Peter and Valerie and I saw Meredith Monk at BAM on 12/5/14. She's a singer, composer, dancer, filmmaker, performance artist I've seen quite a few times, but hadn't seen in many years. She's celebrating 50 years of performing this season, she's doing three special performances here in NYC - - I'm seeing this one, and my brother Howard is coming into town in May for another performance (though his trip is centered more around the Wooster Group's production of *Early Shaker Spirituals*).
Monk is a pioneer in what's known as "extended vocal technique" - - basically doing anything unusual with the voice, treating the voice more like an instrument and less like a voice. Her music is unique, there's no one else who writes like her. Her greatest piece is *Dolmen Music* from 1979, a miracle of music, one of the most brilliant and beautiful pieces I've ever heard. It has a similar transcendent quality as Messaien's *Quartet for the End of Time*.
The piece she did at BAM was *On Behalf of Nature*, written for six or seven singers and an instrumental ensemble (violin, French horn, xylophone, marimba, other percussion, etc) of about four or five people. There was nothing miraculous about this piece. I estimated that I enjoyed about a third of it. It was only an hour and a half long, and felt much, much longer. Peter said, "My watch stopped several times."
Some of the music was very beautiful and/or interesting. The high point was an exciting sequence with a crisp, driving beat - - the beat (but not the music) reminded me of the song "Straight On" by Heart. Killer song. Another beautiful sequence had a glittery, gauzy, rippling figure on the marimba. The music may not have been in E flat minor, but it sure did sound like it (it might have been the purple light at the back of the stage). But more often than not the music was drippy and dull, with drippy and dull movement by the performers. At times I felt like I had wandered into the wrong tent at the Michigan Women's Music Festival.
I kept hoping the piece was ending, which is never a good sign. There was a moment where all of the performers lined up along the back of the stage and I thought, "Praise Jesus, it's over" - - but I realized that they had changed their costumes, and it wasn't too likely that they'd change costumes just for the curtain call. At another point I caught myself sitting in a particular attitude, one I hadn't been aware of before. My arms were folded, my head cocked at a particular angle, and the expression on my face clearing saying, "For real?"
Monk is known for her integration of dance and music, but that was not working for her in this piece. Very often we watched not very interesting dancing done to not very interesting music. I suppose it's possible that these two elements could combine to create something interesting, but that wasn't the case here. Let me take back something I just said: it might be an insult to dancers to call what was happening onstage "dancing" - - let's call it "movement". Peter was bothered by a scene where the singers were rolling around on the floor. This troubled him. It made him want to go up to the stage and ask, "Are you OK? Should I call someone?"
This was a new piece, and there was certainly nothing new about it. Valerie used the word "trite", and she hit the nail right on the head. She also said that Monk appeared to be "resting on her laurel". Ouch.