WHEN WE MET last fall, I told Meredith Monk that my favorite work of hers is Turtle Dreams (1983), originally televised on WGBH, Boston’s public station. She was incredulous to learn that the twenty-five minute video piece, which features a quartet of singers performing abstract vocalizations while swaying to a hypnotic, repetitive melody, has been viewed tens of thousands of times on YouTube. Many other clips of her work, often deemed challenging for listeners and viewers, are equally popular. “That’s so cool! I never look,” she told me. She never listens to a record once she has finished it, either. It struck me, in the course of an interview that ran two hours over schedule, that Monk maintains a healthy distance from her own mythology as a pioneering figure in New York’s downtown performance scene of the 1960s.
Her oeuvre is irreducible to a single medium, spanning music, theater, dance, and cinema. While Monk places herself at the center of her art, drawing upon a personal lexicon of sound and movement, she frequently employs masks and conjures diverse personae, often making reference to historical figures. Her mode of working toggles between periods of deep concentration and a rigorous performance schedule.
If there is any consistent register in Monk’s mammoth production, it is the epiphanic. In the mid-1960s, she had an epiphany about her main instrument, suddenly finding her “wide vocal spectrum.” As she wrote in a recent unpublished statement titled “The Soul’s Messenger,” she discovered that her voice could have the “same flexibility and range of movement as a spine or a foot.” The outcome of this realization—that her voice acts as an extremely supple organ, capable of producing everything from operatic arias to glottal stops to animal sounds—shored up a distinctive and unusual personal aesthetic. As Monk has said on numerous occasions, she considers the voice to be a direct line to the emotions.
Years of performing intensely as a vocalist, both in solo repertoires and in longterm collaborations with members of the renowned group Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, yielded further epiphanies catalyzed by tireless effort (“sometimes it comes, but mostly you work for it,” she told me). Originally performed in 1966 and filmed in 1980, 16 Millimeter Earrings coalesced visual and performative elements of Monk’s work into a set of firsts: it was her first vocal score, first film, and first union of voice, movement, and costume.
Above all, moments of epiphany transpire in the work itself, like in the 360-degree rotating shot in Ellis Island (1981). The camera revolves in a dilapidated hall once used to process immigrants, gliding across a cluster of actors portraying recent arrivals. The viewer registers surprise in the contrast between the rotted and decaying interior and the sudden appearance of human figures dressed in funereal black and clutching valises. But the camera moves indifferently past them.
Monk makes a similar move in Quarry: An Opera in Three Movements (1976), a meditation on war and fascism featuring guttural music and gymnastic rituals. The film opens with bodies in stark white uniforms crawling through a field of gray boulders, rupturing the staid and naturalistic landscape. Quarry is also notable because it is an older piece that continues to resonate with contemporary concerns. The work features an autocrat spewing a nonverbal rant that hypnotizes a twenty-eight-person chorus of participants in a rally, who then repeat the leader’s strange sounds. Monk even spliced a tiny clip of a Hitler speech into the work’s sonorous landscape. While researching the possiblility of restaging Quarry this past year, four decades after its conception, the artist became acutely aware of its current relevance. Monk laments, “It’s terrifying how easy it is to create that kind of hypnotism.”
Her sixteenth album, On Behalf of Nature (2016), evokes nature not as a fixed idea of wilderness but as a precarious site threatened by waste and overconsumption. On both a thematic and a formal level, the work reflects a commitment to efficiency evident throughout Monk’s five-decade career. She staged Vessel: an opera epic (1971), a piece written for up to one hundred performers, with a striking economy of means. In the original performance, simple sheets draped over bleachers evoked a mountain range, and part of the piece was staged outside in an empty lot. Monk even drew the cover for the program herself. In a 2009 documentary on her work, she remarked on her low overhead, noting that she works with “five lighbulbs and not one hundred.”
No single work or even series is representative of Monk’s practice as a whole. Her wide embrace of human experience is also worthy of note, as a 1983 mission statement conveyed: “My goals: an art that affirms the world of feeling in a time and society where feelings are in danger of being eliminated.”
