I saw a new piece by Meredith Monk, *Cellular Songs,* at BAM on 3/15/18. I've been a fan of hers for about 25 years, and this was the strongest new piece of hers I’ve seen. It had such a determined point of view and such a sure sense of its purpose. Plus the harmonies had a depth and inventiveness I don’t always hear in her music, and the layered and repetitive textures gained impact and had a sense of direction.
Here's what Monk wrote in the program notes about the piece: "As artists, we're all contending with what to do at a time like this. I wanted to make a piece that can be seen as an alternative possibility of human behavior, where the values are cooperation, interdependence, and kindness, as an antidote to the values that are being propagated right now."
It started with a film of three sets of hands, projected onto the floor. Three women came onstage (Monk being one of them), did a trio. Then two other women came on, did a scene for themselves. Then a few movements for all five. Monk had a solo with the only words in the piece: “I am a happy woman.” Later, “I am a hungry woman. I am a healing woman.” Etc. A nice bit of whimsy.
One of the women had a dance solo on a stool, one of the highlights of the piece. The general tone of the piece was lyricism, hope, community, but the tone of this dance was solitary, angular, and defiant. The contrast had a big impact.
There was another film about halfway through, four sets of hands, projected onto the back wall and the floor. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I think Monk knew, and I trusted her.
The end of the piece was for the five leading singers and ten singers from the Young People’s Chorus of NYC. The younger singers sang atmospheric backup vocals to the five adults, and mirrored their movements. It was profoundly touching to see these young women collaborating with Monk, one of the great composers of our time. The final tableau had the five adults upstage, lying on the floor in a Pieta-esque cluster. The younger singers split into two groups and formed two similar clusters. It was poetic.
Here's an excerpt from the piece, performed as a work-in-progress in 2015. The singers are (from left to right) Allison Sniffing, Meredith Monk, and Katie Geissinger.