MEMORY GAME / MONK: from The Games: Spaceship; Gamemaster’s Song; Migration; Memory Song; Downfall. The Politics of Quiet: Waltz in 5s. Tokyo Cha-Cha. Totentanz. Double Fiesta / Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble; Bang in a Can All-Stars / Cantaloupe Music CA21153
Twenty-two years ago, attending a seminar on Feminist Music at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, I was introduced to some really poor music. But I was also introduced to the wonderful Meredith Monk via a video—which to the best of my knowledge has never been released, and seems to have disappeared—from her wordless opera Atlas, I still own the audio recording of Atlas along with a bunch of other Monk CDs, and have been a fan ever since.
This new CD, her first in quite some time, is quite different from most of her prior releases (except for Atlas) in that it combines her singing and that of her vocal ensemble—Theo Bleckmann, Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin and Monk herself—with an instrumental ensemble drawn from Bang on a Can. I stayed away from Bang on a Can for years because its name suggested a percussion ensemble, and I’m not into all-percussion groups as a rule, but as it turns out the musicians here play cello, bass, electronic and acoustic piano, clarinets and saxophones and, yes, percussion.
The brief promo material for this CD explains that it contains leftover selections from Monk’s opera The Games, which apparently came out in 2008 but which I missed (and no trace of it appears to be available for listening online). Since it has to do with video games, which I have zero interest in, I probably don’t want to see or hear the whole thing, but these excerpts are fascinating.
Listening to the opening track, an instrumental called “Spaceship” from The Games, one can note how much her music resembles, in certain aspects, that of Moondog: the short themes repeated in differing rhythmic patterns, here with the addition of a bowed bass line that acts intermittently as counterpoint, allied to a very conservative harmonic base. There’s just something about her music that sounds ancient, like something from the 16th or 17th century, except for that rhythm which is more syncopated and more modern than the old music.
Yet “Gamemaster’s Song” sounds nothing like early music; rather, it sounds like what is known as “techno-pop,” with an electronic piano playing an insistent rhythm while Bleckmann alternates wordless lines with a few words, i.e. “Where’s that? Who’s that?” as well as the usual Monk-styled high-range whoops and low-range lines. “Migration,” by contrast, feature the ladies, singing high-range wah-wahs and woo-woos while Beckmann grounds the vocal ensemble with his low range, singing sustained notes. A violin solo emerges as well. Beckmann also includes a spoken monologue about some race whose children weighed between 100 to 200 pounds, and whose languages “numbered in the thousands.”
“Memory Song” opens with a celesta-like electronic piano passage, after which the voices enter singly. This one is apparently about the wonder of seeing trees, birds, champagne and football. (Also, mushrooms, coffee, a black Suzuki, aspirin and fish.) One thing is for sure: her music is, in its own way, as wonderfully nutty as it was 30 years ago.
The Politics of Quiet, written in 1996 as a “non-verbal oratorio contemplating community, sacred space and the end of the 2nd millennium,” gives us the Waltz in 5s with its asymmetric rhythm. Following this is Tokyo Cha-Cha with is words about “when the sun gone today.” On this piece, the electronic piano lick almost sounds like jazz.
We end with Double Fiesta, a piece for solo female voice, starting out wordlessly with her usual high-range whopping sounds before telling us “She was a very nice girl.” It’s nice to know that Monk is still around and as wonderfully out-there as ever!
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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