I met Monk on a cold November night, days before the 2016 US presidential election. With incense sticks burning, she led me through her understated but eclectic Tribeca loft, the site of a former garment factory. We lingered in the L-shaped dance studio, which also functions as a meditation room, talking mostly of places: New York, which she says deeply nurtured her after she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College; New Mexico, where she made a home with her late partner, Mieke van Hoek; and Istanbul, which she has come to know on tours and considers to be among the most meaningful places in her life. The conversation continued at her kitchen table. We drank fennel tea as Monk held Neutron, her pet turtle.
MARYAM MONALISA GHARAVI You seem to have many affinities with animals. I associate you with birds because of their musicality and theatricality.
MEREDITH MONK When I’m in New Mexico I listen to birds all the time. Not necessarily their particular songs, but what I call the cosmic orchestra they participate in. Especially as I get older—and especially as I was finishing On Behalf of Nature—I’ve realized I’m a doer, a person who does, does, does. But now I’m trying to learn how to be, be, be. So I often just sit there and listen, kind of like a dog. You know how dogs sit and turn their heads, and simply listen? Here are the crickets making their entrance. It’s gorgeous, the rhythms and processes are so beautiful. Animal affinities? I like raccoons very much.
MONK They’re very intelligent, and kind of pointy. Interesting animals, and very bright. Coyotes are also interesting. I’ve sung with coyotes in New Mexico. One afternoon I went up into the cliffs on our land and heard these coyotes. They were calling to each other across the canyon. It was so primal. It was almost terrifying. I was singing something pretty high. And they answered me! I woke them up from their siesta.
GHARAVI I read a text that you wrote for Performing Arts Journal in 1994, looking back on thirty years of work you had made up to that point. You contrasted the hurry and the tumult of doing with undoing.
MONK Have I succeeded in that? No [laughs]. It’s even worse now. I feel like I have to slow down. But I’m going a mile a minute. That’s why I leave New York sometimes. I just need non-segmented time. To watch the light change throughout the day is true time, rather than one appointment and then another appointment. That’s what I find hardest in the city.
GHARAVI If you were born in a different culture—a culture in which music, dance, and theater had a unity that was almost expected. . .
MONK That’s my dream, that was always my dream.
GHARAVI So then how do you find your tribe in America?
MONK I actually don’t think of myself as an American artist, strangely enough. I mean I am an American artist. I’m proud of being an American artist. But that’s not the way I’ve ever thought of myself. It’s sort of like—what was it called in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle?—you find your karass. It means that you find your tribe wherever you go. The people who you’re meant to know exist all over the place. You find each other.
GHARAVI As we walked through your rehearsal space we spoke of your daily and weekly agenda.
MONK My discipline.
GHARAVI Yes, your discipline of keeping voice and body—the main instruments of your art—limber. I’m curious how interruptions from technology, screens—all that external stuff—complicates the process.
MONK My job takes so many hours of the day because I have to keep my instruments together while I’m still performing. It’s more my vocal instrument—my movement is a bit simpler now. That revelation I had about my voice in the mid-’60s is the center. Everything comes from that. So my ideal day is to be at MacDowell Colony, a residency in New Hampshire, or on my land in New Mexico, where nobody calls me up or interrupts me. I can meditate, do my physical and vocal exercises, play the piano, and I can compose or work on ideas. That doesn’t happen here in New York very often. That’s why I leave, that’s why I go to New Mexico. And even so, they’re still getting me.
GHARAVI When I listen to your pieces, without a visual element, I think of scale. I also think of distance, of broad perspectives, macrocosms, and wide landscapes.
MONK That’s exactly how I think of it. I think my music is very visual. Spacious.
GHARAVI And when I watch your visual work there can be close-ups on details that exist on microscales. But when I listen to just the music, I hear wideness and expansiveness.
MONK And landscape.
GHARAVI Where do you think that comes from?
MONK My new album, Cellular Songs, is actually going to be about that. There are these teeny little vocal pieces, but they’re so intricate that it’s unbelievably hard to sing them. They’re tiny. I think it’s going to be about that, the tension between total microcosm and complete macrocosm. Those tiny little songs in a gigantic space—out to the universe and then right back down to the cell.
