Filed in Arts & Culture

The Quality of Mercy

Robert Coe chats with countercultural performance artist Meredith Monk about compassion, terror, and “the voices within.”

Robert Coe

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© Sarah Schorr

Meredith Monk’s latest work,
mercy, is the culmination of the performance artist’s legendary career. Robert Coe traces her path from her days as a student in the 1960s to her work today and life as a Buddhist practitioner.

November 1966: U.S. troops are pouring into Southeast Asia, the Summer of Love is still a few seasons away, and a twenty-three-year-old Sarah Lawrence-trained dancer and singer named Meredith Monk performs a half-hour-long solo in the sanctuary of the Judson Church in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. 16 Millimeter Earrings defies easy description except as a stream of tautly constructed sounds and images: of Monk, slowly moving her hands down her face, leaving behind a residue of white lines as “tears”; of Monk, tearing a red wig in anger, sitting on an old steamer trunk. Singing a few bars of “Greensleeves,” she climbs into the trunk and closes the lid while a twelve-foot-high image of a doll burns in a miniature room projected on a screen behind. When the film cuts to an image of flames, Monk rises out of the trunk and stands quietly in profile, the film playing over her body in ecstatic auto-da-fé. A dignified, painterly self-portrait of recurring motifs, both live and prerecorded, Earrings had “the wit of its means and an emotion like that of a Jacobean drama,” observed New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce. Objective and yet passionate in its rendering of a young woman’s rite of passage into adulthood, Earrings announced the arrival of a major postsurrealist theater artist. It also provided Monk with a key to her artistic self-discovery: the realization that disparate imagery, sounds, and movement could be interwoven in a luminous whole that would speak what could not be spoken in any other way.

Thirty-five years later, the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and a three-day retrospective at New York’s Lincoln Center in the summer of 2000, Monk continues to evolve her unique style of music-theater enchantment, undertaking a personal search for what she terms “the wholeness of the human being” through universal myth and lost worlds of cultural memory. Her current production, mercy, a collaboration with visual artist Ann Hamilton, is a series of haiku-like portraits and poems on the theme of human mercy—of “pain, joy, perseverance, continuance.” Its unified score at times evokes Western ecclesiastical chanting, Balkan folk tunes, Inuit throat singing, and screeching crones, but never by imitating these forms, and almost never through the use of conventional language. Instead of words, Monk fashions vocal music from mellifluous syllables and syncopated sighs, hummed vowels and incantatory panting, producing affecting moods of astonishing emotional purity, lodging in the mind as ineffable states of being. Oddity and profundity, unfamiliarity and comfort coexist with a healing energy that has long characterized Monk’s art, and never more so than in mercy—arguably the most fully realized achievement of her remarkable career.

Meredith greets me in her comfortable, sparely furnished loft in lower Manhattan. A few months shy of her sixtieth birthday, she has changed little over the years. Five-foot-two, still trim and beautifully postured, she is dressed today in a high-collared denim jacket, loose-fitting trousers, and slippers, her hair falling in her signature cascade of narrow braids.

Leading me into her kitchen, she calls back over her shoulder, before we’ve even begun our interview, “I feel like I’m just beginning!” Settling down with a tape recorder at the kitchen table for tea (hers) and coffee (mine), I remind her of another time our paths have crossed: the summer of 1978, at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where Meredith was teaching a course called “Voice as Image” and I was reporting on Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Buddhist university for the Village Voice. “Both of us attended a wild rock ’n’ roll record party in the basement of Sacred Heart Catholic Girls’ Junior High School, which Naropa had rented for the summer. The air conditioning had broken down on an extremely hot night, and the sweat was just rolling off us, so eventually a hundred people stripped down to their underwear! I remember Allen Ginsberg capering around in his jockey briefs and you in your pigtails and bra and panties. It was like we were all in the shower together!”

Meredith roars with delight, her face lighting up with an infectious, slightly daffy smile.

“Oh yes! Those were great, great days!”

“You have a huge body of work now,” I tell her. “There is a recognizable imprint on your work that makes it yours.”

Eyes widening, Meredith erupts into laughter. “There is?”

“Of course there is! You’re still Meredith Monk!”

“I am?” More incredulous merriment. “Yes, I suppose that’s true,” she finally admits. “I’ve had a wonderful life. I feel very fortunate to be alive at this time. As they say, 'blessed human birth.’ I’m just disturbed at times by any categorizations or expectations that keep people from seeing what’s actually there. When I go to a performance I want to be completely surprised. And what was so beautiful about New York when I first arrived was this community of visual and performing artists who were all trying to push past the boundaries of their work and trying new ways of seeing and doing things.”

Studying dance, theater, composition, and voice in high school and at Sarah Lawrence, and performing in lower Manhattan while still an undergraduate, Monk graduated to a garret apartment in Greenwich Village in 1964 and continued to plunge headlong into various gallery, Happenings, and Off-Off Broadway scenes. Interdisciplinary, non-narrative work was beginning to appear in many performance media, but she made her other key discovery alone, at her piano, vocalizing one day in 1965.

“I realized in a flash,” she later wrote, “that within the voice were limitless possibilities of color, texture, landscape, character, gender, and ways of producing sound. From that time on, I began trying to discover the voices within.”

As a dancer Monk lacked an ideal body and struggled at times with conventional techniques, but as a singer she had no such issues: Her lyric soprano eventually stretched three octaves. Backed by her own piano, her lower range can sound as bluesy as any after-hours chanteuse; a moment later she can trip into operatic head tones.

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