- Purchase/rental options available:
Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 414-416
[Access article in PDF]
Magic Frequencies. By Meredith Monk. Lang Performing Arts Center, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. 20 November 1999.
Meredith Monk and her troupe, Meredith Monk/The House, gave an eagerly awaited performance of her piece Magic Frequencies, subtitled "a science fiction chamber opera," at the Lang Performing Arts Center of Swarthmore College. Monk's three honorary doctorates, seventeen recordings, and fourteen films and videos attest to her stature as both an authority and an innovator in avant-garde performance. She has a steady following of fans appreciative of her distinctive, non-linguistic use of the human voice as an instrument of storytelling, both alone and in relation to the expressive plasticity of the body.
As the audience filed in to this performance, a woman wearing a lab coat sat stage right and tinkered with some kind of indeterminate machine that blinked and whirred. She could easily have been a stage technician quietly fine-tuning some production element, but she stayed in place throughout the performance and ultimately provided one of its few spoken portions: a one-sided telephone conversation in Italian with an unknown, excitable interlocuter. Her presence drew inquiring glances and some muted discussion, altogether an apt precursor to the evening. A deepening of ethereal blue light onstage and a gradual dimming of the auditorium lights caused the audience to settle. A single, vibrating note gradually permeated our consciousness and drew focus to the musicians who were seated downstage left, playing evocative, original music on instruments that ranged from conventional strings to a saw and theremin.
The rich opening melodic line, first played electronically, was then picked up and magnified by a human voice. The melody fed into the first "scene," one of the strongest, in which Monk and Ching Gonzalez portrayed an ordinary couple at a table. They rose, sat, and performed various everyday chores while "chatting," sharing Monk's trademark sung notes rhythmically back and forth. Gradually, three giant ice cube-like forms slid onstage from the wings, and three "aliens" (company members Katie Geissinger, Lanny Harrison, and Theo Bleckmann) appeared who glided, danced, and slunk behind the cubes, framing their bodies in the cubes to create warped and wavy silhouettes of themselves, to the growing amusement of the audience.
These three aliens observed the casual couple, and were emboldened by their curiosity to step nearer until eventually they were standing over their table. The creatures were apparent to us but not to the couple, who ate corn on the cob, which fascinated the aliens, who finally each grabbed an ear and began to munch. The sound of crunching corn was made audible by the actors' body mikes, and was slowly magnified and ultimately overwhelmed by prerecorded crunching that got louder and louder until the entire auditorium reverberated with corn crunches. The effect was both hilarious and somewhat disturbing, but before the vignette was resolved, another movement began to take shape. [End Page 414]
As the crunching subsided, the scene melted away, and four people in black entered in utter silence. They began dancing to a silent music only they could hear. This silent music became a recurring motif of the performance: two people would start dancing together, then gradually the music "caught up" with them, and soon they were dancing to music that we could hear as well. That music always died away, however, before the dancers stopped, leaving only the sounds of bare feet slapping the stage floor. Much as the imagination is stimulated to fill in the gaps left by the lack of language in Monk's productions, here we supplied imaginary music to suit the silent tableaux.
This exquisitely careful deployment of sound and music made language, by contrast, overly artless and specific. For example, a segment in which a female television newscaster reported a litany of horrifically violent events stood out from the rest of the piece by virtue of the spoken word. The scene was punctuated by intermittent music, to which the woman danced frantically. She repeatedly rose from behind her desk to begin a mad, violent...