GHARAVI Performance opens you up to be very vulnerable, which to me relates to the fear of being seen. How do you see yourself as having overcome that?
MONK I think that vulnerability is the key to magic. A really good performer always has a vulnerability. I mean the really good ones, the deep ones. That vulnerability is what keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, because it’s like being on a tightrope. You’re experiencing people. It’s like opening the door to their souls. I actually still feel very vulnerable as a performer, but I feel like that’s OK. It might not be so comfortable, but it’s what it should be. You want to be transparent as a performer. It’s transparency rather than opaqueness.
GHARAVI Since the early 1980s you’ve been making more films, collaborating with artists like Ping Chong. Performance for film allows you to backtrack, edit, or omit—unlike the live version. How does your approach to film differ from your live performances?
MONK I think that’s why I’ve been very, very stubborn about continuing to do live performance even though it’s a little bit like a dinosaur: not many people get to see it; it’s impractical. I’m still struggling to get from one day to the next financially. But there’s just something about live performance, the way it can always change, every second.
I think of pieces almost like living entities. A friend of mine said that you should see a piece of mine at a premiere and then see it three weeks later. It’s almost another piece. In live performance you’re witnessing the growth of something. It always has that possibility of changing and getting better.
In live performance you don’t really know what you have until you do it, because the audience is another element in it. I love that. At the same time, there will be a horrible performance and I’ll go, “This is so crazy, I’ve devoted my whole life to this crazy thing. It’s like throwing the dice and the wrong dots came up tonight! What have I done?”
Over the years what’s happened to me is that when they tape a performance, it’s horrible. And when we’re inspired, the camera breaks. Maybe the spirit-god or whoever is going, “You cannot capture that inspiration, I will not let that be captured. Otherwise you’d be too full of pride.” It kills me sometimes, though. The albums are hard because I have to keep thinking that we all might not be at our best when it’s time to record. For example, in On Behalf of Nature I had a virus. It was right in my vocal cords. And another performer had a horrible headache. We were not well. And that’s what we’re left with.
GHARAVI But you’ve booked the time in the studio.
MONK Yeah, that’s the way it works. So then you just can’t listen to it ever again. And I feel that way about most of my albums. But then when I listen many years later, I think, even with the limitations that I know exist, the work still speaks. John Cage said to me once in the early ’80s, “I’m me, and my work is my work, and I wish it well.” I’ll never forget that. As a performer I hope I get to a point like that, but it’s hard to do that when your own physical being is also the work. It’s hard to say, “I wish my work well” when you’re the person that’s embodying it. But with something like a record album, if other people are enjoying it, then I just have to let it go. I’m very critical of my own work. But I also try to let it evolve on its own terms.
GHARAVI You have the confidence—no, the belief—to let it evolve on its own terms.
MONK I think that’s something I got from a teacher of mine at Sarah Lawrence, Bessie Schönberg. She taught that you have to step back. And if you really think a piece is not working, don’t take yourself so seriously. Throw it away and start again. So I always had that double thing of the craft—the thing of making something and then, when you’re performing it, learning how to step back so you can actually look at it objectively.
GHARAVI I saw some dream notes in your published journals, some with drawings and watercolors. They were very much process dreams, often about your work, or Ping Chong popped up in the dream, making a video. The barrier between dream life and waking life appeared very thin.
MONK I had one dream about a piece that had the sound of creaking ropes, like on an old boat. It was in a gallery, and it was someone else’s piece. There was the sound of creaking ropes and then there were very light, almost robin’s-egg blue pieces of wood—huge slabs of wood—in a gallery. In the dream I thought, “I can’t do that because it’s so-and-so’s piece.” And then when I woke up I thought, “Yes, I can, it’s my dream!” [laughs].
GHARAVI You authored it.
MONK I authored it. So I try to write the dreams down as much as I can. I still do.
GHARAVI I found a photo of you from 1985, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe.
MONK That was an amazing experience.
GHARAVI He basically turned you into a modern saint. He put a halo around you.
