Born on November 20, 1942, in Lima, Peru; daughter of Theodore Glenn Monk and Audrey Zellman (a singer). Education: Sarah Lawrence College, B.A., 1964. Addresses: Office--The House Foundation, 306 W. 38th St., #401, New York, NY 10018. Website--Meredith Monk Official Website: http://www.meredithmonk.org.
Vocalist, composer, and choreographer Meredith Monk has often been described as a Renaissance woman of the arts. "The center is the voice, and the center is the music. I use center in the largest sense of the word, because I feel that when I do a theater piece now, I'm an orchestrator of music and image and movement," Meredith Monk explained to OPERA America in October of 1984. "I have tried, in my music, to go back to the beginnings of the voice and deal with it as an instrument in the most direct way possible. Some of the things I've discovered I came upon by simply working with my own voice."
Born in Lima, Peru, where her mother was performing as a singer, Monk was raised in New York City and Connecticut. She received formal training in piano, ballet, modern dance, and eurhythmics from an early age. Monk came from a deep musical lineage. Her great-grandfather was a cantor; her grandfather was a singer, and her grandparents founded the Zellman Conservatory of Music; her mother was a singer as well. Monk began studying piano at the age of three, and could reportedly read music before she was reading words. She was introduced to modern composers including Kabalevsky, Igor Stravinsky, and Bela Bartok by her piano teacher.
Monk has credited her years at Sarah Lawrence College, as well as classes with modern dance choreographers Bessie Schonberg and Judith Dunn, with releasing her creativity. In a profile in Music Journal she reminisced, "I was encouraged to work with a feeling [and] let the medium and form find itself. It seemed that finally I was able to combine movement with music and words, all coming from a single source."
Dunn introduced her to the choreographers who would later become the leaders of the post-modern dance movement. She joined the Judson Dance Theater, a loosely organized experimental group that grew out of classes given by Robert Dunn at the Merce Cunningham Studio in 1964. The Judson dancers gave concerts of short works at the Judson Memorial Church in New York's Greenwich Village and in other locations. Her best known works from the Judson concerts were mixed-media pieces such as 16mm Earrings, which she performed with projections at the Billy Rose Theatre Festival of the Avant-Garde in 1969.
Monk experimented with the limitations created by specific locations in early works she composed for her own troupe, The House. Juice: A Theatre Cantata in 3 Installments (1969), for example, was created for performance at three different locations, ranging from the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum to The House's Soho loft. Her subsequent works did not rely on definite spaces, however. Her 1973 Education of the Girlchild is a pure performance in which Monk takes 45 minutes to regress from an elderly woman to a young child, using movements and vocal sounds.
Music became more important in Monk's work as she assembled her troupe and taught them her vocal repertory. Quarry (1976) was the first of many works to be described as an "opera." In the work, the abstract images of World War II were presented in a score that included solos, duets, small groups, and a large chorus, as well as dance sequences and a scale-manipulating film. Recent Ruins (1979), another mixed-media opera, depicted archaeologists from the future unearthing New York. Its film sequence, Ellis Island, was broadcast separately on the Public Broadcasting System and on European television. Monk was awarded the CINE Golden Eagle in 1982.
Based on Walt Whitman's Civil War writings, Specimen Days (1981) presented a look at the past, focusing again on civilians in war. The Games, created with Ping Chong in 1983, was an alternative view of the Olympics of the future, commissioned by a West Berlin theater group and presented in the United States at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. Its large chorus and massed movements were in sharp contrast to the smaller scale of Turtle Dreams (1983). The latter work, with its five soloists performing isolated Cha-Cha dances, was described by Newsweek as "the precise sensation of being a foreigner, wholly cut off from the activities that constitute ordinary life around us." The magazine quoted her as demanding "the constant shift of perceptions, the shifting of balance, the multidimensional experience---that's what I want in my theatre. It has mobility."
Monk's concerts and recordings have been focused on the voice. At a 1981 "music concert with film," she screened excerpts from Ellis Island and presented a solo version of Education of the Girlchild. She has given recitals for solo voice accompanied only by her finger rubbing a water glass, a chilling effect that she used on the recording Our Lady of Late (1973).
