music, you don’t have to know that. You’re just trying to get a kind of witty, happy/sad kind of quality to it. Poignant.

Rumpus: How much did you supervise the recording of these pieces as they were happening?

Monk: I was there in Boston. There were some things that were interesting, technically. For example, Jody Elf, our engineer, wanted the pianos next to each other. There are some piano teams who play that way. But I always like the married pianos. When you do it with two pianos next to each other the back pianist doesn’t hear as well as the front pianist does. They take the top off the front piano.

Rumpus: Can you explain it to me visually?

Monk: Like if they were on the stage and you were looking at it, the front piano is kind of ahead. The back piano is behind, but they take the top off the front piano so the front pianist can hear. The back pianist still has the lid on and it’s up, so the front pianist can hear pretty well but the back pianist can’t hear the front pianist that well.

Rumpus: And that was the setup? As opposed to having them in opposite directions?

Monk: Yeah, I like that married piano better. There was a reason for it, and as I say, there are some piano teams that do work that way. Bruce and Ursula, I think, were experienced doing it that way. But I think in the room that sometimes it was hard for the back pianist to hear. So that presented some rhythmic challenges.

Rumpus: And did they always sit in the same spots? Or did they swap?

Monk: No, they switched. They swapped.

Rumpus: Depending on who was playing what.

Monk: Yeah. Because the pianos were not that much alike. They were quite different. Which is sometimes also very challenging. You try to match the pianos, but that was what they had at the New England Conservatory.

Rumpus: Did Bruce and Ursula get to have a hand in which pianos were used?

Monk: Oh yeah, oh sure. Absolutely. I laid back as a producer because I had so much respect for them and I wanted to not get in their way in any way. So I felt like, of course, they would know which piano to play for each piano, for each piece.

Rumpus: You said in the notes that you imagined on occasion that one piano was the singing piano and one was accompanying?

Monk: Sometimes. Some pieces.

Rumpus: How does that sound to you? What’s an example of that?

Monk: When one piano really has the melodic material and the other one has the chords, you know, or more of the ground material. That would be pretty much the way a singer and an instrumentalist work.

I think “Ellis Island” is beautiful because it actually switches back and forth. Sometimes one person has got that melody that’s over the top, but then it flips over so that the other pianist gets it. I like that very much. It’s something that I actually want to think about again if I’m working on piano pieces. The thing of swapping, and it goes back and forth, so you don’t really know who is the melodic piano and who’s got the other material. I don’t think in any piece it ever stands still. It’s always moving.

Rumpus: What were ways, interpretively, that Bruce and Ursula surprised you? Or ways that they brought things to the recording that you didn’t know to expect?

Monk: For example, Bruce’s interpretation of “Window in 7’s,” which I wrote for Nurit Tilles, is very different. Bruce has a lot more rubato and he has, in a way, you could say… I wouldn’t say romantic, I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that he pulls time out where Nurit is very forward motion. Her style is very kinetic. There’s always a sense of movement going forward. Bruce compresses and expands a little bit, so it’s very different. Very beautiful in its own way.

That’s the whole crazy thing about composing music. You have to let it go and then the good part of it is that sometimes you get very surprised at what somebody does with it. The bad part of it could be when they don’t get the music at all. That’s the hard part of it. Not in this case, but sometimes the musicians just don’t get the principles. And I think with my music—on the paper—what you see is not necessarily what you get. You have to sort of understand the principles of the music.

Rumpus: Does recording for piano present difficulties different from the vocal recordings in which you’re usually involved with?

Monk: It’s different. It’s definitely different. And also, I don’t have the technique that Ursula and Bruce both have as pianists. With a singer, I would probably be able to analyze in a clear way and suggest an approach. I certainly did tell Ursula and Bruce what I wanted, and I definitely told them, again, how rhythmically it works, and again this thing of forward motion, which is something that’s very important in my music. When we had rehearsals I was definitely trying to articulate as best as I could what I thought the pieces were. And then Allison Sniffin, who is a member of my ensemble and a wonderful pianist, she sometimes translated those principles into more technical terms for them. She was very, very helpful.

Rumpus: How does this differ from your approach to orchestral work?

Monk: The orchestral works are even three steps farther removed because I’m dealing with a conductor. I’m at the mercy of a conductor. Usually, with the orchestral works they don’t really get much rehearsal so it’s very hard. With my music, you need to get it into your bones. You need to listen in a different way. You can’t just be following a score that you’ve only seen once. At the same time, it’s pretty miraculous to watch how a conductor brings a score to life. It’s amazing.

