(Photo by Spencer Davis)
“Performance is art in motion; in the moment; both enactment and embodiment. This is exactly what nature herself is.” Gary Snyder
Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker has said of Meredith Monk that
“Her intricately planned theatrical spectacles awoke buried memories of primordial wailing, Neolithic rituals, Greek bacchanals, inscrutable medieval entertainments, and the folk songs of extinct peoples. More disturbingly, they prophesied the shattered culture of a post-apocalyptic future. Monk’s many-side art was rooted in her voice—a ruggedly beautiful, piercingly expressive, ever-changeable instrument, which cut to the core of emotion while largely bypassing language. She spoke of the “dancing voice,” of a “voice as flexible as the spine.” In passing moments, she could evoke an elderly sage, a wide-eyed child, or a shaman.”
“…she shapes her ideas to the grain of the voice and the contours of the body. For all the disparate elements that go into her work, she can’t really be described as eclectic or interdisciplinary: her acts of fusion are too organic, too logical. She harks back to a time before disciplines existed and categories were set in stone. Richard Taruskin, in his monumental “Oxford History of Western Music,” relates Monk to the very origins of the art form, the intermingling of oral and written practices in church music of the late Middle Ages. She represents a kind of reboot of tradition. She may loom ever larger as the new century unfolds, and later generations will envy those who got to see her live.”
Monk’s newest work, ‘On Behalf of Nature’ is “a poetic meditation on the environment.” In this program she creates an
“expansive sound world of different musical realms. Within this world, Monk evokes the Buddhist notion of the existence of different realm categories—the idea of joining heaven and earth by way of human beings.”
“Drawing additional inspiration from writers and researchers who have sounded the alarm on the precarious state of our global ecology, Monk and her acclaimed Vocal Ensemble create a liminal space where human, natural and spiritual elements are woven into a delicate whole, in order to illuminate the interconnection and interdependency of us all.”
In her artist statement for this performance she states that
“One of the early inspirations for On Behalf of Nature was an essay by the poet, Gary Snyder, entitled, “Writers and the War Against Nature.” In it he writes about the role of the artist being that of a “spokesperson for non-human entities communicating to the human realm through dance or song.” This act of compassion, of “speaking on behalf of nature,” embodies and gives voice to those forces that often go unrecognized. On Behalf of Nature is a meditation on our intimate connection to nature, its inner structures, the fragility of its ecology and our interdependence.”
Here is an excerpt from Snyder’s essay
“Last year a study was released describing the sudden decline of albatross numbers worldwide. It even prompted an editorial in the New York Times. This sharp decline is attributed to much death by drowning. The long-line fishing boats lay out lines with bait and hooks that go miles back, dragging just below the surface. An albatross will go for the bait, get hooked, and be pulled down to drown. As many as 100,000 a year are estimated to perish in this way, enough to threaten the survival of the species if it keeps up. What have the albatross, “Distinguished strangers who have come down to us from another world,” ever done to us? The editorial concludes, “The long-line fishing fleet is over-harvesting the air as well as the sea.”
“Out on the South Pacific in 1958, watching the soaring albatrosses from the stern of a ship, I could never have guessed that their lives would be threatened by industrial societies, turning them into “collateral damage” of the affluent appetite for ahi and maguro tuna species (my own taste, too). Yet this is just a tiny, almost insignificant example of the long reach of the globalized economy and the consumer society into the wild earth’s remote places. A recent book on global logging and deforestation is titled Strangely Like War. What is happening now to nature worldwide, plant life and wildlife, ocean, grassland, forest, savannah, desert—all spaces and habitat—the non-human realm of watersheds and ecosystems with all their members, can be likened to a war against nature.”
“Although human beings have interacted with nature, both cultivated and wild, for millennia, and sometimes destructively so, it was never quite like “war.” It has now become disconcertingly so, and the active defense of nature has been joined by a few artists and writers who have entered the fight on “the wild side,” along with subsistence peoples, indigenous spiritual leaders, many courageous scientists, and conservationists and environmentalists worldwide.”
“Art survives within modern civilization rather like little islands of wilderness saved to show us where we came from.”
“There is a tame, and also a wild, side to the human mind. The tame side, like a farmer’s field, has been disciplined and cultivated to produce a desired yield. It is useful but limited. The wild side is larger, deeper, more complex, and though it cannot be fully known, it can be explored. The explorers of the wild mind are often writers and artists. The “poetic imagination” of which William Blake so eloquently spoke is the territory of wild mind. It has landscapes and creatures within it that will surprise us; it can refresh us and scare us; it reflects the larger truth of our ancient selves, both animal and spiritual.”
“The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once said something like “Art survives within modern civilization rather like little islands of wilderness saved to show us where we came from.” Someone once said that what makes writing good is the wildness in it. The wildness gives heart, courage, love, spirit, danger, compassion, skill, fierceness, and sweetness—all at once—to language. From ancient times, storytellers, poets, and dramatists have presented the world in all its fullness: plants, animals, men and women, changing shape, speaking multiple languages, intermarrying, traveling to the sky and under the earth. The great myths and folktales of human magic and nature’s power were our school for ten thousand years. Whether they know it or not, even modern writers draw strength from the wild side.”
“How can artists and writers manage to join in the defense of the planet and wild nature? Writers and artists by their very work “bear witness.” They don’t wield financial, governmental, or military power. However, at the outset they were given, as in fairy tales, two “magic gifts.” One is “The Mirror of Truth.” Whatever they hold this mirror up to is shown in its actual form, and the truth must come out. May we use that mirror well!”
“The second is a “Heart of Compassion,” which is to say the ability to feel and know the pains and delights of other people, and to weave that feeling into their art. For some this compassion can extend to all creatures and to the world itself. In a way, nature even borrows the voices of some writers and artists. Anciently, this was a shamanistic role where the singer, dancer, or storyteller embodied a force, appearing as a bear dancer or a crane dancer, and became one with a spirit or creature. Today, such a role is played by the writer who finds herself a spokesperson for non-human entities communicating to the human realm through dance or song. This could be called “speaking on behalf of nature” in the old way.”
“Song, story, and dance are fundamental to all later “civilized” literature. In archaic times these were unified in dramatic performance, back when drama and religious ceremony were still one. They are reunited today in the highest and greatest of performance arts: the grand scale of European opera, the height of ballet, the spare and disciplined elegance of Japanese Nô theater, the almost timeless dance-and-story of Indonesian Gamelan, the wit and hardiness of Bertold Brecht’s plays, or the fierce and stunningly beautiful intensity of Korean P’ansori performance. Performance is of key importance because this phenomenal world and all life is of itself “not a book, but a performance.”
“Poems, novels, and plays, with their great deep minds of story, awaken the Heart of Compassion. And so they confound the economic markets, rattle the empires, and open us up to the actually existing human and non-human world. Performance is art in motion; in the moment; both enactment and embodiment. This is exactly what nature herself is.”
(Live excerpts from On Behalf of Nature, performed at UCLA in 2013.)
(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.”