Meredith Monk, born in 1942, is an American composer, singer, choreographer, and filmmaker. She spent her early childhood in Queens, keenly participating in Piano plays. She hails from a musical family with her mother being a studio singer. She is the sole forerunner of the style that is currently called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.” Monk is known for composing outside of the customary Western style, always bearing in mind her venue for performance. However, Monk took her work beyond traditional postmodernism by combining her interdisciplinary approach with consideration for the venue her performances were held. This unique technique made for some very interesting work, especially while she was in her early experimental phases.
The wake of 1968 saw the birth of an eccentric interdisciplinary method to performance. At Sarah Lawrence College, she studied voice and dance, gradually being pulled into the wave of folk music melodies. However, some of these traditional forms off music often left her wanting and feeling inadequate musically. Monk graduated from the Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 and has since made notable contributions to music and performance, earning herself the coveted MacArthur Genius Award, three Obies, two Bessie awards for Sustained Creative Achievement, and two Guggenheim Fellowships (Marranca, 18). In 2006, she went on to receive an inaugural USA Prudential Fellow Award. Her recognition was and remains profound as she was named one of the fifty voice of the National Public Radio. She went on to pursue further education, gaining an honorary doctorate degree in Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute, Bard College, Cornish College of Arts, Mount Holyoke College, Boston Conservatory, and The Juilliard School (Marranca, 22). Monk has enjoyed success in her career, among her highlights being the “vocal offering” that she gave to The Dalai Lama in 1999, during the World Festival of Sacred Music.
The House, Monk’s company was dedicated to explore the interdisciplinary approach and ensure growth of this style. It was not until 1978, where Monk founded the Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble group whose sole purpose was the expansion of her musical textures and forms. Monk is also a renowned filmmaker with award-winning works such as Ellis Island from 1981 and the Book of Days from 1988. More so to this, Monk prides herself in her works being used in films such as those of David Byrne and Jean-Luc Godard. Monk is an expert with more than fifty years of experience in vocal pieces, operas, and works in musical theatres. In the year 2014, she celebrated fifty years of work in music. In addition, she has managed to generate a dynamic and original repertoire for instruments ranging from chamber ensembles, orchestra to solo performances. Commissions from the Carnegie Hall, New World Symphony, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, among others, enabled this. She went on to master site-specific performances, pioneering works such as Juice: A Theatre Cantata in 3 Installments in 1969, American Archeology #1: Roosevelt Island in 1994 and Ascension Variations in 2009. In January 2013, Monk released a music-theatre piece dubbed On Behalf of Nature with ECM records alleged to be released this year.
Monk is a unique composer. Her use of a singular voice has had people with no ear for music calling her, “A lost folk singer, who’s emerged from the mists of whatever civilization, whatever culture, whatever period – it’s difficult to put your finger on it.” The New York’s Judson Church group was a home to the composer. It is here where she grew musically and eventually developed the extended vocal technique. She lay this style on a three-octave range, assimilating sounds of percussions, overtone, yodeling, micro-tonality, yodeling, keening and most importantly throat singing. These aspects in her style have had critics term the sound as eerie. However, Monk states clearly that she had a revelation around 1965, where she could use her voice as her own instrument. She could stretch it over a wide range to the extent of combining male and female voices within one voice. Monk applied her experience in dance to voice, and this is the point that she discovered that she was a virtuoso as a vocalist.
Composed in 1966, the Duet with Cat’s Scream and Locomotive and 16-mm Earrings are among her excellent and best-known works. Both incorporate the interdisciplinary approach accentuating mostly on communication themes. The 16-mm Earrings composition made use of props, film, as well as Monk’s legendary voice chanting the word “nota.” Years of experience found Monk composing impermanence in 2008 that went forth as a Grammy-nominee (Samuel, 27). In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1996, she explained that her style was a delivery of text, a primal movement, traditional folk not focused on the normal European tradition of composing lines in space and geometry.
Her style of composing was highly shaped by Rock-and-Roll. She attributes her gradual growth and change of style to the fact that in the early stages of experiment, she was encouraged by Jazz and her rock musician associates who at an early point acknowledged the commencement of an “authentic musical sensibility.” Since her inception into the world of composing, Monk explored different aspects of the human voice, each time discovering a new way to fold or elongate her vocal cords. This revolutionary discovery of using the voice as an instrument has contributed to the expansion of musical composition (Samuel, 27). Some call her “America’s coolest composers” because of the simple fact that there is no other composer as dynamic, revolutionary with every touch of unconformity as she is. In 2015, President Obama honored her work with the National Medal of Arts.