I remember when I did my first orchestral piece, “Possible Sky,” in 2003 and I was watching Michael Tilson Thomas bring this thing to life. It was extraordinary. This thing that was just on the page and then he brought it to life. It was beautiful. And that process was closer to the way that I work, because I had gone for two years to work with those young instrumentalists, and work things on them, and try things, and work out solos for the trumpet player and you know that kind of thing, by singing them, really. In that case, we did have enough rehearsal time. It was really beautiful to see this thing bloom. Whereas with Weave, in St. Louis, we only had like two rehearsals, or something like that. They’re wonderful players though, so they played their hearts out. But the momentum, that’s something that, again, is quite hard to figure out, if you haven’t been living with this music. What is the momentum that’s not too fast but at the same time keeps the piece from staying stuck.

Rumpus: My recollection of your vocal workshops is that physical movement is so integral to what you do…

Monk: Even if we’re standing still, music still has motion, don’t you think so?

Rumpus: Is there a physical analogy for helping the piano players figure out this physical movement in the work? Is there some way that they can inhabit it, and feel it in that way?

Monk: I think I did talk to them about motion. They’re not people that were trained in movement. When I watch Ursula play, it’s like she and the piano are this one thing. She just gets way down. It’s like seeing one organism. It’s really amazing. I think also because both of them are classical players I had to figure out ways of—not that they’re stuck in that in any way—offering an alternative approach. With “Paris,” I gave Ursula a tape of me playing it. I played in this kind of lurchy way, but I mean purposefully, but I don’t have that kind of technique that Ursula has and so she sort of got that rougher-hewn quality about it. Not too refined. And not too 19th Century. That’s the thing.

Rumpus: How do you feel about the assortment of compositions on the album?

Monk: I worked very hard at the structure. Very hard. What would I like to hear first and what would I like to hear second. Allison and I worked on it together. Sometimes the way that you choose a sequence, it has to do with keys, and key relationships. It has to do with mostly not having two ballads in a row, if possible, with the slow and fast movements. I just tried to make a little dramaturgical sequence that would be satisfying.

Rumpus: I love how it ends.

Monk: “Phantom Waltz.” That’s one of my favorite piano pieces.

Rumpus: The album opens strongly, too. But when I spoke to you about it last, you said there were a couple of things that you felt got left off?

Monk: Yeah, doggone it. I was thinking about them doing concerts, and it’s a little short for a concert. They did a concert, after we recorded, at the New England Conservatory, and people were really enthusiastic in the audience. But I felt it went by really fast. They’re such short pieces. I thought I would like to see if I could get a few more piano pieces up. There’s another one I wrote for Nurit and maybe Ursula will play a few sections of that. We haven’t been working on that yet.

But, of course, a year too late, I thought, oh my gosh, there’s that piece from Volcano Songs called “Trekking.” It was just part of a performance piece, but if I really finish that piece it could be a beautiful two-piano piece. So I worked on that and I’ve completed that and now I’m going to hear it on Monday, maybe, for the first time. They’re not going to do it on Wednesday, but they’ll do it at the Le Poisson Rouge concert. And another one was actually making an arrangement for two pianos from my string quartet that I did for Kronos. It’s called “Phantom Strings,” and it’s very complicated rhythmically. The first violin and the viola part—one pianist gets it. And the second violin and the cello part, the other pianist gets it. We’ll see if they can achieve it. I’m going to hear it for the first time on Monday.

Rumpus: So does that mean there could conceivably be a second volume of piano music?

Monk: I don’t know. That’s what makes me so frustrated, because I didn’t get them onto the album in time. And a lot of it is the players have very busy schedules and we just recorded when we could get everybody together in one room at one time. I did the best I could to prepare, but then I realized there were some other pieces.

It’d be wonderful if we did another one, but I don’t know in my lifetime if I’ll have enough accumulated piano pieces, because really now I’m concentrating mostly on writing music for my whole ensemble.

Rumpus: So the next thing is vocal ensemble?

Monk: On Behalf of Nature.

Rumpus: A suite.

Monk: A whole piece, an hour piece.

Rumpus: What stage are you in with that?

Monk: We premiered it in 2013 at UCLA. It’s a big multimedia piece. I think the music really is beautiful. I think we’re going to try to record it after we do BAM next December, either in December or in the spring. And as always when I make an album, I’ll rethink the compositions and enrich them, probably instrumentally, and compress the forms for recording. Although in On Behalf of Nature, the forms are pretty nice. I think the thing with that piece is the music is so developed. I was having a little more difficulty with the other elements.

Rumpus: Which other elements?

Monk: Movement, and any kind of visual element. It’s very simple. It’s almost like a music concert with movement, really. It’s very abstract. Almost zero production value except for light. No objects. Nothing. Just music and movement and light.

Rumpus: Might there ever be an organ CD?

Monk: I’m not sure. “Tower,” I originally had written for organ. I think actually in the long run I actually prefer it on organ. It’s not quite right for piano but…

Rumpus: What happened in the translation?

Monk: I think with organ when you press your hand down it stays. The sound stays. And so you don’t quite hear the blur. You don’t hear the underlying blur of the piece the way that you do on organ with piano. It was an experiment to do “Tower” as part of this album.

