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

While still in her twenties, Monk began to pursue a new kind of environmental music-theater, employing an evolving musical vocabulary modeled in part after the ostinato patterns of folk music—creating shifting, minimalist tapestries for the voice “to run on, fly over, slide down, cling to, weave through,” she wrote.

“The voice is the original human instrument,” Monk tells me. “It’s the earliest utterance, even before language. It’s the instrument that other musical instruments branch from, and would at times like to have the freedom of. This is how the voice has a transcultural depth: It doesn’t require the screen of language, and in that way it relates very much to Buddhist sitting practice, in that you’re really touching upon nondiscursive energy. Energy for which we don’t have words.”

Monk’s first full-blown music-theater spectacle, Juice: A Musical Cantata in Three Installments, opened in October 1969 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, with seventy-five white-clad “angels” chanting and humming their way up the spiraling museum ramp, exploring the resonant acoustics of Frank Lloyd Wright’s six-story-tall interior dome. As a quartet of combat-booted refugees in red makeup and clothes trudged belly-to-back up the ramp, the audience followed, moving past thirteen “living tableaux” of performers in front of works by Roy Lichtenstein, until Monk appeared below playing droning chords on an electric organ and wailing like a muezzin. Education of the Girlchild (1972) evoked what the composer described as “the voice of the 80-year-old human, the voice of the 800-year-old human, the voice of the 8-year-old human; Celtic, Mayan, Incan, Hebrew, Atlantean, Arabic, Slavic, Tibetan roots; the voice of the oracle, the voice of memory.”

Vessel (1971), an “opera-epic” about Joan of Arc and Monk’s first widely recognized music-theater masterwork, opened in her loft, where viewers were invited to observe a group of shadowy figures performing tiny, incongruous movements at a distant end of the space. With Monk on electric organ, embodying the voices of St. Joan, performers spoke lines from the George Bernard Shaw play, and a king scattered coins, which a woman ritualistically picked up. Another woman unrolled her long hair, and two soldiers dueled with rakes. The audience then traveled by bus to the nearby Performing Garage in SoHo, where Joan/Monk, painted all in silver now, was tried before a court. The final section of Vessel took place in a nearby parking lot that served as an ancient battlefield, a campsite, and the place of Joan’s immolation. The richest, most thematically unified work that Monk had yet produced, Vessel was an evocation of the close-knit community that SoHo had become, uncovering spiritual, musical, and theatrical means to bridge conscious and unconscious life in a single visionary dream.

Acclaimed as “the Wagner of the Happening” by the French critic Adrian Henry, Monk concluded this period with what most people still consider her greatest achievement: Quarry (1976), an expression of SoHo’s mid-decade theatrical flowering as well as a celebration of its private community. Many people never realized that its secret subject was the Holocaust. “We’re doing what I call the 'geriatric version’ of Quarry at the Spoleto Festival next year,” Monk tells me, laughingly speculating as to whether she will be able to appear convincing as an eight-year-old child. “Seriously, though—the reason I said yes is that I think the piece has something important to say for today. There’s a built-in sadness in live performance because it can be so fleeting, but that’s the beauty of it, too: It disappears into the air, just goes away, like a sand painting! It’s especially ironic because what interests me is timelessness in work. There are artists who concentrate on being mirrors of the time they live in, and there are artists who concentrate on the cyclical nature of time—on things that recur and other fundamental concerns that exist through any time and place. I think I’m a person like that.”

By 1980 Monk’s career was sufficiently established that she could recreate Vessel in three locations in West Berlin, including the proscenium of the prestigious Schaub hne Theater and the ruins of a bombed World War II-era train station, the latter using 150 German extras and performing motorcyclists. But the countercultural guiding light found herself adapting to changing times through a great deal of personal disappointment and unhappiness.

“I think that in the eighties I was exploring what it was like, number one, to be a person who lived in the city, who was more urban-oriented, and second, to find my own way through this incredible change that was happening all around us. I wasn’t interested in being a big pop heroine or anything—it was more about exploring the darker aspects of what I thought was happening in the culture.”

Four self-described “apocalyptic” pieces followed: Recent Ruins, Specimen Days, Turtle Dreams Cabaret, and The Games, which opened the second annual Next Wave in 1984—a collaboration between Monk and her former life partner Ping Chong (a longtime collaborator). With Chong creating text and design, Monk the music, and both sharing direction, The Games, staged for the L.A. Olympic year, was a cold depiction of a heartless future; it flat-lined in Brooklyn, drawing only 60-percent houses.

“I was at a very difficult time of my life. I realized that I had created most of the difficulties myself. It was like one of those Chinese children’s toys made from straw: You put your fingers into it and pull away; the harder you pull, the more difficult it is to get your fingers out.” Her natural affinity for Buddhism had preceded her three summers of teaching at Naropa, but she still needed to get past her skepticism of organized religion in general, as well as her reluctance to be identified as “Buddhist”; like many artists, Monk was not a joiner. Then a friend suggested that she read Trungpa Rinpoche’s book Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior, “which was a revelation in many ways,” Monk tells me. “The first thing that struck me [after reading it] was that the deep source of my stuckness was terror. I began to have tiny glimpses of the strategies that I used to cover that up—from myself and from others. When the New York Shambhala Center offered an introductory course, I went. During my first interview with the instructor [Martha Rome], I literally cried tears of relief.”

Monk feels very grateful that she’s been able to visit Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, where she studied with Pema Chodron twice, in 1997 and 1999. Because of her heavy touring schedule, Monk would need a while to get through all the levels of Shambhala’s training program. “Sometimes I repeated a level a few times, with years in between. But I always felt that the learning process was not linear—although there is a natural order to the levels—but actually prismatic or spiralic. You are looking at the same thing from a slightly different angle; you come to it yet again with new understanding from your practice and your life experience.” In 1998, after much serious consideration, “because it turns your life upside down,” Monk took vows of refuge with Khandro Rinpoche in New York City.

I ask the burning question, at least for me: “So, Meredith—how do you see Buddhism touching your work?”

“It’s touched my work, and it’s touched my life! I’ve always said that I was ahead of my years as a young artist, but as a person I was barely aware! I think the artist on stage and the vision of the work always had an integrated quality, but I was impatient as a younger person. It was all so easy for me as a performer. I didn’t really see that other people were sometimes very challenged. And I think that I’ve learned about working with people, and being with people. And then I turned fifty—feeling great, thinking, 'Boy, this is an easy transition.' And then suddenly I was getting onstage and experiencing this incredible existential fright. It was like, 'Here I am, and there are two thousand people out there!' And I would just start shaking. Some of it had to do with my instrument: I couldn’t get my high E’s anymore. I had to adjust to what was going on in my body—including my change of life, and all the hormonal things that people go through with that. I didn’t know how to relax with the cycle of aging. I wondered, would anyone really want to watch a woman who’s over fifty, you know? There were some performances where people could see that I was frozen in fear.

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