Meredith Monk: Volcano Songs

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The Random House Dictionary defines volcano as “a vent in the earth’s crust through which lava, steam, ashes, etc., are expelled, either continuously or at irregular intervals.” In spite of human fears, the volcano is vital to the earth’s formation, sculpting the very landscapes we inhabit. For Meredith Monk, it would seem more importantly a source of fertility, and it is from this fertility that she opens herself to the generative spirit that infuses the world as a living organism. In this sense, she vocalizes a point of continuity between herself and listener, between the illusions of recorded sound and the illusions of physical bodies.

Like their referent, Monk’s Volcano Songs (1993-94) reveal the earth’s hidden forces, at once violent and graceful, as they are embodied in the human form. Fissures in the great cosmic wheel release their breath in chant, foregoing the detriment of words in search of untinctured expression. Therein lies the great irony of this music, and of the earthly condition that engenders its existence: namely, that in order to express detachment one must hold steadfastly to the ephemeral utterance as a point of departure. Hence the uncanny splitting of the self we find between Monk and Katie Geissinger in the duet portions of the Volcano cycle (for indeed, were I unaware of the album’s personnel, I might have thought that Monk was overdubbing herself). Undulating breaths open into distant cries, like shepherdesses reaching deep into their lungs to lure their spiritual flocks out into the open. For all their microtonal friction, grunting expulsions, and sustained laments, these songs cut through the darkness like lightning bolts in slow motion. Of note are the guttural “Boat Man” and the playful “Skip Song.” In these, Monk’s mimicry is at its most humble, fleshing out evocative characters and histories with the most minimal of palettes. And how can one resist the siren-like ascents and delicately applied throat singing techniques of “Old Lava,” with its appropriately languid crawl, dripping like molten rock?

Although New York Requiem (1993), for piano and voice, profoundly intersects with the AIDS epidemic and is, says Monk, “really about all kinds of loss,” for me it is also about gain: of awareness, of situatedness in one’s sociopolitical surroundings, and perhaps even of silence. By the latter, I mean to imply that, through the art of wordless singing (for what requiem is without a text?), Monk has caressed the contours of mourning with a uniquely feathery touch so as not to disturb the memories being circumscribed. It is a slogging, diaphragmed journey in which narration must be forged rather than found. A truly heartfelt composition matched by an equally committed performance.

St. Petersburg Waltz (1993) is a solo piano piece that peers back into Monk’s genealogical roots. Falling with the solemnity of snow on wide streets and narrow alleys, its columnar gestures and understated motives were “inspired by the idea of a place rather than the place itself.” Thus is the complex web of genetics and circumstance delineated only vaguely, a ragged film reel on its last revolution, its swan song fading like a credit roll in the throes of this digital age. We find in its preservation an archival quality that speaks of a history beyond the confines of personal reflection.

Three Heavens and Hells (1992) sets a poem of the same name by an 11-year-old Tennessee Reed. In a humble quartet of voices, Monk and her sistren unravel a rather brief splash of words into a vaster ocean of implications. They open with an invocation:

There are three heavens and hells

Every breath seems to revel in the words, underscoring the unity of the flesh that binds them in worldly care. Over a precise macramé of chants and variations, the voices continue:

People, heaven, and hell
Animal, heaven, and hell
Things, heaven, and hell

Reed tellingly uses the word “animal” in the singular, thereby planting the text into a more unified field of impression and evocation. A deeper exploration of each word ensues, where “People” are mournful, pitying, “Animal” abounds with calls of the wild, and “Things” become externally convoluted yet internally ordered. Latched as we are onto the lure of meaning, a single question hangs over us:

What do the three heavens and hells look like?

This unreachable dilemma constricts our understanding of the piece’s thematic core, and renders any possible answer a barrier to enlightened solutions. In the end, we are left with:

Heaven, heaven, heaven
Hell, hell, hell

And as we flounder in the wake of our own attentions throughout this 21-minute piece, we come to realize that the act of listening doesn’t always mean being a receiver, that it can just as easily suspend the mask of the questioner from our attentive ears. On a side note, the strong rhythmic breathing throughout this piece plays a role not unlike beatboxing in modern hip-hop, and puts me in mind of Björk’s Medulla-era vocal menageries—which makes me curious as to the contemporary shadows that might be hovering at the edges of either artist’s ever-evolving craft.

The album ends intimately with two of Monk’s Click Songs (1988). These self-styled “duets for solo voice” further expand upon the refracted aesthetics through which the album’s opening seeps, thereby calling our attention to the finality of subjecthood and the selfish desires that are its attendants.

Compared to Monk’s six previous ECM New Series efforts, Volcano Songs is perhaps the most intimately recorded. Microphones seem fully embedded in these voices, subtly processed for reverberant effect. Ultimately, I feel that one gets out of this music only what one is willing to lay at its feet. It is both the beauty and the tragedy of the human voice: in pulling at the threads of our emotions, we must undo one thing to communicate another, so that by the end we have forgotten where we started, inhaling an idea that may very well outlive us. And just as a volcano spews forth its scalding breath into the atmosphere, so too must we eventually exhale, licking the fragile layer that separates our survival ever so delicately from the blank space beyond. The magic of Monk’s music is that it offers a glimpse of that other side, in terms that we can relate to.

Meredith Monk: voice
Katie Geissinger: voice
Allison Easter: voice
Dina Emerson: voice
Harry Huff: piano
Nurit Tilles: piano

1. Volcano Songs: Duets: Walking Song
2. Volcano Songs: Duets: Lost Wind
3. Volcano Songs: Duets: Hips Dance
4. Volcano Songs: Duets: Cry #1
5. New York Requiem
6. Volcano Songs: Solos: Offering
7. Volcano Songs: Solos: Boat Man
8. Volcano Songs: Solos: Skip Song
9. Volcano Songs: Solos: Old Lava
10. Volcano Songs: Solos: Cry #2
11. St Petersburg Waltz
12. Three Heavens and Hells
13. Light Songs: Click Song #1
14. Light Songs: Click Song #2

wydano: 1996
nagrano: Recorded July 1995, Clinton Studios, NYC
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Meredith Monk
Meredith Monk
Volcano Songs
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