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Meredith Monk

Beloved for her compelling interdisciplinary approach to music and dance, Meredith Monk is one of the most acclaimed performance artists of her generation. Recognized as a pioneer of the abstract "extended vocal technique," Monk combines sound with choreography, often incorporating other visual elements, to create an art that defies category. While she is most strongly associated with the avant-garde, her music borrows widely from such genres as classical, opera, jazz, folk, and non-Euro-American world traditions. Since her emergence in the late '60s, she has won acclaim for her many live works, including 1969's Juice: A Theatre Cantata in Three Installments at New York's Guggenheim Museum, 1994's American Archeology #1: Roosevelt Island, and 2009's reworking of Juice, Ascension Variations. She also expanded her work into film, directing 1981's Ellis Island and 1988's Book of Days. Working on her own and with her innovative vocal and dance ensemble, Monk has issued a series of highly acclaimed albums for the ECM label, including 1980's Dolmen Music, 1992's Facing North, 2008's Grammy-nominated Impermanence, and 2016's On Behalf of Nature. Along with holding honorary Doctor of Arts degrees from Bard College, The Juilliard School, Boston Conservatory, and other prestigious institutions, Monk has garnered numerous accolades, including a 1995 MacArthur "Genius" Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a 2012 Doris Duke Artist Award, and a 2015 National Medal of the Arts. Meredith Jane Monk was born in 1942 in Peru to American parents while her mother, vocalist Audrey Marsh, was on tour. Marsh and Monk's father, Theodore Glenn Monk, raised Monk in Connecticut and New York, where she took piano lessons with Gershon Konikow. She also intensively studied Dalcroze Eurhythmics, an experiential educational method that teaches students to connect musical rhythm, structure, and expression through the movement of their own bodies. After high school, she attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she focused on both music and movement, studying modern dance with Bessie Schönberg, voice with Vicki Starr, John Devers, and Jeanette Lovetri, and composition with Ruth Lloyd, Richard Averee, and Glenn Mack. Graduating in 1964 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Monk settled in New York, where she began combining her choreography and composition. In 1968, she formed her first ensemble, The House, as a vehicle for exploring her concepts of interdisciplinary performance. Working with a group of 20 performers, she combined her "extended vocal techniques" (which included the use of overtones, throat singing, keening, yodeling, percussive vocalizations, and micro-tonality) with dance, theater, film, and other elements. In 1969, she staged one of the first sight-specific works, Juice: A Theatre Cantata in Three Installments. The first part featured eight performers located on the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum, the second featured performers at the Minor Latham Playhouse, and the third featured TV displays in her home loft. Equally compelling interdisciplinary works followed, including 1971's Joan of Arc-inspired Vessel, 1972's The Education of a Girl Child, and 1976's Quarry, the latter of which dealt with Jewish persecution and the Holocaust. These early works garnered her increasing acclaim, including Obie Awards for Vessel and Quarry. She also received the first of two Guggenheim fellowships in 1972 (the other was awarded in 1982). Monk has continued to stage similarly innovative productions, including 1994's American Archeology #1: Roosevelt Island and 2009's reworking of Juice, Ascension Variations. As a recording artist, Monk debuted with 1971's Key, which featured many of her earliest works for voice and other instruments. Her second album, Our Lady of Late, followed in 1973 and found her working with percussionist Collin Walcott. There has been much overlap in her career between her staged works and vocal compositions. In 1978, she formed the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble to further develop her musical concepts. Her first widely celebrated work was 1979's Songs from the Hill/Tablet, which featured compositions for voice and piano. In 1980, Monk signed with Manfred Eicher's ECM label and released Dolmen Music in 1981. A triumph of minimalism, it found Monk working with her vocal ensemble, weaving in percussion and cello; it won the German Critic's Prize. Also that year, she made her directorial debut, Ellis Island, for which she also composed the music. Her second ECM album, 1983's Turtle Dreams, brought her work yet wider attention in North America. That same year, Monk was the subject of director Peter Greenaway's film in the Four American Composers series. In 1986, the Wergo label reissued her second album, Our Lady of Late: The Vanguard Tapes, which took home that year's German Critic's Prize, and she was the recipient of the National Music Theatre Award in the United States. Do You Be arrived on ECM in 1987 and included excerpts from some of Monk's various long-form theater pieces. Around this time, Monk directed her second film, Book of Days, which opened at the New York Film Festival and was later adapted for television. The soundtrack to Book of Days was released on ECM in 1990. Her eighth ECM album, 1992's Facing North, was a collection of smaller, spare pieces recorded with singer Robert Een. Along with vocals, it found Monk employing a pitch pipe, piano, and organ. In contrast, 1993's expansive Atlas: An Opera in 3 Parts (which originally premiered on-stage at the Houston Grand Opera the previous year) featured more than 30 vocalists and a small chamber orchestra. In 1995, Monk was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant. Two years later, she released Volcano Songs, a suite for four voices and two pianos. In July 2000, New York's Lincoln Center Festival honored her with a three-concert retrospective of her music, Voice Travel. Following a five-year break from recording, during which time she spent composing, performing, and traveling, Monk re-emerged with 2002's Mercy. The album found her working with a small vocal group featuring Theo Bleckman, clarinetist Bohdan Hilash, and percussionist John Hollenbeck. Bleckman was also on board for 2008's Impermanence, which again featured a similar vocal and instrumental ensemble performing minimalist pieces. The album earned Monk her first Grammy nomination for Best Small Ensemble Performance. A compilation, Beginnings, arrived on John Zorn's Tzadik label in 2009 and featured Monk's works from 1966 through 1980. Along with her original pieces, the set included the song Candy Bullets and Moon, which was co-composed with Don Preston (who also played organ and percussion on the track). Songs of Ascension, another large ensemble work, was issued in 2011. Piano Songs arrived in 2014 and found pianists Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker performing works Monk composed between 1971 and 2006. Inspired by an ecologically minded stage work, 2016's On Behalf of Nature featured Monk's vocal ensemble, as well as contributions by percussionist Hollenbeck, reedist Hilash, harpist Laura Sherman, and singer Allison Sniffin, who also doubled on piano, violin, and French horn. In 2020, Monk released Memory Game, which again featured Hollenback and Sniffin, as well as an appearance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. ECM issued Meredith Monk: The Recordings, a 13-disc collection of recordings Monk had previously made for that label, in 2022.
© Matt Collar /TiVo


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