What does it mean to be a composer? Like many words, its definition and cultural significance have accrued through the ages. The definition—someone who writes music—is plain enough, but the way the word has been used in Western culture for the last 300 years has come to cement its significance as being, specifically, someone (most often a man) writing music for individual and grouped acoustic instruments, using abstract structures like fugue, creating forms like sonatas and symphonies, working with standard tuning inside a tonal system (which includes the logical extension of Schoenberg’s atonal formalism).
We think of songwriters like Burt Bacharach as composers too, because they are working with means and forms that are accepted and ubiquitous. But there has been cultural resistance to thinking that the music some composers have written actually makes them composers. John Cage faced this for years, even though he was always quite clearly a composer.
Since Cage, and especially since the development of minimalism in music, there has grown an entire world of serious composers who write seriously great music, but whose work often floats free from the classical music tradition and has an expressive and aesthetic sensibility that has nothing to do with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and everything to do with rock music, folk music, music as a tool for spiritual transcendence, music as pure sound and timbre to be manipulated through time.
Where names like La Monte Young, Pauline Oliveros, Tony Conrad, and Charlemagne Palestine fit into the various worlds of music is a matter of perspective. Except for Oliveros (perhaps by dint of her career as a teacher), the classical world has been reluctant to accept them as composers, even as they write music for themselves and others to play. Like a lot of things in late-capitalist society, institutional acceptance depends mainly on whether one is the right sort of person within a particular subset of culture, and these musicians don’t seem to write music the “right” way.
Meredith Monk has always composed music the wrong way, which is to say her own. “I’ve always had an urgency to make music my way,” she told me over tea in her kitchen, one cold afternoon in early February. And her way is in and through the body, through singing and the underlying connection to organized movement that she learned as a child through Dalcroze Eurythmics. The Eurythmics method teaches music through organized movement, not only rhythm but sophisticated concepts of structure and musical expression, before and instead of teaching through notation. It is music in its fundamental form as oral tradition. And oral tradition, in our over-credentialed and over-documented culture, is suspect: too vernacular, too limited, too simplistic.
So it is remarkable that Carnegie Hall appointed Monk to its Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair for the 2014 – 15 season. In the popular imagination, Carnegie Hall is the ne plus ultra of classical destinations, but under Executive Director Clive Gillinson it has also been a destination for old and new music of all kinds from all over the world (in January, Carnegie announced a project to commission at least 125 new compositions over the next five years). Monk is a perfect fit.
The American Composers Orchestra has already played her piece Night in Zankel Hall, last November, and in February, Ensemble ACJW premiered her new instrumental composition Backlight. Other recent performances include a birthday concert at (le) Poisson Rouge last fall and a run of her stage work On Behalf of Nature at BAM last December. The St. Louis Symphony will play her work WEAVE in the main hall at Carnegie on March 20, and two days later Monk, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Don Byron, Future Quest, Jessye Norman, and many more modern music luminaries will perform in Zankel, with a 50th anniversary concert by her vocal ensemble still to come on May 2.
And despite what reaction her methods might trigger—she composes mostly through singing—her work has always been sophisticated, using simple means for complex results, the “maximal possibilities of the voice as an expressive instrument,” as she puts it. She doesn’t use words, so her music is not bound to concrete meanings and can reach the multivalent expressive heights of the greatest abstract classical compositions.
Using the voice gives her music an immediate appeal and the type of insinuating charm of a person who first seems warm and sociable and then turns out to also be brilliant. This is true for her gradually increasing body of instrumental music, especially her latest ECM album, Piano Songs. Music for two pianos played by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, the album came out last year and is her eleventh on that label; she has released 16 of her own albums altogether.
Piano Songs sings and dances. “We called them Piano Songs, but we could have called them ‘Piano Dances’ too, or ‘Dancing Pianos’—it’s in the music.” They are compositions in the more commonplace sense, notated instructions given to musicians who produce the music on instruments—it comes through their bodies, but not out of their bodies. But the kineticism is there, captured in the propulsive, syncopated rhythms, the melodies, the way the two different piano parts work together and around each other. Even through the additional medium of sound reproduction, the music is physical. Listen unselfconsciously and you want to spin and sway, lift your leg and put your foot down again in time with the music and with the grace to follow the curve or inflection of a lead line. You get the urge to hum along in counterpoint, to feel your sternum vibrate in sympathy with the sound waves that reach out to touch you.
