Review: Meredith Monk a testament to the beauty of the human voice
There’s a well-worn anecdote that the New York Times once sent three critics to review a Meredith Monk performance — specialists in music, theatre and dance — presumably because her barrier-crossing work did not fit in any specific art form. In truth, all they really needed to do was send any writer with ears, eyes, and an open heart.
The American multidisciplinary artist recently celebrated five decades of live performance with a gong from Obama, and a 50th anniversary retrospective concert. Her April 24 Abu Dhbai concert another high in NYUAD’S game-changing inaugural season — it repeats on tonight and tomorrow.
The 73-year-old Monk began the night framed alone onstage to perform one of her earliest works, 1969’s Porch, an “invocation” which introduces the audience to her extraordinary “extended vocal techniques” — buzzing and bellowing like a bird and a bee, oscillating between frequencies like a radio transmitter. Vocalising unaccompanied and without words, it’s at once primal and learnt, warm and cold, but always of the earth.
Soon Monk is joined onstage by other male and female voices, a duet and trio; melodies climb and tumble playfully, intersecting and perpendicular, never jarring or dissonant. Minutely composed, it’s a technical marvel, but deeply affecting. Stereotypes of moody modern music are proved false — the vocalists perform which such clear joy, the act of singing stripped back to its age-old communal roots.
A more sombre mood falls when her eight-piece Vocal Ensemble appear for the second half, performing a dense, suite-like cycle of songs from Monk’s 21st Century works, Mercy, Impermanence and On Behalf of Nature. Over a restrained palette of piano, woodwind, violin and assorted percussion, five or more voices swerve and sway in swelling lines, recalling both Medieval chant and minimalist repetition.
The arrangements are intuitively organic; at times, the ensemble takes on the role not of an accompaniment, but of another participant in the conversation — after decades transforming her voice into an instrument, Monk’s instrumentation has the qualities of a human voice.
The effect is chilling, but this sensory experience is about more than sound — singers stand in symbolic lines, broken by sudden, dramatic poses. A stark diminuendo sees all eight members gather to simultaneously play the piano. Skeleton Lines evolves into tightly choreographed visual comedy. The sudden use of poetry — actual, discernible, words — on Between Song lend every syllable fresh energy and weight.
Midway, the stage empties for Monk to perform the aptly named Water/Sky Rant, a wordless environmentalist’s plea from 2013 — a modern concern for an ever-restless artist, but there’s also something timeless, as in the best of all Monk’s work — a private yearning to unlock the hidden secrets of the soul.
• Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble perform again at Black Box, The Arts Centre, NYUAD, Saadiyat Island on April 25 at 8pm, and April 26 at 10am. Register for free tickets from nyuad-artscenter.org; limited standby tickets will be available before the concert