By Jordan Davis
When Meredith Monk sings, she doesn’t just sing. She transfixes audiences using a spellbinding potion of vocal techniques that defy categorization. With a disarming mix of relaxed grace and focused, virtuosic delivery, she commands equal and opposite universes at the same time: humorous and sacred, innocent and wise, primal and sophisticated, female and male, old and young.
In her solo performance on Friday night 2/21 at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the septuagenarian held court with her unique and masterful brand of original compositions and vocal pyrotechnics.
Standing alone on the stage of the acoustical jewel box that is Mixon Hall, Ms. Monk created delicate, otherworldly sonic poetry to dazzle the ears. With the vocal athletics of someone half her age, she demonstrated a command of intricate, microtonal melodies, inventive timbres and exotic glottal rhythms with confounding accuracy and ease. She has the ability to reach into places that most singers don’t even know exist, and paint emotional colors that can mesmerize.
In a nearly wordless evening, save for her brief introductions, she offered a retrospective selection of excerpts from her operas, chorales, theater works and site-specific compositions. In “Madeline’s Vision” from Book of Days, her rapid-fire flights of melisma and guttural gibberish effectively evoked a Miazaki-esque confession between a troubled girl and a sorceress.
In her “Duets for Solo Voice” she made it sound as though two people – or sometimes a person and a machine – were singing at the same time. Once, using nothing but a simple Jews harp, she conjured up a fantastical Buchla synthesizer skyscape. Sometimes she would breathe – just breathe – and put the audience on the edge of their seats with the music of pure wind.
For the second half of the program, she accompanied herself on piano and shruti. Her rendition of “last song” from her 2004 ensemble piece impermanence was especially gripping, with its monotonal litany casting mortality against cliché: “last dance, last chance, last stop, last bite, last look…” At one point she let loose a chaotic, soaring aria in microtonal scale, set high above a flat plain of sturdy piano chords, and the thrill was palpable.
Following some numbers the audience was so enrapt that applause became unnecessary. Clapping would have felt awkward; everyone was savoring the moment together. With her tightly braided pigtails, crisp crimson dress and stylized arm movements, the diminutive singer at times resembled a shamanic prayer doll. Her voice was ever-so-gently reinforced by house audio engineer Allen Bise, expertly enhancing the hall’s exquisite acoustics. The glass-wrapped stage of Mixon Hall revealed the snow-painted garden outside, where trees and distant lights danced in the wind, enhancing the sense of wonder the artist called forth.
The Institute of Music’s Masters Series is subtitled “The Return of the Composer/Virtuoso,” and Meredith Monk embodies both. Well-decorated with fellowships, honorary degrees and other distinguished awards, the ECM recording artist enjoys a worldwide reputation as a composer, performance artist, filmmaker, installation artist and choreographer. Her multi-faceted talents and boundary-free explorations have helped to define “avant-garde” ever since the early 1970’s.
But it is her signature trance-like vocal expression that is her calling card to collaborators and fellow-travelers such as Ping Chong, Ann Hamilton, David Behrman, Juan-Luc Godard, Michael Tilson Thomas, the Kronos Quartet and the Coen Brothers. 25 of her compositions are given the mashup on a new double CD called “Monk Mix,” featuring Don Byron, Bjork, Lukas Ligeti, Ryuichi Skakmoto and DJ Spooky. Another tribute album in the works will highlight a lesser-celebrated aspect of her career, her piano compositions.
Like a Jeff Beck of the voice, Ms. Monk has spent a lifetime exploring vocal techniques that go way beyond what we think the human voice can do. Let’s face it, this music isn’t for everybody. If you’re addicted to drum machines in 4/4 or “American Idol,” you may not find what you’re looking for here. Then again, one evening with this vocal dynamo might help you hear “The Voice” in a whole new way.