Meredith Monk ascends in song

Meredith Monk's newest work is "Songs of Ascension." The work is inspired by the Jewish songs of ascent, songs Jews were believed to have sung as they ascended Jerusalem or up to Mt. Zion.
Photo by Marion Gray

Meredith Monk first came up with the idea for her latest work when a Zen abbot spoke to her of the Songs of Ascents - songs which Jews were believed to have sung in Biblical times on pilgrimages to Jerusalem and up Mt. Zion.

"And so I started getting fascinated with well what would that sound like," Monk said.

Monk began thinking of all the other religious faiths with rituals around climbing and the uphill journey of the spiritual path. And she thought about inner spirals - the double staircase of our own DNA.

The petite 64 year old wears her long brown hair in braids. Her youthful demeanor belies her years of experience with both music and meditation.

Meredith Monk's vocal ensemble
Songs of Ascension combines a string quartet, a chorus, dancers, percussionists and video. As audiences discover the exhibit, they will be surrounded by sound as vocalists and violinists walk around them and video pans across their faces.
Photo by Marion Gray

Monk practices Buddhism, and since her start as a composer forty years ago, critics have commented her work has had a meditative feel.

"As a young artist, I feel like I was very intuitive about the contemplative nature of art, and now I feel like in the years that I have left I really want to, my aspiration is to actually not separate my spiritual practice and my art practice in that each piece can be a kind of contemplative experience for the process of making it as well as the experience for the audience," Monk said.

Songs of Ascension combines a string quartet, a chorus, dancers, percussionists and video. Monk says she's learning to think of the instruments as living, breathing voices contributing to her chorus.

Audiences at the Walker Art Center will be immersed in sound as vocalists and violinists walk around them and video pans across their faces.

Videographer Ann Hamilton is collaborating with Meredith Monk on Songs of Ascension. They've collaborated before on the piece Mercy which they performed at the Walker back in 2002.

Ann Hamilton's Tower
Part of the inspiration for Monk's "Songs of Ascension" is a tower built by videographer Ann Hamilton. Hamilton describes the tower as a architectural vocal cord.
Photo by Marion Gray

Monk's score for Songs of Ascension is in part inspired by a cement tower Hamilton built in California. She describes it as a sort of architectural vocal cord. Hamilton says for her the work is about creating a space that inspires awareness, allowing audiences to let go of their thoughts and just be.

"And I think it's that my interest in working with volume and of the volume of a space and how one moves through the space has a real kinship with the extraordinary volume of her music and obviously I'm not talking about how loud it is," Monk said.

Hamilton's video is a series of moving images: a running horse, a flying heron, a sailing ship, which float across the stage and walls of the theater. The objects are seen as though through a hand held pinhole, shaky and blurred around the edges. Hamilton says she likes to think of her video as the weather in which Meredith Monk's music and movement is performed.

The Walker Art Center's performing arts curator Philip Bither commissioned Songs of Ascension. He says Monk's performances tap into a common history and spiritualism that allows people to add their own interpretation:

"You almost feel like you've stepped into a dream. And I think it both asks audiences to go deeper inside, and I think delivers something more powerful than perhaps a straight story," Bither said.

Bither describes Monk as a legend amongst multidisciplinary artists. The recipient of a McArthur Genius Grant, she's at ease composing, singing, choreographing, dancing and directing. Bither says that versatility has sometimes been an obstacle to her getting the recognition she deserves.

"She is so accomplished in so many different areas of artistic creation, and she draws from them all, it's been hard to categorize I think in some ways that's made it harder for people to know who she is exactly," explained Bither.

Bither says this weekend's performances are more than the exhibition of a work in progress, but not quite finished enough to be called a premiere. He says the Walker Art Center is helping to give birth to a new work of art, and it may still have some growing - and climbing - to do before it's official premiere in Stanford this fall.

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