For the final concert of the 21st Other Minds Festival, Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble delivered a bare bones retrospective of a handful of Monk’s abundant and mesmerizing repertoire. It’s an oxymoron to say that this life long minimalist presented the essential elements of her work but by that I mean there was only one brief choreographed piece, none of her cinematography, with the space itself being very intimate and lending to another layer of an unplugged–in feeling–experience. Monk began the first half solo with music for an unaccompanied voice, introducing her unique language, vocal range and style, which she refers to as “duets for solo voice.” Solo selections for voice and piano followed where she sang songs from her more robust and lyrical period written in the 1970s with favorites like “Gotham Lullaby,” “Travelling,” and “Madwoman’s Vision.” Music for voice, keyboard and woodwinds concluded the segment with the talented Kate Geissinger (voice), Allison Sniffin (voice and keyboard), and Bohdan Hilash (woodwinds) layering in and out of pieces quietly going and coming on-and-off stage. Most impressive was the 1990 piece, “Hocket,” (from Facing North) with Monk and Geissinger facing each other echoing acapella different harmonics and sounds as if two faces of a canyon wall calling out to one another, while going over and under the pitch sent out to them. To this day Monk confessed to approaching this piece cautiously saying that, “it’s like being on a tight rope each time “Hocket” is performed.” Still there is humor in this complex piece created by the slightest shift in tone or tilt of the head.
The second half offered seven pieces with greater ensemble participation and included more recent and even more distilled compositions like “cluster 3,” from “Songs of Ascension” (2008) and “epilogue and woman at the door” from “Mercy” which included Monk’s short solo dance. Throughout the entire performance Monk manages to elevate the negative emotions of anger, grief, fear, and attachment into poetry. Nonsensically chanting and yodeling through apocalyptic doomsday themes, she does so with fierceness of focus and shameless intention. From the microcosm to the macrocosm and back, she brings dignified contour and texture to petty emotions, those that weigh heavily on human hearts but hold the very seeds of essential joy and humanity deep within them. Her art seldom strays from the elephant in the room topic of death and demise and that’s what remains uniquely refreshing about her prolific body of work over five decades. With this overriding thesis she vocalized on their behalf; wordlessly singing for the unsung, giving voice for the ancient cultures and creatures which no longer exists–but whose guttural voice we recognize once resurrected. Even her closing “between song” was dedicated it to the passing of a visual artist and friend who died the day before, eulogizing him with the delicate sweetness of Mieke van Hoek’s words: “Between the paint and the wood, Between the pen and the writing hand, Between the rug and the floor, Between the hairs on the head…Between your hand and my hand, Between the seed and the dirt.” That sweetness of this final piece prevailed throughout the entire performance and was topped off with a very playful encore of her infamous cackling in “The Tale.”