Born with a birth defect called Strabismus, this implied that her eyes worked separately. This being a blessing in disguise, she went on to study Dalcroze Eurhythmics-a nineteenth century Swiss composition, which was a therapeutically proven treatment meant to aid her in coordination. This is where her inspiration first sprung from, fueled by the phrase “All musical truth resides in the body,” a common anecdote that was spoken to her by her instructor. It goes on to be the foundation of many works that she has dedicated her time to. The practice of shambhala meditation, a Buddhism custom played a key role in her tactics and interaction while composing.
In her style of Voice, Monk is confident to infuse whatever element she desires. This ranges from male to female, animal to human, vegetable to landscape, texture and every single element plausible of man. Her style was infused with ululations, creaks, clicks, snaps, vibrations and wild sounds. Her sound is dreamy filled with an ethereal tonality that sets her apart in her period of twenty- first century composers. Furthermore, her performances are fearlessly confident, incorporating both contemporary and ancient moods. The theatrical aspects of her performances have grown more complex with the years.
In her 1999 piece, A Celebration Service, she used both contemporary and traditional material along with spoken words. This piece is a reflective of sorts on her career that turned fifty in the year 2014 (Wyers, 43). Monk’s voice includes in it every aspect of texture, tonality, and color. In 1995, Monk ventured into Star Trek. She composes music for this film, trudging where no artist had done before.
Monk experimented with pitch and the timbre of her own instrument, her voice. She composed beyond the norms of Western composers, with the ululations and shrieking of her voice being emotional, a mastered art. The base of some of this is purely ostinato and with tempo.
Monk was able to sing across different registers, unlike other vocalists, creating an array of sounds no other composer has been able to master. She was able to perform a conversation with not only two human beings, but also with different characters, animals, or even land.
In addition, she sometimes uses recorded loops for assistance. Despite this, Monk’s music is more acoustic than recorded. She at most times accompanies her own compositions, sometimes sitting in a large stage all by her own with a large piano or organ. Adding to her solo performances, Monk has also wrote music for other choreographers, being a choreographer herself (Uitti, 527). She also now and then accompanies others composers such as Merce Cunningham. Moreover, Monk is well versed in theatrical compositions, creating her own ideas and infusing them into theatrical performances over time. This then pile up and afterward, she creates long theatrical combinations.
Apart from her more than two hundred works, Monk has been dedicated to education, especially in the music sector, spending time on small performances and concerts. This works were often for chambers and later allowed her to travel and tour all over America and Europe, even without the necessities of any production from a theatre (Monk, 29). Monk does not however require other vocalists to imitate her but belief in the individuality of voice as a unique portrayal of each singer, but instead she nurtures other artists to follow in their own color and timbre. This has enabled Monk to multiply her range of composition, and as wine grows old with age, Monk’s style of composition has grown more vivid and acceptable. This is because, in the earlier years of her rising, critics did not understand her way of composition of style of performance, but her relentlessness and belief in her type of work has made her an irreplaceable artist. In 1981, she established a connection with the ECM group releasing three parts of her Education of the Girl Child piece (Monk, 83). In the 2000 decade, Monk released a number of performance works that include Mercy, where she worked with Anna Hamilton to portray the spirit of compassion as a cure for spite. She went on to release Impermanence in 2006 cogitating on her partner Mieke van Hoek.
One of the most interesting works by Monk is the 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966) piece. In this composition, she incorporates basic movements and gesticulations. This was her first multimedia piece; Monk combined rudimentary movements and gestures with vocalizing. She wore a large sphere on her head, on which footage of her face was shot. In the work 16mm Earrings, shot by Bill Wither in 1977, Monk assimilates a collection of dance, voice and sounds (Wyers, 44). The video has fictional scenes, as Monk reads The Function of Orgasm, a Wilhelm Reich essay from 1940 as well as Greensleeves (16 Millimeter Earrings)
Monk is a celebrated artist. Her works have been listened to globally. She has received numerous recognitions from different composers and music associations. The world is waiting to see how far much she can evolve. Every work she presents to the world is a reflection of her dreams as well as years of style maturity. She remains a mentor for the Girl Child as well as a musical mentor for aspiring folk composers. Her use of the interdisciplinary approach and the extended vocalization is truly a contribution to the music world.