An Interview with Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk has been a singer for four generations, yet the extraordinary, unearthly quality of her vocal music has been cultivated over the course of five decades by avoiding traditionalism. She claims that her vocal techniques come from within, and are not derived from any outside sources such as classical music, cultural influences, or global folk music, which her peculiar tones often seem to evoke.

She can produce yodels and coos, whinnies and caws, reverberations and sparrow-like trills – a vast display of oral sounds, all which fall under the overarching term of “extended vocal technique,” a definition which Monk has had a hand in forming.

The style of music Monk has been producing since the 1960s and 1970s in New York combines aspects of minimalism and punk. Her pieces are typically associated with physical movement, with her wordless songs often meshing musical phrases with gestures and dance. Her films, operas, and site-specific performances reflect this interdisciplinary approach, aiming to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to attend Monk’s performance of Songs of Ascension at a cement silo in Sonoma County, California.

This silo was constructed by the artist Anne Hamilton. The singers moved up and down the double-helix staircases, and their voices blended with the resonant tower. After the performance, I had the chance to interview Monk. Six years later, I was able to talk to her again at her loft in lower Manhattan following a concert she gave at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.

At the age of seventy-two, Monk’s apartment is located at the top of a five-story walk-up, a climb which tests her tenacity and agility. Inside, one room is transformed into a dance studio; it contains her bed, a piano, a recording studio, and a ‘shrine’ full of cushions. For the past thirty years, she has been a practicing Buddhist and studied under Pema Chodron, taking her Refuge and Bodhisattva vows.

During an interview, she discussed being a female composer in the 70s, the anxieties of meditation, her work ethic, and the etiquette of emailing. As she was preparing for a series of shows at Carnegie Hall, we spoke for two hours.

Ross Simonini’s words put it elegantly:


The devotee: The area behind us: you designated it a place of worship.

At the rehearsal space, Meredith Monk has given birth to a multitude of artistic creations.

BLVR asked if they were recording in the studio.

When MM is in the process of creating music, recording is a part of it. To arrange the parts correctly, they resort to a four-track tape recorder, while they are laying down the parts. After this, they will bring in the ensemble that they are working with. To get the counterpoint sound right, they record their voice four times.

Do you take the time to write out the musical notes of your compositions?

My vocal work is largely notatable, so I have to rely on the tape in order to capture the subtle rhythmic nuances and the feeling of the sound. Every piece I create is its own unique sonic landscape.

Do you find it challenging to reproduce the same soundscape for live shows?

MM: The subtleties of what I create can be hard to retain. When I’m composing and generating musical pieces, I tend to make discoveries quickly, particularly when I am playing a solo. However, when I attempt to repeat the same performance, the nuances are often lost. Thus, it takes me a significant amount of time and practice to be able to reproduce the same spontaneous spontaneity that I achieved the first time. Nevertheless, I am able to return to that same level of creativity due to my disciplined practice.

BLVR: Last week I watched your performance of “Madwoman’s Vision” and it appeared to be quite improvised. Is that the case?

MM: The form of this composition is already fully established. It’s almost like a state of hypnosis to do the piece–which is why it’s so difficult to teach others how to play it. If one listens to my album from Book of Days, which was released in the late 1980s, they’ll note that my tempo is faster than it is now. However, I have a much better comprehension of the form at this point in time, and you can tell that the events remain the same, but each time I perform I make new findings. This is the allure of a live show.

Do you think that other works necessitate a specific kind of trance-like state?

MM commented that each piece is its own distinct world. There are others that require more jumping or a different kind of energy – an energy which is vivid and piercing. Describing the details of these things is hard. Every song demands a different set of capabilities from the performer, and this is what makes it stimulating for him.

Do your performance trances have any association with your practice of meditation?

MM: There was never a distinction between myself and my work; that was my ambition. I wasn’t aiming to promote my material, nor to attract with it. I was just in the middle, like a pivot. Occasionally, when performing, outside thoughts arise, but you come back to the axis, which is similar to meditation. In one form you focus on your exhalation, and other contemplations arise, but you don’t assess the quality of these thoughts; you attempt to not be held in them, and this could go on for a long time. Eventually, you come back to your exhalation. In performing, the same is true; if a thought appears, you return to your material. The greatest moments are those when there are no thoughts, and you are one with what you are doing. That is the goal, if one could call it that, although there isn’t one in meditation.

BLVR: Is there a connection between breathing and singing for you, both of which are essential elements?

MM shared that Buddhism resonated with their aesthetic ideas, and has since changed their aspiration for their work to be of benefit to sentient beings. Although they are a singer and use their breath in a certain way, MM has difficulty using it as a focus in their meditation, and has been advised to use their posture instead due to feeling self-conscious when using their breath.

BLVR: What kind of changes did you experience as an artist during your early years?

