Composer Meredith Monk creatively combines the use of vocal sounds with body movements that become the basis for her non-verbal artistic expressions of the emotional center of human interactions. She accomplishes this feat by working with five dancers who can sing, sometimes in choral style and at other times manage an independent line, while simultaneously performing synchronized body or separate motions. These are not easy tasks!

Monk, now into her sixth decade of professional activities and embracing age 77, remains a nimble dancer and innovative composer as she listens to her creative mind for ideas. She continues to explore the heart of the human experience through her non-verbal compositional settings. These express her observations about human nature by stripping away the words from musical expression, and leaving the expressiveness of body motion, combined with only the sounds of the voice, rather than any words. What remains is mostly the kernel of an individual or a group of persons.

In more recent years, Monk’s thinking has come to the view that the health of a human cell relies on complex and interdependent processes. Likewise, she notes that in the earth’s ecological balances, various situations also reveal reciprocal procedures. Further, she observes that human energies in relationships, namely, expansion, openness, and generosity create interdependence. The title of the work for this concert, Cellular Songs is an outgrowth of her positive attitude toward the interdependence of human cells, earth systems, and human relationships.*

As the audience arrived at Memorial Hall, they were greeted with a video projected onto a large screen on the stage that showed five sets of hands pointing to the center of a circle and evenly distributed around its circumference. The fingers and thumbs wiggled this way and that in unison, as if creating their own dance on a Carolina Blue background.

The program was presented in four scenes without interruption. The first scene opened with five women dressed in white costumes, as they were for all the scenes. Monk, as one of the movement artists/vocalists led the other artists: singers Allison Easter, Ellen Fisher, and Katie Geissinger, along with Allison Sniffin, who sang as well as played violin and keyboard. Three of the women placed themselves in a semi-circle, and their voices emitted sad tones. The other two women standing back and to the right alternated between sharp sounds and mellow ones in the lower part of their range. The drama moved into rhythms, then faster rhythms emerged. Two engaged in a fight, one moaned, the other exclaimed, “oh-h-h” with the voice quickly rising higher before sliding down in pitch. Sniffin first played the violin, then sat down at the piano. An equilibrium was achieved emotionally, and the audience clapped, as it also did for the other three scenes.

The second scene portrayed kindness rather than competition. In its opening, we heard clicking sounds from the mouths of the performers perhaps signaling that something had changed emotionally. Soon, the couple who had fought earlier hugged. All the performers then swooped gracefully around the stage and communicated a beautiful peacefulness by swinging their bodies and arms as in a swoon. They circled on their knees and with a stomp broke into what seemed to be a unison song pleading for peace.

The third scene began with a lullaby played by the pianist, followed by others bending pitches as if searching for something. The pianist moved into a pattern of harmonious chords that were played in continuous repetition. The others continued their searches. A second person went to the treble side of the piano and added a new dimension of chords from her unique and valid spot. A third person broke away from the center stage group, and dashed to the bass side of the keyboard with her own signature theme. A fourth person left the center stage and found her special place playing the piano. In the combination of notes and rhythms of these four persons at the piano, there was harmony and uniqueness that meshed with the other players. The scene appeared to portray the discovery of their inner harmony and balanced place in the universe. Meanwhile, the fifth person used the stool to celebrate with stretches and moves in and around the stool, as if that were a world in balance!

The fourth scene opened with the five performers sitting on stools. Each used her voice to bend pitches with increasing intensity. They changed positions and continued the pitch bending. Though the feelings under pressure softened, the unison tones sharply contrasted with pointed half-step dissonances. They held hands. A disagreement arose and one of them yelled. They whispered, and locked down into a dissonance, but were searching, and muttering under their breath. They seemed to feel sad. They raised up their right arms slowly up and down. They sang in half steps. All five hugged each other. Then the stage lights gradually faded into darkness.

The audience showed great appreciation for Monk’s well thought-through conceptions and for her group’s finely executed performance of pitches with near-flawless accuracy and clarity of feelings combined with economic precision of body motion. It was the type of program that likely engenders different experiences for each person in the audience. To have experienced Monk’s departure from centuries-old Western standards of vocal music embodying texts, her settings of textless vocal music combined with body motion is truly revolutionary. A practicing Tibetan Buddhist, Monk draws from her spiritual practices bringing the concepts into her artistic practice, often taking up spiritual themes – infinity and constant flow, mercy, direct or awakened experiences, tolerating the unknown. Meredith Monk gives us much to think about.

*I extend my appreciation to Justin Tornow, “Cell Theory: The Infinite Compassion of Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs,INDYweek, March 4, 2020, pp. 28-29, for the background provided in his live interview with Meredith Monk that added to my understanding of her recent concert.