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Meredith Monk's composition nears completion for the symphony

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 26, 2010 - Three years ago Grand Center Inc. asked David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra if they might be interested in a new work for chamber orchestra and chorus by avant-garde composer Meredith Monk. Robertson, a stalwart of contemporary music, heartily agreed.

Grand Center got to work raising the necessary money for the commission, receiving funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and Meet the Composer. The Los Angeles Master Chorale signed on as a co-commissioner and will perform the new work in California after the March 13 world premiere in St. Louis’ Powell Symphony Hall.

Monk came of age artistically in 1960s’ New York, performing in Fluxus Happenings, as well as studying, performing and collaborating at Judson Church. Early on, audiences were ushered in and out of her live/work loft as part of multi-venue epics that contained site-specific components in the Guggenheim Museum or a parking lot in lower Manhattan. Large-scale events with 150-member casts alternated with intimate pieces for solo voice and wine glass.

This multidisciplinary juxtaposition of scale and place continues today, as her work is performed in theaters, museums and concert halls, as well as chapels, gymnasiums and alternative venues around the world. In March 2009, Monk returned to the spiraling galleries of the rotunda of New York’s Guggenheim Museum with a site-specific performance featuring 120 singers, musicians and dancers.

It is almost impossible to categorize this singer/composer, dancer/choreographer, actor/performer, director/playwright, visual artist/filmmaker. “I work in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema,” she says. Her interdisciplinary spectacles incorporate movement, three-octave vocalizing, film and luminous stage design.

Monk’s composing often begins with the voice. Her early thinking about the St. Louis commission imagined the instruments accompanying the voices, and at other times, the voices providing accompaniment to the orchestra. "I like to think that the bowing [of stringed instruments] is equivalent to breathing,” she wrote to me. Building upon bowing/breathing concepts was the starting point, structurally, for the proposed chorus and chamber ensemble creation.

Monk worked intensively this summer and fall. Last month she visited the singers and musicians of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In a two-hour score reading, conductor Robertson previewed sections of the new work. This allowed the artists to become familiar with Monk’s compositional style, as well as for the composer to hear the work performed live. Monk then spent time working with members of the chorus, listening to and teaching them how to produce her polyphonic syncopated overtones.

This kind of in-process score reading is rare in the orchestral world today, but so necessary in the development of new music. In hearing her music played and sung live, Monk realized there were sections she wanted to extend, and other instrumentation she might introduce. Robertson suggested slight tweaks. The composer now has the opportunity to go back and more fully realize her vision for the piece. Already in its raw state, the new work promises to be an abstract oratorio of glorious transcendence.

Monk returns next month for a workshop with the chorus and then, in March, rehearsing with the symphony and chorus for the work’s debut on March 13. The world premiere features 32 musicians and 40 singers, in addition to members of Monk’s singing ensemble.

Contextualizing Monk’s commission, Robertson will conduct another one of her works, Night, along with Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa ad CD annum. 
When The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs the new work in April at the Walt Disney Concert Hall; they pair Monk with Arvo Pärt.

Four years ago, Meredith Monk performed at the St. Louis Art Museum in an intimate evening of vocal music. Her upcoming visit with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus provides audiences an opportunity to experience another aspect of this remarkable artist’s oeuvre – large-scale, framed in relationship to Stravinsky and Bartok.

Throughout her resplendent career, Monk has explored and expanded vocal and rhythmic ranges. She has made 19 recordings. The Chorus of San Francisco Symphony, Musica Sacra, Pacific Mozart Ensemble, Double Edge, and Bang On A Can All-Stars have performed her music. New World Symphony, Kronos Quartet, Western Wind Vocal Ensemble and Young People’s Chorus of New York commissioned scores. Godard and the Coen brothers featured her music in film.

In recognition of her seminal aesthetic contributions, Monk received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation, United States Artists, and the MacArthur “Genius” Award, along with numerous honorary degrees. Her recording of Impermanence won a 2008 Grammy nomination for best ensemble performance.

In 2004, she celebrated four decades of art-making in a six-hour celebration at Carnegie Hall with her ensemble performing alongside or with such music luminaries as Bjork and John Zorn. Her most recent music theater work, “Songs for Ascension,” a collaboration with visual artist Ann Hamilton, was performed last fall to critical acclaim at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2009 Next Wave Festival.

John R. Killacky, who lives in San Francisco, produced and co-directed the 2008 Grand Center/KETC PBS concert special, Janis Ian: Live From Grand Center.

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