Meredith Monk: Composer First

Meredith Monk: Composer First

FRANK J. OTERI: I knew about your music through records, long before I had ever seen you perform live, which is true for many other people as well. But so much of what you do is more than music. It’s music, but it’s also movement, it’s dance, it’s theater, in some cases, it’s film, you know, I’m thinking of works like Book of Days, or Ellis Island, you know, where the non-musical components are a very important part of the experience, yet, most people go home and listen to these things on record players or CD players and are missing all those connections… And, even more drastic, you pick up a disc like Do You Be, which has got pieces from all over the place that are suddenly together on this disc and are completely re-contextualized. But that’s the way people get introduced to this music. Is that the ideal way for the work to be disseminated? Should these things be released on DVD, on video, should people come hear this music live? What is the best way to get introduced to your work?

MEREDITH MONK: Well, I think my music is the most inspired live. And in a certain way, recording is very challenging for me, to get that figure-eight of energy that we have in live performance, that inspiration. You know, sometimes it’s very hard for me in the studio, because I feel like, this is it, it has this fixed kind of form, and so, sometimes I feel like I’m not daring enough in the studio. You know, I want to get it right, so to speak. But I feel that in the recordings I want the music to stand by itself. And some of the music does not have a theatrical context at all.


MEREDITH MONK: And then, sometimes Manfred [Eicher] and I, when we worked on the albums… It was very challenging because sometimes I just wanted to do one whole piece, like instead of doing Do You Be, I thought I would have liked to have just recorded The Games…but since Manfred comes from the recording/producer point of view, he really hears it very differently. So it’s a kind of a dialogue. I remember Do You Be originally had even more inter-cutting of material from different sources, and I said to him, “You know, I really think this first side should be more of these solo pieces that come from Acts of Under and Above to keep the integrity of that world.” And then the second side was selections from The Games, so that it sustained more of each world. In the pieces that I work on, I try to find a new musical world within my world for each piece. So it does get confusing, you know, when you mix these things.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s the same thing on a disc like Volcano Songs where there are works from lots of different periods.

MEREDITH MONK: Exactly. Well, one of the problems which I’ve had sadness about it is that I feel like I can’t keep up with the recording, with how fast I’m writing this music. And the way that that company works is really much more… they really do albums every few years. And so then I’m thinking, “I’ve got to record this, I’ve got to record that, because it will be another 4 years until I can record again!” And that’s kind of weird. On some levels my thinking like that isn’t a good way of looking at it, because then I might be putting too many things into one album.

FRANK J. OTERI: But what a fantastic job they do.

MEREDITH MONK: Oh, Manfred is remarkable. And I have so much respect. I’ve stayed with the label all these years. There’s nobody like him in the recording business. First of all, you know, he is brilliant as a musician and he has an extraordinary ear, but also I think it has a lot to do with his philosophy, which is very much about a deep sense of integrity. For example, within a business which usually discards everything that is not bringing in lots of money immediately, he keeps all his records in print and he stands behind his whole catalog. There have been many opportunities that he’s had to work with distribution systems where they only want to work with the 5 people who bring in the thousands of dollars. And he refuses. His whole output is one whole vision. He is a really, really remarkable person.

FRANK J. OTERI: There are so few living composers whom we can say are well-documented, and it’s ironic, because you are one of those well documented composers, but you’re not nearly as well-documented as you should be given the amount of work that you produce.

MEREDITH MONK: It’s hard to keep up with. [laughs] So I don’t know. Manfred’s way of thinking is interesting because he says you don’t have to record everything. And, you know, on some levels, he’s right. I mean, if I listen to The Politics of Quiet, I feel like there are some things that don’t really need to be recorded, they are more a visual than aural experience. But also, I have to say, that there are many, many years where basically I’m just doing music concerts. We go all over the world with the concerts, which I feel totally represented by. I think if you come and see a solo concert of my music, you have everything there. I don’t feel that, “oh, no, you should go and see Magic Frequencies or something because you’re not getting the visual images.” I never think that. I feel if I do a solo vocal concert, you’ve got the heart of a human being’s work. That’s it. The whole thing is there. But it’s in a very pure, distilled form, and then in these other things, the worlds open up a little bit more, but basically you’ve got the energy in this very pure form. And all of us really enjoy doing the music concerts. We love to do them. But what I wanted to say is that sometimes I will change the form of a piece of music, from, say, The Politics of Quiet. I’ll actually recompose it for a concert format, where I rethink it so that it has much more compression and the forms are more essentialized.

FRANK J. OTERI: And I imagine the same is true for a recording situation.


FRANK J. OTERI: You can’t get those visual signals. Any possibility of anything ever coming out on video or DVD?

MEREDITH MONK: Oh, I love the idea, of course, of that happening. So…

FRANK J. OTERI: It would be great to see ATLAS.

MEREDITH MONK: We have videotapes of ATLAS, but I think they would have to be reedited. ATLAS should have had 3 cameras, but we had 2. There should have been 2 close-ups and 1longshot camera, but because of finances and also because of BAM being a union house, they only allowed 2. And I think that that was too bad for ATLAS, because there are so many things in ATLAS where there are simultaneous events. I think that my live pieces are sometimes really hard to record. You know, you have to rethink the pieces. I think that the video of Turtle Dreams is very strong, because we really, literally, rethought it for video. So it’s not a recording, it’s more… You have to redo it in cinematic terms.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you ever conceive of dance things or film things or visual things, dramatic things, stage things without music? Are there things where music is not a part of it?


FRANK J. OTERI: So music is always the center.

MEREDITH MONK: Music is always the center. I think in this last piece, Magic Frequencies, I was interested, after doing The Politics of Quiet (…you know, one piece influences the next piece…), where all the other elements were really stripped down, I was interested in going back to some of the more playful theatricality and playful movement material of my early work. And so strangely enough, in that balance, there was a lot less straight out singing than usual. There was music all the way through it, but there wasn’t “we’re standing here, we’re going to sing, sing, sing, sing.” I mean, we did sing, but it’s not as much as usual. Every piece has a different balance. That’s part of the process of finding out what the form is. And so it balanced, you know, I was letting in these other elements, these images, and movement materials. But I think that I just can’t conceive of doing a piece that doesn’t have music. That’s my daily discipline, that’s what I do. I always am writing music. Then, from time to time, I get the energy up to be able to make these other kinds of forms. But it takes a few years to want to make another of those forms, whereas I’m always writing music. That’s my continuity.

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