With her latest performance work, Meredith Monk says she sought to create “space for imagination and a fluid, perceptual field that could expand awareness of what we are in danger of losing.” What resulted is On Behalf of Nature, “a meditation on our intimate connection to nature, its inner structures, the fragility of its ecology and our interdependence.” Inspired by poet and naturalist Gary Snyder, Monk has chosen to serve as a spokesperson for nonhuman entities: plants, animals, minerals, air, water, and, in her feature solo piece Water/Sky Rant, the disconcerting absence of water during drought.
Simple, luminous staging seems to capture colors and reflections from the entire circumference of the horizon while she and her troupe engage in dialogue with the atmosphere and the earth’s magnetic field. Voices share the ground with whistles, woodwinds, birdcalls, bells, French horn, harp, cuica (a Brazilian friction drum), keyboards, and tuned percussion. Light-years beyond conventional notions of entertainment, these are timeless, wordless messages, subliminal and sublime. Monk regards performance as a spiritual discipline, similar in ways to meditative sitting practice, combining pinpoint focus with open-heartedness.
In a sense, On Behalf of Nature has been fifty years in the making. Monk’s progress as an innovative modern dancer took an unusual turn in 1965 when she realized that the voice is a language unto itself and that time could be used as a sculptural element. Monk’s performance rituals are carefully conceived and intensively planned. Her long-established vocabulary of wordless vocal technique includes clicking, whispering, cooing, crowing, cawing, cheeping, chattering, cackling, whooping, howling, and high ululation. Astonishing virtuosity is blended with childlike wonderment.
Voices run in the family. Monk’s maternal great-grandfather served as cantor in a Russian synagogue. His son Joseph B. Zellman was an operatic bass-baritone who married American concert pianist Rose Kornicker and opened a conservatory. In 1900 the duo recorded a series of phonograph cylinders for Thomas Edison. Monk’s mother, professionally billed as Audrey Marsh, found work in broadcast studios as a singer of ballads, pop tunes, and advertising jingles for Muriel Cigars, Blue Bonnet Margarine, and Schaefer Beer. Monk recalls learning how to read music before she could read words.
Beginning at the age of three she spent several years participating in Dalcroze Eurhythmics workshops, mingling music and movement to improve her coordination. Those sessions established a path for her to grow into a highly disciplined and individualistic dancer fascinated by what she calls “the delicate fluid membrane between speech and music.” The voice, she says, is her footprint, her blood, her weather report, her playground, earthquake, compass, lifeline, and beacon. It is her soul’s messenger.
The University Musical Society brings Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble to town to perform On Behalf of Nature on Friday, January 20.