Artists Interview Fairs United Kingdom

Where art and music collide

The experimental composer and choreographer Meredith Monk, who performs tonight as part of the fair, has spent half a century pioneering new forms

The experimental composer, filmmaker and choreographer, Meredith Monk

Few people have pushed the boundaries of the human voice as far as Meredith Monk. The New York-based composer, filmmaker and choreographer has been at the forefront of experimental music for close to 50 years, creating a body of work that breaks down the walls between music, performance and film. She was an integral part of the 1960s New York loft scene alongside Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and has worked with artists including Bruce Nauman, composing works that push the human voice into new territories. Her often stark, minimal music, occasionally accompanied by a single keyboard, has had a lasting impact. She has influenced Björk and been sampled by electronic musicians including DJ Spooky and DJ Shadow, and her work has been used in the films of Jean-Luc Godard and the Coen Brothers. Tonight, in a concert that is part of Frieze Music, Monk will perform songs from throughout her career, alongside her long-time collaborator Katie Geissinger.

The Art Newspaper: Interdisciplinary work has been an important part of your career. Can explain the crossover between music and art in your work?

Meredith Monk: When I first came to New York, it was the 1960s; there was a whole community of artists from different disciplines and I think a lot of people were trying to push past the boundaries of their forms. So you had sculptors who were making dance pieces, poets who were writing music and musicians who were writing plays. And it had that feeling of “how far can we push these different fields to find something new?” Then I think people went back to their original forms, but they had had the experience of how far they could push those boundaries. Someone like me, who came from both music and theatre backgrounds, had this glimpse of making a form that wove together these perceptual modes. It was very affirmative for me to come into that community, because there was a kind of “anything is possible” mentality that I try to maintain to this day.

You mention those artists who experimented with different forms but returned to their original disciplines—you seem to have consistently tried to push those boundaries.

Yes, that’s part of my investigation, which is what really keeps me going—this idea of working between the cracks of what we consider separate art forms. It’s in those cracks that I find new ways of doing things. Each piece is another world, and I don’t know how that world is going to balance out until I’ve made the piece.

Do you feel that women are not sufficiently recognised as composers and musicians in the world of avant-garde classical music?

Sometimes the classical thing has a mentality that pushes things down and tries to codify. In the Western European tradition, there’s a certain way you’re meant to write music, and certain values are more important than others. I think there are some really wonderful female composers, and I myself have never felt that I needed to follow the male methodology or prototype; I’ve just chosen to do something else. But it has been a bit of a fight, yes.

Can you explain what an “extended vocal technique” is, and why it has been so important to you to push the voice so far?

Now it’s called “extended vocal technique”, but when I started working, there was nobody else working that way. There was certainly no “extended vocal technique” category, so I always find that funny. But for me, working with the voice without any text was very natural. And I suddenly had a revelation about the voice: that it could be an instrument, that within it there could be gender and age and character and different ways of producing sound and landscape. Coming from a family of singers, I had a fairly virtuosic instrument with a wide range to start out with, so I could use that to find what I felt was the most essential musical expression. The voice is the original human instrument; it’s ancient, a direct connection to energy for which we don’t have words. So I explored lots of different things, like pulling my range higher and lower, different ways of using sound, or using the breath as part of composition, and that exploration continues to this day. The thing with the term “extended vocal technique” is that it gets codified, and I find the word “technique” almost materialistic, commodifying something that has a lot more mystery.

You mentioned doing away with words. Why did you make that decision?

It comes from my trust in non-verbal communication and my feeling that the voice is an eloquent language in itself. Actually, in some ways, it’s more eloquent than language, because it can transcend culture and it’s universal in a sense. So we’re dealing with direct experience and we can really delineate feelings and shades of feeling.

What is your approach to time?

I love the plasticity of time in that I can compress it and extend it. That’s something I’m working with all the time—how to get this sculptural sense of time going on through a piece. And it’s true that I’m interested in the spirals of [time], how things recur and how you work with that. I’m happy to be in a time-based art. That’s what’s interesting in relation to visual art; how [artists] are discovering how to work with time.

Meredith Monk performs at Cecil Sharpe House, next to Regent’s Park, tonight at 7.30pm. For more details, visit www.friezefoundation.org/music

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