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  • Meredith Monk: Inner Voice
  • Kathryn Edney
Meredith Monk: Inner Voice (2009). Produced and Directed by Babeth M. VanLoo. Distributed by First Run Features. 82 minutes

Philip Bither, senior curator at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, notes in an interview that Meredith Monk is “one of the seminal people of our time. She resists categorization and has created great work in five, six areas of art. That’s really rare. We tend to categorize people as actors, singers, dancers.” Produced by the Buddhist Broadcast Foundation, the documentary Meredith Monk: Inner Voice, through a slowly building collection of interviews, archival performance clips, and behind the scenes footage, connects the spiritual life of performer/director/composer/ choreographer/filmmaker Meredith Monk, who first made a splash in New York City in the 1960s, thanks to the various performance pieces she created. Some of her work will be familiar to many: fans of The Big Lebowski, for example, would have heard “The Walking Song,” which she wrote and performed, on the film’s soundtrack. However, perhaps because of her versatility and the difficulty of categorizing performance pieces featuring vocal music containing no words, Monk, in spite of her longevity as a performer, is not a household name.

One of the pleasures of this documentary is the extended time spent with Monk’s various performances. Director Babeth VanLoo takes care to frame the initial encounters with Monk’s work with interviews of Monk and her collaborators, so that even it is not always clear what a particular piece is about, how it felt to perform the piece or what it means to Monk, is articulated. Later, the performances—including early avant-garde films, recordings of past pieces, and Songs of Ascension in rehearsal and performed contexts—are often presented without any commentary, voiceovers, or rapid-fire editing; this practice increases as the film goes on and as viewer are immersed more deeply within Monk’s artistic world. Although still necessarily snippets of larger works, the space allowed for the performances to unfold within the film allows the viewer to gain a clear sense of the shape of each piece and what each performer contributes to it.

The connection made between Monk’s Buddhism and her performances is accomplished explicitly through interviews with Monk about her beliefs and with John Daido Loori, founder and abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York state, and implicitly through the structure of the film itself, which essentially begins and ends with Monk performing her music, first in a private, ritualistic sense, and later in a public, theatrical sense. The film has no real linear thrust, and relies instead on the motif of circularity, without ever actually repeating itself.

Context and understanding of Monk’s life and work comes slowly and reflexively. The film’s approach to Monk’s work is reversed in terms of her Buddhism. Initially, Monk and others touch on ideas such as dharma, and the figure of the Buddha is on display, but the ideas are not fully expanded. The conversations provide glimpses into something that has clearly shaped Monk’s life, but it is not until nearly three-quarters into the film that there is an extended discussion between Monk and Loori about the connections between art and Buddhism. This was a wise decision on VanLoo’s part. Monk emphasizes again and again that while words have their place, they did not have a place in her art. She wants performers and audiences to [End Page 77] experience and feel the piece in the moment it is performed, and not narrate, and thus distance, the visceral nature of the performance. The practice of Monk’s art is how she lives her Buddhism, and having that intellectual discussion with Loori prior to extended exposure of her performances over the course of the film would have undermined them.

Another strength of Inner Voice is that it provides a window into Monk’s creative process over the course of the film. After a preliminary voice-over introduction by filmmaker VanLoo, the film—in a quick series of jump cuts, completely unlike the rest of the film—presents Monk sitting silent and unmoving on a...


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