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Meredith Monk:

Music and Mysticism

"In a sense it's trying to bring to life the unspeakable. That's really something that art can do." Hearing Meredith Monk's voice speaking matter-of-factly on the phone about her practice is a surreal experience. For one thing, I am struck by the normalcy of her speaking voice and, subsequently, become distracted at wondering how the register, tone, and pitch can be morphed so intensely into beautiful, otherworldly, unimaginable forms.

Also, I can't help but consider the very irony of the interview situation: I am asking Monk to put ideas about her practice in words when her work operates outside the box of spoken language.

Monk's is a name that comes up in discussions of the avant-garde, among the likes of Merce Cunningham, Laurie Anderson, and John Cage; she is a pioneer for fusing all kinds of art forms; music, dance, site-specific performance, video, and film in quiet, meditative, contemplative ways that explore the mysteries of existence. At the heart of whatever project she embarks upon, though, there is music. Monk's singing, both on her solo albums and in her musical theater pieces, may be the hardest aspect of her work to articulate.

Since the start of her career in the mid 1960s, Monk has been exploring the possibilities of the voice. Her sounds evoke medieval music, African tribal music, and natural sounds, like wind whipping across water or birds chirping. Monk wails, chants, breathes, moans, exposes unimaginable textures and delivers her voice to places that one never knew existed. All of this she accomplishes nearly always without words.

"I think the voice is the original human instrument," she says. "I think it's a language in itself that's actually more eloquent than words, and it can delineate energies for which we don't have words."

I am fortunate to be talking to one of the avant-garde's living legends at the end of her hectic day at 10 o'clock on a Monday night in January. We are discussing her practice, as well as the makings for her newest piece, called "Mercy," which she co-created and performs with sculptor and installation artist Ann Hamilton. The two will be performing the piece for Chicago audiences on March 28 and 29 at the Athenaeum Theater.

It is a rare and exciting endeavor for two important artists with such unique ideas to collaborate. Hamilton is a celebrated pioneer in her own right in the field of installation art. She's perhaps most famous for "Indigo Blue" (1990), a piece for which she piled 48,000 neatly folded work pants and shirts into an abandoned automobile repair shop. In front of this pile, a woman sat at a table erasing text from history books, as a symbolic gesture to create space for blue-collar workers.

Monk and Hamilton had known they wanted to work with each other for some time before the opportunity arose for "Mercy." Hamilton heard Monk's music for the first time when just out of college in 1981 and was mesmerized. In turn, Monk was inspired upon seeing Hamilton's installation work in the 1990s. The collaboration makes perfect sense since both artists create direct sensual experiences through alternative, and quite poetic, means.

This collaborative situation proved to be an exciting challenge for both artists: "I had a concept that was going to be called 'Planetary Memories,'" Monk says of her initial meeting with Hamilton. "Then when we got together we felt that that was too formed, and decided that it was much more interesting to start from the beginning with making a concept together. For me it was really interesting because usually I'm in charge of my whole world, and when Ann's working on her projects it's the same way. Part of the project was figuring out who was doing what."

Monk and Hamilton broke away at certain points so that Monk could develop more of the music and the gestures, and Hamilton could develop the materials to be used for props and the environment. The final result of these developments is the spellbinding, meditative, simple, and visually beautiful "Mercy," which debuted at last summer's American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina.

"Mercy" is not rooted in a specific experience of mercy, but rather the concept itself, and raises questions about how we negotiate the concept. "For me, and I think this is something Ann also feels strongly too, it's about this sense of mystery, and not knowing," Monk says. "It's this sense of not trying to answer too fast. It's more like formulating questions. That's what it's about."

At the start of "Mercy," Monk and Hamilton are quietly sitting at a table together when they slowly begin to move away from each other and into their own thoughts or experiences. Monk moves her chair away from the table and Hamilton retreats to writing in a journal. Each movement in these interactions is amplified; Hamilton's pencil moving across the page sounds rich and shrill as it makes and sustains a rhythm. Small cameras, placed at points inside Monk's mouth as she sings, or at other times capturing a close-up of Hamilton's writings, act not as surveillance devices, but as doorways into different perspectives, as their discoveries are projected onto a video screen backdrop that frames the stage.

Monk, Hamilton, and the other dancers and singers who occasionally venture on and off the stage are not the focus so much as are their gestures. The piece is hinged around actions of the mouth and hand, as captured by the camera inside Monk's mouth and on Hamilton's hand writing, and "the possibilities or potentials for help and harm from both of those parts of the body."

There is no narrative on the somber and sparse stage, but rather a sequence of abstracted events, that speak to the concept of mercy, of granting mercy, of being denied mercy. Surrealistically beautiful and simple props, like a giant bubble through which Monk and Hamilton sing at one point, are the results of Hamilton's imagination and guide the ideas being expressed.

Instead of being bound to specific situations and literal places, Monk's performances work to get to the essence of experience through a variety of interdisciplinary approaches. Because of this, she does not fit neatly into any category or "-ism," and is often described by a long list of distinctions.

"I've pretty much fought classification for years" she says. "I think that this idea of categories is something that's habitual behavior. I'm much more interested in working between the cracks of art forms. When people say, 'What are you?' I say, 'I'm not a noun, I'm a verb.' I'm very engaged in working with the voice, with the body, with visual images, and with this sense of multiplicity and perception really."

"Mercy" seems to have come at a time when people more than ever need to evaluate the human condition. Monk acknowledges that this piece felt eerily relevant and necessary after September 11.

"We found that we were shocked at how it resonated after September," she says. "It seemed like the right thing to be working on. It was very shocking to both of us that we were able to see ahead a little bit on that. I don't think it changed our performing though. ... There's no way we could express that, except to be even more pure about the way we were performing the piece."

"Mercy" will run Thursday through Saturday, March 28-30, at 8 p.m. at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (at Lincoln & Wellington). Tickets are $30 (gen.), $8 for SAIC students. For more information, visit www.pachicago.org.

Images Courtesy of Carol Fox & Associates.

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