Meredith Monk: MEMORY GAME

Meredith Monk: MEMORY GAME

This piece was originally published in Classical Post.

It is an eerie and shocking moment in time to revisit Meredith Monk’s apocalyptic The Games: a science fiction opera (1983). Excerpts of the opera are included on MEMORY GAME, a new album set to release on March 27, 2020, featuring arrangements of Meredith Monk’s music performed by the Bang on a Can (BOAC) All-Stars and Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble. However, excerpts of The Games do not stand alone; they are followed by three pieces alluding to dance, and Double Fiesta. On a phone call with Meredith Monk to discuss MEMORY GAME, she says “Joy exists, humor exists, dark and light exist, and it’s all in there.”

After Monk's first appearance on the BOAC marathon in 1989, Meredith Monk first worked with BOAC in the late 1990s and went on tour with them in the early 2000s. The first person in BOAC to arrange Monk’s music was Julia Wolfe, who arranged Memory Song (composed for The Games). David Lang then arranged Monk’s Totentanz (composed for impermanence, 2006) and Double Fiesta (composed for Acts from Under and Above, 1986). These three arrangements were the starting point for the creation of the album MEMORY GAME.

Monk chose The Games as the material for BOAC to arrange because she felt that it would be stimulating and interesting for both her vocal ensemble and BOAC to work on. She says that everyone “kept the integrity of the original material” when arranging her music. She shares, “Like in all good collaborations, we ended up with a middle ground between our two sensibilities. I worked very hard to honor the integrity of both sensibilities and yet make a third entity.”

The complexity of the instrumental music that you hear in MEMORY GAME is a shift for Monk. She shares, “for so many years I wanted the instrumental work to be simple and transparent and the voices to have the most complex material.” This changed for Monk after Michael Tilson Thomas eventually convinced her to write a new work for the New World Symphony: Possible Sky (2003), for two voices and orchestra. Upon writing Possible Sky she began thinking about the vocality of instruments and this altered how she wrote for them.

Monk’s love of instruments and their vocality emanated when she explained how she sees the string family. She says, “Viola is one of my bar-none favorite instruments. I think of the violins as the angels of the sky-realm, the viola as the human-realm, the cello as the earth-realm, and the bass as the under the earth-realm.”

MEMORY GAME is the collaborative joining of two entities to create a third independent force in more ways than one. It is the synthesis of BOAC and Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Monk’s instrumental and vocal writing, and crucially it is the convergence of dark and light in Monk’s work.

Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble. Photo credit: John Edward Mason

Excerpts from the opera The Games are included on the first half of the album MEMORY GAME. The Games is set on an imaginary planet after the apocalypse where ritual games, inspired in part by the Olympic Games, are still annually celebrated by the survivors in a desperate attempt to retain Earth’s traditions.

The following is text written by Ping Chong from the piece Migration, which is on MEMORY GAME:

“They were not unlike us in appearance though their lifespan was 80 years.

The adults among them weighed from approximately 100 to 200 pounds.

Some of them had offspring already at the age of 13, but the average age of a mother was 25.

Their languages numbered in the thousands, many of which we have succeeded in transcribing.

Some of them bear similarities to our own language. We have now put them into common usage.”

In this first half of the album, language is used as a barometer of humanity. The text in Migration is coolly dictated by a male voice (guest artist Michael Cerveris) while a woman softly wails indistinguishably, giving the listener insight into what has happened emotionally. Language is also linked to memory; Memory Song is about forgetting and things forgotten.

The following text is from Memory Song:

“Trees, trees, trees. Trees, birds. Trees, birds, coffee, coffee. Do you remember?”

What is particularly haunting about Memory Song is the way in which the words are sung. They are presented in the same way that a child learns to speak. The simple words are repeated tentatively in an innocent voice, intermixed with nonsense, and they then fragment into the most primal vocalization: birdsong.

From this collapse of human language emerges the archetype of the Gamemaster in Downfall, who was introduced in The Gamemaster’s Song at the beginning of the album. If Steven King’s character Pennywise and a ringmaster merged into one being, they would sound like the Gamemaster. There are parallels between the archetype of the Gamemaster in The Games and the Dictator in her interdisciplinary opera Quarry (1976). Under the Gamemaster, language is reduced to vowels and gasps from his goons while the listener is simultaneously cruelly shown what language once was with the counting off in multiple languages. Monk shared that the Gamemaster also uses nonverbal communication because he is the leader of people who came from all over the world.

In the program notes and during our conversation, Monk indicated that MEMORY GAME as a work is one dramatic arc. However, there is a tipping point in the album. After Downfall comes three dances: Waltz in 5s, Tokyo Cha Cha, and Totentanz (Dance of the Dead). When asked about the dances in MEMORY GAME, Monk was taken aback as she had not noticed this theme in the album. Monk’s interdisciplinary approach to making art is so ingrained that dance is naturally omnipresent. She said, “The more I try to get away from dance the more it just grabs me.”

Downfall is the low point of the album, but its sequence is essential when considering MEMORY GAME as a whole - it’s in the center, not at the end. Following Downfall is Waltz in 5s. This placement is a rebirth within the album, offering a glimpse of hope and healing.

Monk says the following in her program notes for MEMORY GAME: “I chose to include Waltz in 5s, a passage from The Politics of Quiet, for its plaintive, delicate, bittersweet quality as a kind of antidote to the last selection from The Games. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I made a number of apocalyptic pieces that were a reflection of the fragmentation, violence and speed of the time. Soon after that, I realized that instead of stating the problem, it would be more useful and inspiring to return to the notion of offering an alternative. I wanted to create a musical world in which members of the audience could have a pure, direct and immersive experience. As part of this series of works, in 1996 I composed The Politics of Quiet, a non-verbal oratorio contemplating community, sacred space and the end of the 2nd millennium.”

MEMORY GAME is a game of memory for Monk looking back at her work and as she said, it is “a memory of the future”. The album is a cycle, encompassing the full range of the human experience and the cycles of life.

Monk says, “Sensitivity, generosity, radiance, and vulnerability are so important in life. Everything in our culture is trying to close us off from being vulnerable and there’s no way of not being vulnerable as a performer.” These values carry into the album because as you will hear, following Totentanz (Dance of the Dead) is the final track Double Fiesta, ready to begin again.

Meredith Monk
Meredith Monk (b.1942, New York City) is a composer, singer, director/choreographer and creator of new opera, music-theater works, films and installations. Recognized as one of the most unique and influential artists of our time, she is a pioneer in what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.” Recently Monk received three of the highest honors bestowed to a living artist in the United States—induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2019), the 2017 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, and a 2015 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. Monk’s numerous honors and awards include the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Award, Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, two Guggenheim Fellowships, three “Obies” (including an award for Sustained Achievement), and two “Bessie” awards for Sustained Creative Achievement.

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