Meredith Monk —
Archaeologist of the Human Voice

A kind of archeologist of the human voice, singer and composer Meredith Monk says that "the voice could be like the body" — flexible and fluid with practice. Through music as through meditation, the longtime Buddhist practitioner pushes the boundaries of what we can do without words.

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is a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, and founder of the Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble. She's also artistic director of The House Foundation.

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Meredith Monk's Most Meaningful Songs

In preparing for our interview, Meredith Monk sent us a list of songs she's recorded over the decades that she finds most meaningful to her. Stream and listen to all eleven tracks.

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Meredith Monk performs "Ascension Variations" on March 5, 2009.

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Funding provided in part by the Nour Foundation.

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I was working as production manager for Naropa University the year that Meredith taught a class to the MFA theatre students and which she and her performed. How fortunate they must have felt during that week. As production manager I was able to witnesss two rehearsals and two actual performances. During the first rehearsal during a particular piece I found myself weeping from this very deep place. I dismissed it. The second rehearsal brought the same reaction. Now, I'm taking notice. I could not understand where the deep tears I shed were coming from. But when it happened two more times during the performance, I knew she had hit such a primal place in my heart and was so grateful for the power that Meredith's work had on me. What an experience. She is such a wonderful human being and for those of us fortunate enough to be in her presence is truly a gift for those of us who have the opportunity to witness her.

I could relate to much of what Meredith Monk discussed on this program. Participating in the creation or consumption of art requires us to either give of ourselves, or to receive a part of someone else. I believe that Meredith is correct when she expresses that this is best accomplished when the performers and the audience are in the same space at the same time. I am an amateur piano player, and I have found that I can perform best when I try to come to it with an empty mind. This allows me to audiate, or hear in my mind, what I plan to play, a measure or so ahead, just as a sight-reader would read. On a musical level, this helps to focus me on the passage at hand, and prepare for the next hand position, harmony, difficult rhythm, key change, new section in the form, or whatever is coming in the arrangement. On a spiritual level, this allows me to "intend" what will come into reality. However, I was interested to hear that Meredith took this so much further, because her art drops many of the Western conventions that we often try to fit our music into.

I would like to say to Meridith Monk:
As a member of a high school band, singing our parts on the bus to and from performances is just what you describe as a vocal orchestra. Some of my best memories as a skinny, flat chested, smart nerd were part of this experience.

In the rural south we have a tradition called "Sacred Harp", an acapella way to worship that I hope you will investigate. The sacred harp is the human voice.

Lastly Bobby McFerrin's Vocabularies touch me in so many ways as the songs/voices/sounds bring tears and thrill me, especially the last of Wailers.

I am glad that music remains so vibrant after many eons of singing around a fire or lulling a baby to sleep.

Music can be a sense of playfulness and make you feel alive; living in the moment. People listen to music to sooth the soul. It relaxes humans and takes them away from it all. Dance usually goes along with music and that is also a way to get away from it all.

Meredith Monk reaches places in the human experience through music and mediation where words get in the way. Our voice can be like the body. The body helped her find her own vocabulary as a singer; as a child. She found that music has an articulation, fluidity, and flexibility like the spine has.

Finding the musical method called Del Crose eurhythmics to correct early problems with bodily coordination is very interesting.

I have begun a new ritual. A weekend kayak around the perimeter of the first basin of Lake Whatcom. An hour long tour of my local landscape which also grants me the quiet uninterrupted time to listen to On Being, meditate and jot a few notes in reflection of the program. Today I heard the rhythmic sound of my paddle gracing the water intermingled with the wisdom and musicality of Meridith's voice and words, and they spoke to me on many levels.
I'm a visual artist influenced by poetry. I consider my work contemplative and of a nature that offers viewers space to breathe. I loved how Meridith defined her work as "uncovering what we can't label". I think that is the truest definition of many art forms: poetry, music, painting. Maybe I was familiar with Meridith's name through her association with Ann Hamilton--but I was really unfamiliar with her work. So it came as a bit of a surprise all the synchronicity I felt with the intentions of her work and with her spiritual philosophies.
My current practice has me thinking along the lines of tethered to the sky, how spirituality looks up. And in reading and writing about this idea and the dual concept of gravity last week, I came across this poem from Ellery Akers titled Advice from an Angel. Here is an excerpt that speaks to the looking down referenced by Meridith when speaking to Krista about ascension as well as her sharing of her artistic practice.

I know it's in your nature to want air,
ozone. To float: to be free. But stick with what you know:
you'd be surprised at the effect of sheer blundering
and doggedness. To evaporate is nothing:
to sprint, to travel. It's weight
that divides the known and unknown worlds. It's your boots
that impress us, your squads of boulders,

Thanks again for opening my mind and inspiring my work.

I have more to say....and I probably will not...but your on-and-on is nutritional. Please provide on-and-on!

Great words, we use a lot of Meredith Monks audio at Team Bootcamp. Our campers get quite a lot from it.

I'll be interested in watching this thread develop.