Theater 30.2 (2000) 44-57
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Meredith Monk, Interviewed by Marc Robinson
Meredith Monk and I met for this conversation last November, the day after her chamber opera Magic Frequencies closed in New York City. Like much of her work, that piece is organized around rites of passage and rituals of everyday life: a couple eats a summertime dinner of corn on the cob; another pair goes shopping; a man lies in bed dying, surrounded by his family. These scenes alternate with sequences of music and movement in which Monk abstracts the emotions ordinarily absorbed into tasks or suppressed by custom. In one lovely episode, in which the company pairs off for a waltz, Monk is left to dance alone: she holds up her arms to create an invisible companion and sways back and forth until another performer lifts her up in a close embrace. Together they trace slow circles across the stage, like the exhausted winners of a marathon dancing contest, faces buried in each other's hair, Monk's legs dangling in the air.
In other, "purer" dances in Magic Frequencies, the performers resemble molecules bouncing against one another, or blood cells coursing through arteries: it is as if Monk were analyzing the physics of human engagement, recording how the whole atmosphere is affected by an encounter between friends or a schism within a family. She continues to distill emotion in a short film shown near the end. The camera lingers on the actors' faces while onstage another performer displays placards that caption the different images: "Cry," "Ruminate," "Recoil," "Gossip." The facial expressions offer themselves as one possible standard by which we can judge all the variations visible in the live scenes before us, as well as in the life outside the theater.
In all her work, Monk manages to hold two seemingly incompatible perspectives on her subjects. On one level, she is intimate and psychologically acute, pacing sequences according to the subtlest shifts of a voice or a body. On another level, she is impersonal and historical, locating the sources for these shifts in nature's own experience of growth and decay--daytime shading into dusk, for instance, summer giving way to autumn, a century passing. Two of Monk's most beautiful songs demonstrate this double perspective particularly well. "Dawn," from Monk's 1988 film Book of Days (included also in her theater piece A Celebration Service), is a lament distributed among a group of men, a group of women, and two solo female voices. This arrangement controls the song's sentiment. The solo singers are direct and open, their voices infused with feeling [End Page 45] that, to this ear, attests to their desolation. (In Book of Days, the song introduces a medieval world marked for extinction.) The ensemble expands upon this mood--the entire landscape seems in sympathy--but also marks its limits, something especially apparent when the song is paired with its companion, "Nightfall." (The latter was composed especially for a 1996 recording called Monk and the Abbess).
As the titles of both songs suggest, emotion obeys an inevitable cycle. "Nightfall" is even grander than "Dawn"--groups of voices weave an intricate pattern out of a simple melody--yet it maintains the same balance between public and private experience. Small groups of singers detach from the ensemble, lifting up on a wail or calling out from a distance, before reintegrating themselves in an elastic society of sound. As they do so, Monk achieves a synthesis true to the best elegies. Her version of the form simultaneously evokes the prerational experience of loss, the more somber recognition of its effects, and finally the resolve to move toward new objects of allegiance. Night falls; the song ends with the sound of waves washing up on a beach.
In the hands of a lesser artist, such an approach would seem simplistic. Monk is saved by her clarity and candor--a more rigorous simplicity. In her theater, characters are vulnerable right away. She neither explains nor relieves their exposure on a usually spartan stage. Strong, syncopated juxtapositions replace the comforts of...