This is not the normal experience of composed music, of concert music. It’s not just years but seemingly eons of distance between our times and even a socially comprehensible period like the late 19th century, when the orchestra section at the opera was the cheap ticket, because you had to stand. Standing meant you could mingle and chat; it meant you could move. At Verdi operas, the section was the place to express subversive political views. Standing seems to me the way to experience Monk’s nearly wordless opera Atlas, an enthralling and beautiful drama about the coming together of different people into an ad hoc social unit.
At the opera, standing tickets are still available, and still cheap, but the orchestra section is filled with seats, and they cost in the mid-three figures. Seats are for passive witnessing. At standard classical concerts, the audience not only sits but is predominately still, the result of a received wisdom about concert decorum that has come out of the bourgeois use of classical music as a fetish of cultural and social superiority and a concomitant lack of passionate engagement with the music—ceremonies of ritual respect that outweigh the experience of music making and listening. We may gather together in a place, audience and musicians, but the social atomization between each audience member, and the ritual distance between the seats and the stage, creates a rigid artificiality that often casts a shadow over the music that might be played.
That’s a shame, because classical music, like all other music, is made with and from the body, and the sound waves connect musicians and audience. And the music is full of physical vitality, not just in the obvious example of Stravinsky—whose rhythms have a particular power because he wrote them only after he could feel them in his body—but in that of old warhorses by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as well. The ebb and flow of phrases and rhythms is important—and physical—in their works, reaching explosive power in Beethoven and Brahms. Their abstraction of the dance music of their eras has always been a standard working form for composers. Go back further to medieval music, with its combination of additive rhythms and song, and everything is dance and song, everything is kinetic.
Monk’s aesthetic connects directly to medieval music, to the basics of music adapted to narrative and ritual purposes. But she is rooted in far, far deeper soil, in the pre-history of humanity and the tiny seeds of our origins that still lurk in the recesses of our brain, that we carry with us at every moment, even with our appendages of contemporary technology. “Yes, I’m working with music as a social activity, and as a prototype for human behavior,” she says, “and music fully integrated into the human body.”
“The voice is such an eloquent instrument, the first human instrument, it has a timeless quality and is so powerful emotionally,” says Monk. “I always loved the middle ages, those intervals, that’s why I made Book of Days,”a theatrical work where contemporary workmen knock down a wall and create a passage to a medieval town. “But,” she adds, “my interest in the voice goes back even farther, to the first human utterance.” Like Barnett Newman’s argument that the first aesthetic gesture marked us as human, the implications are profound. As the first instrument, the voice brought people together to make music, and making music is how, at the dawn of humanity, family groups came together in social peace with strangers. Without any shared language, music was the means to establish peace and social communication and cooperation; strangers formed tribes, tribes formed civilizations.
“Each new piece is a new language, a new thing to communicate.” When I asked her if she was telling stories, she responded, “I object a little bit to the idea of a story. I call [what I do] an abstract song form, especially the early music. But narrative exactly … the audience doesn’t need to know a story, but it’s good to know that there might be a story.” If Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 film Quest for Fire is about how primitive men learned to tell stories to each other, Monk’s music is about how those men and women came to be together in the first place.
In the film, men find vocabulary for the things they have seen and experienced, while Monk, in her music, makes “sort of a vocabulary for that world” of the particular composition. In the context of the galaxy of classical, composed music, and in the much larger universe of instrumental music (including that which uses the voice as instrument without words), her vocabulary is both personal—nothing else sounds like it—and universal—it sounds like the urtext of every kind of music. “My music is very ancient and futuristic at the same time,” she says. And the basics are so deeply fundamental—movement and voice—that her work speaks without guile and with plangent meaning to every listener.