More than 40 years into her career, composer and performance artist Meredith Monk describes her intricate vocal arrangements and particular style of dance as primordial, raw, visceral, and tribal. Since the 1960s, the ever-braided artist has forged a unique niche for herself, writing and performing mostly a cappella works that break the conventions of classical compositions.
Monk sings, but she doesn't use words. She communicates stories and ideas with a tapestry of monosyllabic utterances and harmonies. When she wants to make a strong point in her music, she finds that a rapid-fire "Ta-ta-ta-taaaahh" works better than an insolent "fuck you." Thus her body of work, which can be seen as a postmodern clash of dance theater and conceptual operetta, takes on a universality that doesn't rely on words or images alone.
Last year Monk performed Mercy, a soul-stirring collaboration with artist Ann Hamilton at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. On Friday she returns to perform Possible Sky, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony. The piece, Monk's first composition for a full orchestra, is the product of more than two years of workshops with Thomas and New World musicians. The result is a departure for Monk, as well as for the orchestra.
Classical music, rooted in the Eurocentric tradition of monarchy and elitist ideals, carries a symmetrical geometry that translates to what Monk calls a hierarchical and patriarchal pecking order of sorts. The fact that an orchestra's musicians are organized with conductors, concert masters, and first- and second-string musicians suggests a refinement and configuration to her that she says diminishes the humanity of the music.
Conversely, Monk's work is steeped in an egalitarian form of organized chaos that explores every possibility of sound. When Thomas approached her almost four years ago to compose a full piece for the New World Symphony, she faced a dilemma. "The question became, how do I get those raw qualities into this refined orchestra?" she says. "How do we become aware of the humanity of the orchestra?"
In a series of workshop sessions, she began experimenting with the musicians and encouraging them to play in ways to which they were unaccustomed. Monk hit them with an instrumental version of her trademark extended vocal techniques, getting the ensemble to twist and shape new sounds according to the sketches she sang.
Possible Sky was also influenced by the shift in global events -- namely the September 11 terrorist attacks, Middle East turmoil, and the death of Monk's life partner Mieke van Hoek, to whom the new work is dedicated. "There were times when I would wonder if I could do the piece at all, when I thought it wasn't getting to the bone of existence," she says. "But I wanted to go on with it. It seemed right. It seemed to be fulfilling."