Songs from the Hill (1976) was a trio for women that premiered with House members Andrea Goodman and Monica Solen. John Rockwell wrote in the New York Times that Monk had "perfected her own technique to emit amazing varieties of sounds rarely heard from a Western throat, full of wordless cries and moans, a lexicon of vocal coloration, glottal attacks and microtonal waverings that lie at the heart of all musical culture." In Dolmen Music (1979), Monk added three male voices and a cello for the 40-minute work. As a recording, it was given the German Music Critics' award for Best Record of 1981. Fayum Music, originally the score of a film about Egyptian Fayum portraits, was composed for vernacular instruments---the voice, hammered dulcimer, and double ocarina.
Monk performed and recorded frequently with pianist and keyboard artist Nurit Tilles. She discussed their recital in December 1988 with Stephen Holden in his "The Pop Life" column in the New York Times: "I'm working with a much more delicate palette, using the voice as a transparent kind of instrument. Some of the songs, I call 'click songs,' because they have percussion and melody going on at the same time."
Monk has received both an Obie (from the Off and Off-Off Broadway critics) and a Bessie (from dance critics) for sustained achievement, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among other honors. Her music has received six ASCAP awards for Composition.
"She has carved out a unique, brilliant style of wordless singing that treats the voice as a dancing voice and movement as a singing body," wrote Gia Kourlas in a Dance Magazine profile. "Her voice has all the character, texture, sensuality, and color of her movement."
OPERA America featured Monk with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim in the first issue of its newsletter, Opera for the 80's and Beyond, recognizing her importance in music and musical theater. The newsletter wrote that her aim is to create "an art that is inclusive rather than exclusive; that is expansive, whole, human, multi-dimensional. An art which seeks to re-establish the unity that exists in music, theater and dance."
In 1991 Monk was commissioned to write an opera by the Houston Grand Opera. The result was Atlas, which was performed by the Houston Grand Opera and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Monk has frequently taken her collaborative multimedia work in unexpected directions. In 2001 she created mercy, a musical theater performance, with Ann Hamilton, a sculptor. The work premiered at Duke University in July of 2001. A recording of music from the work was subsequently released. "The virtuosity displayed by Monk and her vocal cohorts is considerable," wrote Allen Gimbel in American Record Guide, "and it's hard not to be taken in by the mystery and sheer invention of this fascinating artist's fantasy."
Monk's work has continued unabated, and continues to defy categorization, as does the artist herself. "I never think I am a noun; I always feel like I'm a verb," she told Dance Magazine. "I've always fought against being categorized. I think everything feeds everything else."
by Barbara Stratyner and Linda Dailey Paulson
Meredith Monk's Career
Studied piano, ballet, and modern dance as a child; member of experimental Judson Dance Theater, 1960s; founder of her own dance troupe, The House, 1969; has presented experimental dance performances and mixed-media operas and given solo and ensemble vocal concerts.
Meredith Monk's Awards
Numerous Obie and Bessie Awards, including 1972 and 1976; six medals for composition from American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP); fellowships from Guggenheim Foundation (1972) and National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1995) and Dance Magazine Award (1992).
- Selected discography
- Our Lady of Late Wergo, 1973; reissued, 1986.
- Key: An Album of Invisible Theatre Increase Records, 1970; reissued, Lovely Music, 1977.
- (Compilation) Airwaves One Ten Records, 1977.
- (Compilation) Big Ego Giorno Poetry Systems Records, 1978.
- Songs from the Hill Wergo, 1979.
- Dolmen Music ECM, 1981.
- Turtle Dreams ECM, 1983.
- (Compilation) Better an Old Demon Than a New God Giorno Poetry Systems Records, 1984.
- Do You Be ECM New Series, 1987.
- Book of Days ECM, 1990.
- Facing North ECM, 1992.
- (With others) U.S. Choice (Anthology), CRI, 1992.
- Atlas: An Opera in Three Parts ECM, 1993.
- (With others) Of Eternal Light (Anthology), Catalyst, 1993.
- (With others) Monk and the Abbess: The Music of Meredith Monk and Hildegard von Bingen BMG/Catalyst , 1996.
- Mercy 2001.
- Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women, 1995.
- American Record Guide, May-June 2003.
- American Theatre, March 1998.
- Artforum International, April 2000.
- Back Stage, December 17, 2004.
- Dance Magazine, April 1998; November 1999; February 2000; July 2001; July 2002; November 2004.
- Music Journal, September-October 1979.
- Newsweek, October 29, 1984.
- New York Times, March 28, 1976; December 7, 1988.
- OPERA America, October, 1984.
- Opera News, August 1995.
- Meredith Monk Official Website, http://www.meredithmonk.org (August 14, 2005).
- Additional information was obtained from NPR's All Things Considered, on April 13, 1994.