MONK Have you seen the color version of that? He was exploring color at the time. It was for Italian Vogue. I think the circle behind my head—that moonlike thing—was purple. And there was a blue light on my face. I loved the experience with him because it was very, very different from working with other photographers. I always thought that photographs had to catch a moment of energy. A photographer has to be very alert to get that moment of life. As a subject, just standing there never worked for me too well. The good photographers always caught that lively, radiant moment. But with him it was the opposite. That moment of life didn’t matter. The whole thing was the moment of life. He wasn’t trying to get something that came and went quickly. It was really more objective, working with light, shadow, that particular earring and hair. It was more iconic. It was an extremely relaxing experience for me.
GHARAVI Can we talk about clothes? The costumes in your 1990 piece Facing North look very contemporary. How do you think about clothing and what appears in a performance?
MONK I think really carefully about it. For Facing North I was working with Debby Lee Cohen, and we were trying to get a “north” feeling to it, but also a universality. Not a particular culture, just the state of being that would be north. I tried for a more timeless idea of a costume. I don’t want to say the word “archetypal” because I know it’s a dirty word in the art world, but I was after a costume that wasn’t necessarily hooked into a particular time.
Yoshio Yabara is a costume designer that I’ve worked with since 1980. He’s very important to the work. In On Behalf of Nature, costuming was one of the driving concepts. I made a decision at a certain point with my albums not to talk about the visual aspects of a piece that people are not going to see, because then they say, “I wish I saw the whole piece.” And I say, “Did you like the music?” When recording an album of a piece originally presented live, I even recompose the music so it has its own reality and its own integrity. I don’t want you to feel like you’re missing anything. So I talk about the recycling of material. One of the ideas for On Behalf of Nature is what it would be like to make an ecological piece of art. Meaning that I’m not going to spend big budgets to make costumes that then go into a trunk up in storage. How do you make something so that you don’t make any more waste for the world?
GHARAVI The lack of waste is constant in a lot of your pieces. There’s a strong connection to nature, even if performances happen mostly in cities. There’s something striking about the osmosis of material from piece to piece, with one work seeming to flow into another.
MONK There’s a cycling. It has a circle, and it comes back around when you think that way. It leaves no trace, everything’s been used, but it circles back. For On Behalf of Nature I had done some little watercolors—it was hard to know at the beginning of the process, but the piece was going to be subdivided into three big overall sections. Yoshi and I did a color scheme for those three elements. It wasn’t direct like “fire” or “air.” But it did have a little bit of that color sense.
We had everyone bring in their old clothes. Yoshi cut them up and remade them into these amazing sculptural garments. Each of us had our own contour. Each of us left the stage at a certain point, and we changed for the next color scheme but with the same contour as before. Each of us has a very distinctive shape. It was a very sculptural idea. And the piece was so moving because our personal histories were in our costumes.
I had this red-and-black schmatte, a really short mini-dress of mine from the ’60s that he cut up. You have your life history in your garments. When we had a performance, he had an exhibit of his wonderful drawings, and he had each person write a little Post-it note about their clothes. John Hollenbeck, the percussionist, wrote, “These are pants and my wife hates them.”
GHARAVI Do you keep clothes from performances over the years in archives?
MONK We have a storage space in a barn up in Monticello, New York. We have it up there because it’s affordable. I just saw it for the first time recently, in the snow. I’d been really scared to see it; I was worried that the roof was leaking. But then I saw it had a metal roof. It’s amazing, and so organized. Seeing all those old objects and costumes in this gigantic area of a barn was incredible. I felt a big sense of relief because I thought things were rotting up there!
GHARAVI How long have you been wearing your hair like that?
MONK I’ve been wearing my hair in these braids since about 2001. For ten years before that I was doing all the multi-braids. And that I loved, because I could just have it done and then it was in there for a month and I didn’t have to worry about it. In the ’80s I was wearing a ponytail. I don’t want to cut my hair. So I’m trying to figure out how older, distinguished, wise women can wear their hair! There’s something about the braids, I just feel so comfortable. I think the only other thing I would do with my hair is shave it all off.
COMING SOON Meredith Monk and poet Anne Waldman perform at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Feb. 24–25.
MARYAM MONALISA GHARAVI is an artist and writer based in Boston.