Meredith Monk's latest work, "Cellular Songs," begins with a breath, amplified and layered. Breath powers the human voice, which she reminds us is the original primal instrument, filled with emotional power.
"I think the voice delineates another whole language of feeling and energy, and that's the mystery and the beauty of the human voice," said Monk, 75, as she was preparing for her series of performances Thursday through Saturday at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
"Cellular Songs" was inspired by a book about cancer, but it's about the bright possibilities of cooperation.
"I think the voice can find and delineate between these feelings, you know, between anger and fear, between fear and happiness," she said. "I mean all these shades of feelings."
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Monk's been in the forefront of American art for a half-century, creating dance, composing music, directing films and writing operas since the 1960s.
Given all that, "Cellular Songs" seems simple on its face. It opens with a small group of singers who barely move, just stepping backward and forward. Monk said she wants the audience to focus on the music, and she wanted to leave enough space in the music that listeners can insert themselves into the work.
"We come from such a visual culture and usually when you have images and music, the music becomes a kind of accompaniment to the images," she said. "And I wanted you to be able to listen very carefully to the intricacy of these musical forms, which might sound simple, but they are really complicated."
While the title "Cellular Songs" might make some think of phones, Monk said she was inspired by the book "The Emperor of All Maladies," which the author describes as a biography of cancer.
"So I was reading Siddhartha Mukherjee's book and I started getting very fascinated with cells, the way he described cells, and how they functioned," she said. "And I started thinking that there was some relationship to what I was working on musically."
Monk saw how the interaction of simple cells building something much more complex mirrored her building of musical pieces. She also saw how both can be a metaphor for building a society. A lot of her work over the years has focused on what she describes as apocalyptic times in society: the Civil War and World War II.
"And then at a certain point, and that was really about 15 years ago, maybe a little bit more, I started thinking that maybe showing the problem was not helpful, but actually offering an alternative was more helpful," she said.
In "Cellular Songs," an all-female ensemble sings and moves around a simple set. Monk said the McGuire Theater at the Walker is perfect for it, as the angle of the seats allows audience members to look down. She loves performing at the Walker.
"The people in Minneapolis are one of the best audiences in the United States," she said. "And there was a certain point in my work that I think three-quarters of the people in my vocal ensemble came from Minneapolis. The 'Minneapolitan geniuses,' I would call them."
At an age when many would think of retiring, Meredith Monk says she has no plans to stop making new work.
"Discovery is what keeps me going," she said. "I just am always very curious. And I love working. I hope that I'll be able to work until I leave the planet."
And she hopes "Cellular Songs" will leave a feeling of hope.