MM: I was a determined and fierce individual who was seeking to express myself through art. I was scared of the process of creating something new every time, being lost in the dark and trying to develop an idea. I also had to fight for respect as a female artist in the beginning since it was not common for a woman to have her own vision. It was like a choiceless choice for me, something I felt like I had to fight for and still do. After so many years, I just focus on my own path and that is enough.

What would you say is the best way to characterize the path?

MM: It’s been a very natural process, and I have not had something to follow as a model. I once had a conversation with a tea ceremony master from Tokyo, who explained how the lifestyle comes with certain expectations; you do this, you don’t do that, and you are expected to follow a certain path. It is the same for opera singers; I remember reading Beverly Sills’s autobiography, where it was stated that at a certain age one is expected to sing certain kinds of roles and later certain kinds of roles. But I chose not to follow that, instead I am taking it step by step without any existing structure.

BLVR: Was there a specific set of roles when you started out with musical theater?

At Sarah Lawrence, I developed a program that combined performing arts. My studies included voice and dance, along with some theater work. I was exposed to inter-media and multidisciplinary forms, and I began to explore combining voice and movement with objects, creating a more visually-driven style. This was my first experience with weaving together different types of art.

BLVR inquired if the person had taken a course in eurythmy.

MM: Are you acquainted with the contrast between Eurythmics and eurythmy?

Eurythmy was a concept created by Rudolf Steiner.

MM stated that eurythmy is focused on articulating space and the sound of words by performing certain gestures. This is distinct from eurythmics, which was founded by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, a Swiss composer in the late nineteenth century. He was intrigued by Swiss folk music, similar to how Bartok was interested in Hungarian folk music. He composed pieces and taught at a conservatory, yet he had difficulty teaching one student rhythm. Then, he noticed the student walking gracefully and had the idea to teach him rhythm through physical exercises instead. MM started studying eurythmics at the young age of three, finding it to be an effective way to combine the body, ears, voice, and space.

BLVR: Was your mother trained in singing or was it a natural talent?

MM: She hadn’t looked into it, but because I had strabismus, a condition where the eyes don’t work together to form a single image, she took me to a program for kids that used music to learn about their bodies. I had difficulty with activities like skipping due to a lack of coordination, but due to being a fourth-generation singer, I had musical ability from a young age. Thus, the program enabled me to learn more about my body through music.

BLVR: What methods have you put in place to make that approach to your music more effective?

This morning, when I woke up, I realized that all of my music has a physical presence to it, which is why I find it beneficial to work with people from both the music and dance worlds. I think I have been able to get vocalists to make use of their surroundings, something that is not a common practice in the classical music realm since they are not usually educated to do that.


Do you have a customary practice that you do every day?

When I’m not in a rush, my ideal day usually starts with a bit of meditation. I call this my morning “maintenance”; including physical, vocal, and piano exercises. This is followed by lunch and dedicating the rest of the day to composing.

BLVR: Is it safe to say that you are a firm believer in consistent practice?

MM: Absolutely! Self-discipline is key. I would not have been able to keep my singing voice in shape for all these years if I didn’t possess a mentor I still work with and if I had not been vocalizing on a regular basis. Without regular use of your singing voice, it will eventually be lost.

BLVR: Did your instructor gain their experience through traditional methods?

MM has been working with her classical teacher for thirty years and does regular classical exercises. She is also able to help Broadway singers with their belting technique and stop them from hurting themselves. What really stands out about her teaching is that MM is still able to remain sounding like herself. There is no need to try and make everyone sound the same or follow rigid principles. The goal is to stay sounding like a strong and flexible version of herself.

Have you ever received instruction from teachers not affiliated with the Western world?

MM: That’s not the case. People often think that I go to Mongolia or other places to use the overtone. But I don’t. I work from the inside out. Since the mid-’60s, I have been exploring my voice as an instrument. I go into the studio and experiment with my own instrument. The sounds that come out have to do with the world around me, discovering things in my own voice. If I’m not using a pear-shaped tone, some of the sounds might remind someone of different cultures since it’s transcultural. For example, the glottal break exists in many cultures. I also discovered overtones from playing the Jew’s harp. So, it’s an inside-to-outside way of working. It’s not about going to different cultures and taking something from them.

Do you generally refrain from investigating the work of others?

MM: Indeed, that is accurate. I strongly believe that everyone is unlike any other on the planet, so it is my responsibility to uncover what my individual voice has to impart. That is my task, therefore I am not looking for it elsewhere.

BLVR: Do you spend a lot of time reading?

I cannot go a day without reading; I’m an absolute bookworm. I’m absolutely in love with reading.

Is there any discordance between the Buddhist outlook and the analytical, left-brain approach to studying written material?