Rumpus: What’s the organ that you used in the old days?

Monk: I used a Gibson Kalamazoo. My old boyfriend Don Preston was The Mothers of Invention keyboard player, so that was 1969 I wanted to get the organ. He took me up to Manny’s and he said you’ve got to get a Gibson Kalamazoo, it will really hold up, which it sort of did, until… I carried that thing with me to France, on the train and everything, this really heavy thing, and then it blew up in 1980, no 1982. Nicky Paraiso was playing it for “Turtle Dreams” for our video and it literally blew up and started smoking. In those days I brought it to Dr. Sound and they said, “We don’t deal with these tube organs we only deal with synthesizers.” Now if you take that to Dr. Sound, they’re like “Can we buy this from you for two thousand dollars?’”or something like that. So people are going back to the tube organs because they sound very good. The bass, you just don’t get that on a synthesizer. It’s a beautiful sound.

Rumpus: Didn’t you use that at the Whitney retrospective?

Monk: Yeah, I did.

Rumpus: So it still plays?

Monk: Yes, it still plays.

Rumpus: I love it so much. It sounds so late 60s.

Monk: Isn’t it great? I think we sampled it, in case it does blow up again or something like that.

Rumpus: Aren’t you about to be having a 50th anniversary celebration?

Monk: I’m the resident composer at Carnegie Hall next year. I’m doing six different concerts. The first concert is the piano concert at Le Poisson Rouge under the auspices of Carnegie, which is really cool. So they’ll get to play their whole concert with these new pieces that we’re getting up. Then the night after that at Zankel, is it? I don’t think it’s the big hall, but anyway, the ACO, the American Composers Orchestra, will play on a program. They’re going to play my piece called “Night,” which I really love, with eight singers and a chamber orchestra. Do you want to hear about the other concerts?

Rumpus: Oh yeah, of course.

Monk: After that, in March, I’m doing another Meredith Monk and Friends kind of concert, like a marathon. I’m trying to fight for the four-hour show but I don’t know if I’m going to get it. I’m trying not to do exactly what I did at the Whitney. I’m trying something else. For that one, Jessye Norman is going to sing one or two of my songs. And she’s such a wonderful person. We’ll see what happens with that. And then there’s going to be the St. Louis Symphony playing in the big hall at Carnegie, playing my piece Weave that I wrote for them, with chorus, Theo (Bleckmann) and Katie (Geissinger, both vocal ensemble members), and chamber orchestra. Just to be able to hear that again is going to be really wonderful for me. No one’s heard it in New York, so. And then the last concert is going to be in May and that will be with just my ensemble and I’ll probably do some of On Behalf of Nature in concert, which I really think is so beautiful just to listen to it, some stuff from Mercy, some stuff from Impermanence. So I’m kind of concentrating on the ensemble and these last ten years or so, and then maybe some early stuff like Vessel, or something like that. That’s the year. Then I’m going to die after that.

Rumpus: Don’t say that!

Monk: You know what I mean. It’s just like, Oh my God, I’m just thinking about it. I’m exhausted thinking about it. But I realize I just have to take it one thing at a time. That’s it.

Rumpus: A last question? About the vocal injury?

Monk: I just coughed. My vocal injury lasted about a month, but I had a flu or something like that and I literally coughed. I had a broken blood vessel in one vocal chord. That was freaky. Because my chords are great. You know, even Gwen Korovin, my doctor, she said, this doesn’t happen to you. And she’s like ‘vocal rest’ and then within like two weeks it was healing, healing, healing, healing, healing. I’m singing very well. Feel really good.

Rumpus: Did you not even talk?

Monk: I did not. We had a Christmas party and I had a little sign that said, “I am on vocal rest. Please tell me everything about your life. Don’t leave anything out. Merry Christmas.” I had like a little sign. And that was hard, boy. I had to go to a party with Jessye and she’s like, “Don’t talk. Don’t say one word.” I’d say like one little word and she’s like, “No. You’re not going to say one word.”

Rumpus: Was it a spiritual exercise at all?

Monk: As I said to you on the phone, I wish that I had taken it that way. I was just more frustrated. If I wasn’t in New York and it wasn’t around Christmas, if I had been in New Mexico, I would have been fine. I actually love silence. I adore not talking. But it was kind of hard to keep this life going when people are kind of pulling at you. It was difficult. In a way, I wish I had taken it more as just, this is practice, this is practice.

Rumpus: So you were well underway with the piano album when the vocal thing happened?

Monk: The piano album was done. The piano album was done a year and a half ago.

Rumpus: I mean, it’s so interesting that you had to stop singing and then you released an instrumental album.

Monk: We sent the master in 2012, I think like around Christmas 2012, to see whether Manfred wanted to do it. And then I was very happy that he did. Then it took a year for them, you know, to finish the mix and all that. It sometimes works like that.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →