Bringing to Life the Invisible
(Bjork performing Meredith Monk’s ‘Gotham Lullaby’)
On the Pacifica Institute tribute page to James Hillman it describes Hillman as one whose
following includes an eclectic group of painters, poets, actors, dancers, filmmakers, philosophers, musicians, magicians, scholars, activists, and athletes. The composer Meredith Monk says: “As artists we’re bringing to life the invisible, and so are always working with something that’s nameless. I think that’s what James Hillman is also mining from.”
(Photo by Jesse Frohman)
This is Meredith Monk. As an artist her website describes her as someone who
creates works that thrive at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound in an effort to discover and weave together new modes of perception. Her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument, as an eloquent language in and of itself, expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.
In an interview with Krista Tippett, she explains what she is trying to accomplish
“See, for me, well, there are the wonderful songsmiths and wonderful people that do put words and music together in such a beautiful way. You know, it is very enlightening to hear that music, but for me, the words get in the way, actually, of the heart-to-heart kind of expression that allows for each person to hear it and hook into their minds and hook into their hearts and hook into their memory”
“I think emotion or feeling, you know, we have so many more shades of feelings that we can’t label. And I guess ultimately as an artist I’m so interested in uncovering the invisible and uncovering, you know, the mysterious and uncovering, what would I say, [is] the inexplicable. So the things that we actually can’t label, that’s the kind of mentality.”
She describes how she came to collaborate with another artist to create ‘Songs of Ascension’, an attempt to combine music and space as a setting for worship. It took place in a 78ft tower with dual spiraling staircases.
“I think for many years, I’ve been trying to think how do I really keep on affirming that my Buddhist practice or meditation practice and my art practice are actually one? There’s no difference at all. There was a certain point — it was the early ’90s — that I did a piece called Facing North, which was very inspired by being up at Banff, Canada, and the silence in the snow and, you know, just this incredible environment. And I was very aware that I was making a very meditative piece and that it was like making a piece about sacred space. So that was, you know, what I was aware of at that point.
But when I started working on Mercy and I was collaborating with a wonderful visual artist, Ann Hamilton, we did a lot of talking about this, I started becoming aware of the fact that actually I wanted to spend the rest of my life working on pieces that I — it was basically making pieces about something you can’t make pieces about. So there was never going to be like a definitive statement about anything, but it was much more that the act of making artwork was also the act of contemplating something. So Mercy was the first, second one was Impermanence, and then the latest piece that I’ve been working on with this way of thinking about things is called Songs of Ascension.”
Impermanence is another important theme for Monk
“I lost my partner of 22 years, so that was a very — in a sense, that was the biggest wake-up call that I ever had in my life up to that point and probably from that point on because I think that, when you have that kind of loss, nothing can ever be the same. It was a blessing. I also saw the blessing, not the blessing of the loss, but the blessing of being part of life and the blessing of being aware of the billions of people that go through loss all the time.
So what happened that was really interesting was that, about two months after she died, I got an email from a group in England. They called themselves Rosetta Life. What they do is they go into the different hospices in England and they work with the people that have had the diagnosis of terminal illness and they say, “Well, is there any kind of artwork that you would like to do? You know, would you like to write a poem about your process or about anything? Would you like to make some music?” Then they’ll get an artist to go in and help them. So if somebody wants to make a painting, but they’ve never painted in their lives, but they feel that that’s the way they’re going to express this process, somebody comes in and helps them. A painter comes in and helps them to make a work.”
She worked with the hospice patients to try to create a music project for them to participate in.
“So what I ended up coming up with was that the piece began with hearing them sing a melody called “Mieke’s Melody #5,” which was a melody that my partner — she used to like to just improvise in the studio even though she was not a singer. And I happened to come upon a tape of some of these improvisations. So what I did was I notated one of them and then I actually changed it a little bit and, you know, made it more into a form and added some of my own phrases. So it was a little bit like a collaboration through time and space.
So I wrote out the melody because they said, “Oh, we love to sing.” So I wrote the melody out for them and then they sang it, but they couldn’t really carry a tune that well. But each of them sang it, so the melody goes like [singing]. You know, that was the melody and then they’d be like [singing], so each of them had a different way of doing it. So when the audience came in, they heard their voices and then I had a film of just their faces just looking straight out at the camera very, very, very close.
And so when they came to see it, the ones that were still alive by the time we did Impermanence, it just meant so much to them and then also their families for the ones that had passed before we ended up doing the piece. It meant so much to them.”
(The melody starts at the 90 second mark)
“I think that making art is actually about questions and that you never take anything for granted and you’re in this slightly dangerous situation, which I think is really good. Then I always say that I’m scared to death and I think, you know, what we learn in Buddhist practices to tolerate the unknown, you know, because that’s reality. The reality is that we don’t know anything, and we really don’t know what’s going to happen in the next moment. So you learn to tolerate that discomfort of not knowing and fear. I mean, I really — I think, every time, I’m just terrified. I’m actually terrified. I realize this even now working on this piece.”