MM: I rarely take advantage of text when composing, because I’m attempting to provide a situation where people can disconnect from their discursive mind for 90 minutes. I wouldn’t presume that it was possible for them to totally let go, as I’m unable to do so for even a brief moment. This does create a quandary for me, as I’m a lover of speaking and English language, enjoying reading as well. But as an artist, I’m more confident in nonverbal communication.

BLVR: What do you rely on for a visualization?

I have great faith in both visual and auditory elements in and of themselves.


BLVR: As you were rising to the top, did you find the atmosphere in the world of modern art to be more open for creative expression than in music?

When I arrived in New York, I observed an artistic community that was strongly connected, unifying visual art, music, Fluxus, dance, theatre, poetry, and other forms. This kind of collective interweaving of elements was a reaction to the disjointed world we were in, and it demonstrated the full range of our human perception. Before the concept of “holistic” was even coined, this unity of the arts was already creating a sense of completeness.

BLVR: By “fragmented,” do you mean the segregation of different fields of study?

In my opinion, contemporary art forms in the Western European world were strongly impacted by the mentality of the Newtonian era, when it was believed that the universe and its atoms were finite and controlled by a higher power. During the Middle Ages, alchemy was the practice of using magic and transforming nature, however, when the positivistic mindset was adopted, it became a matter of mankind ruling over nature and the elements becoming separate from one another. Intuitively, as a young artist, I wanted to return to the idea of the unity between art and the forces of nature, and to the concept of enchantment.

BLVR: In the era of constant interruptions, what is your opinion on the matter?

MM suggested that art can be a useful tool to counteract the addiction to technology we all possess. It is simply a matter of how aware we are of this addiction and how we go about changing it. They went on to say that even with their email usage they attempt to remain present in the present moment.

BLVR: What steps do you take to preserve that?

Maintaining that awareness is something that meditation can definitely help with. When the mind is racing a lot, it’s easy to be unaware of the effects it’s having on the body, like aches and fatigue. However, when at the computer, these effects become more noticeable, making it difficult to ignore.

BLVR: Does the commercial aspect of creating art excite you intellectually?

MM highlighted the book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde as an affirmation when they struggle with the financial aspect of their work. They explained that we must respond to the sense of being given something, rather than a tit-for-tat kind of exchange. To young people, they advised to be aware that there are a few people taking advantage of their addiction. It is not easy, but there are actions to be taken to be mindful of how obsessed we’ve become with technology.

Has following the teachings of Buddhism been beneficial to you in this instance?

MM: Yes, it’s been beneficial. I’m even able to take a step back sometimes. We tend to react to stimuli more often than not. My teacher [Pema Chodron] has advised me to count to ten before sending a message when I want to prove a point. She’s a very hands-on teacher and what she teaches is incredibly inspiring. I’m really lucky to have her as my instructor.

Sometimes I pretend to be on the receiving end of an email I sent myself. That way, I can view it from the perspective of someone else.

MM remarked that the technique was effective.

BLVR asked, “Are you referring to her as your instructor?”

Once a year, I am able to visit my former teacher who resides in both Colorado and Gampo Abbey in Canada.

BLVR: Have you been taught by any other Buddhist instructors?

MM said he began his formal practice in 1985, although he was asked to teach at Naropa Institute in 1975. He had a certain degree of skepticism about organized anything, yet he noticed the audiences’ receptiveness to his performances – their silence, their expansiveness and the depth of their understanding. This made him recognize the link between his aesthetic principles and those that were studying Buddhism. However, it wasn’t until 10 years later that he began to formally study Buddhism. He then asked Ani Pema to be his teacher and took his refuge vows.

What is it about her that has caught your eye?

MM shared that she was moved by something Ani Pema wrote about a meditation called tonglen, which involves taking in and expelling the pain of the world. She noted that Buddhism is often mistaken for a practice that will bring about happiness, when in fact it is about leaning into pain. MM noted that pain is part of life and it is the manufacturing of stories around it that causes suffering. Ani Pema teaches that by being mindful of how we accelerate violence, we can help to reduce the violence in the world and the war between people that results from it.

BLVR: You mentioned earlier that you aspire to use your music as an expression of certain outlooks and actions.

MM: I attempt to create a comprehensive range of emotions in my music. It is not exclusively pleasant, but also includes somber, humorous, sorrowful, and blissful tones. With this in mind, I want to make sure that my concerts include a bit of everything.

BLVR: Is the goal to calm this internal turmoil with music?

MM believes that the concept is not about “quelling” or suppressing, but rather being conscious of how small something can begin. For instance, passing someone on the street and having a negative reaction. It is important to be aware that everyone has these thoughts and feelings. With music, the goal is to create something that allows people to have a personal experience. It could bring back memories, make them feel more alive, or even create an atmosphere of magic. That is the ultimate goal.

The utilization of technology has significantly transformed the way businesses function today. Nowadays, businesses rely heavily on modern technology to help them carry out their operations more efficiently. This reliance has made technology an integral part of almost every aspect of the business world.

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