Meredith Monk

Composer, Choreographer, Performer
Meredith Monk

Photo by Jesse Frohman

Music up and hot, then under….

Jo Reed: That is performance artist Meredith Monk. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed

It's one thing to stake out innovative artistic terrain when you're twenty, and quite another to consistently push creative boundaries for over 45 years with work that continues to be fresh, authentic and innovative. Yet that describes the career of performance artist Meredith Monk. A pioneer in what is now called "extended vocal technique,"  Meredith Monk moves among the disciplines of voice, dance, theater, and film with fluidity and ease. She's a composer, singer, choreographer and director. She creates opera, theater, films and installations. Admired by critics and audiences alike, Meredith Monk never loses her power to enchant and to surprise. She once said, "I work in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where the theatre becomes cinema." I spoke with Meredith Monk in her small country home so you'll the hear the occasional car as well as the welcome sound of the heat coming on during that cold autumn day. I wanted to know what first drew her to multidisciplinary performance.

Meredith Monk: Well, I think my childhood was interdisciplinary because I came from a musical background. My mother was a singer on radio and her father was a concert bass baritone who had come from Russia around 1890, but he sang in New York at Brooklyn Academy and Carnegie Hall and he also had a music conservatory in Washington Heights. And his father had been a cantor from Russia so that was my music background and then my early training in music was also Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which has a movement component because I had a visual challenge so I wasn't physically that coordinated. So I think my mother had heard about Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which usually is for children to learn music through their bodies but it was really for me to learn my body through music <laughs> so very simple kinds of coordinations like skipping and hopping. And rhythmically I had a natural sense of rhythm and had a musical ear so it was a wonderful beginning. I always tell people that are starting their children in music training that in my opinion Dalcroze or something like that is a great way to start children. So that was already you could say two art forms, the movement and music, and then I really loved theater as a child so I was in plays and everything so I think that that was something that I just had these different interests. And then when I went to Sarah Lawrence I designed my own program in what was called combined performing arts so by my senior year I was allowed to do that my last year, and then--  So I was in the voice department, I was in- doing opera workshop, I was in theater department and dance department, and so I was making pieces of my own that were already starting to combine different elements.

Jo Reed: When you came to New York when you first started out in the 1960s what was New York City like then?

Meredith Monk: Well, it was a great time to come because I was very affirmed in some of my--what would I say?--my attempts to weave these different elements together and my glimpses at the possibility of what a unified form could be. There were many people that were trying to break through the boundaries of their individual art forms. There were a lot of visual artists that were doing dance pieces and poets that were writing music and musicians were making plays, and there was a lot of questioning about what are the boundaries of these different art forms. And then I think a lot of people after that period went back to their original art form but maybe with a new sense of richness because they had explored having no boundaries to what that form could be so it was very much against definition. There was an anything is possible kind of attitude, especially in this world which was a more downtown kind of world, and all the artists from the different disciplines were in contact with each other. There was really a kind of community of exploration and experimentation. I think it's very different now, but for me as I say I had glimpsed these things when I was in school, and so then what was going on in New York when I first came was very affirmative for my explorations.

Jo Reed: How did you begin to develop extended vocal technique?

Meredith Monk: Well, coming from a singer's background it's always hard to find your spot <laughs> so I had come been a folk singer during the time I was in school and earned money at children's birthday parties and helped myself get through school by doing singing- folk singing, and I had had piano from the time I was three years old so I had come from somewhat of a western classical tradition but much more of folk music. I always loved folk music. So then in- at Sarah Lawrence I was in the voice department and I was learning the classical tradition, leader and opera, and somehow I just knew that I was not going to be an interpreter. I just knew from the time I was maybe 13 or 14 that I wanted to create. That was all I knew. I didn't know in what form or anything but I knew I had that feeling that somehow I had to find my own way 'cause I remember a dance teacher one time telling my mother, "Well, she's not going to be a belly dancer 'cause her temperament is not right," I would also say my body was not right, <laughs> but it was more a temperament thing and I realized that yes, I was already starting to try to make things. And so when I first came to New York my pieces were more gesture oriented, a little bit of voice but not that extensive. After about a year or so of being in New York and I was performing a lot my own work and then a lot of people wanted me to perform in their pieces not dance pieces. It was much more the visual artists that were doing more theatrical kind of pieces and so I loved doing that. So then I was missing really singing, singing, not just a little bit of voice work here and there, so I started going back to the piano and just vocalizing, regular western European vocalizing. And then one day I had a kind of revelation that the voice could be an instrument, that it could be a nonverbal instrument, because of course I was very comfortable with nonverbal communication coming also from movement, that I could work with my voice the way that I had with my body and as a choreographer at school because of my physical limitations in a way it was to my advantage because I had to find my own vocabulary, very idiosyncratic vocabulary. So I knew how to work with my own physical instrument and so I applied some of those principles to working with my voice, and then I also at that day that I had this revelation which you…sometimes you have those eureka moments that change your life forever so I also realized that within the voice could be landscape, could be character, male and female, age, different textures, different colors, different ways of producing sound. That was one thing, and also I had the sense that it was a very ancient- very ancient, and at the same time I felt that I was coming back to my family but in my own way, coming back to what I was meant to do, own blood but in my own way.

That day changed my life because I had already done pieces that were these multimedia pieces so I really was in some ways--  I was young. I was 23 or 24 years old but I had done pretty complex pieces. I had already done 16 Millimeter Earrings, which was a big breakthrough piece for me, so I knew how to make a work and what that took and yet with the voice it was like that was the missing piece. That was the missing piece and that missing piece became the heart and the center of my work. I felt that I was meant to do it. I felt that I was born to do it.

Jo Reed: You tend to avoid actual words. You focus instead on syllables. What do you think that gives you as a performer?

Meredith Monk: In folk music I enjoyed the words. I enjoyed telling stories but there was just something that I knew that the words would actually get in the way of this very primal kind of power that the voice had, and I felt that right away from- as I started working. And the first thing I explored vocally was my range, how far high and how far low I could pull it, and I had because of my background a much more virtuosic vocal instrument. I did not have a physically virtuosic instrument. I had a lot of challenges, physical challenges but I had to use my wits to find my own style, but by taking the same approach to my voice I had an instrument that had many, many possibilities, and so that was just a fantastic thing. And so the first thing I did was stretch my range high and low and then I started working with in a sense you could say kind of kinetic ways of thinking about the voice like what would a spiral of the voice be or what would a falling voice, glissando, or what would a jumping voice be. In a way it was a visceral kind of physical way of dealing with voice.

Jo Reed: Do you remember your first performance in New York where you brought it all together?

Meredith Monk: Well, 16 Millimeter Earrings I had already brought some- a very simple vocal piece called Notaw and I had sung Greensleeves so I was really trying to pull in my music and my folk music into this piece. And that was the first time that I had really done extensive singing and made a whole score for a music piece, but when a few months later when I really had this revelation that's when I really started exploring what the possibilities of the human voice could be and very deeply. And the first piece that I really worked on where I was really working with this vocal style was called "Duet for Voice and Echoplex."And my cousin, Daniel Zellman, was a sound engineer and he had done some of my sound work and he had something that was an early echo chamber device that was called an Echoplex; it was this little box. And we did a duet where I was singing and really extreme, and he would record it and then distort it by this Echoplex and then later on he'd- later on in the piece--the whole piece was called Blueprint--he played that back and then I sang against that. So that was the first real kind of extended kind of vocal piece that I did, and that would have been 1967.

Jo Reed: In 1969 the Guggenheim Museum and you presented Juice.

Meredith Monk: Juice. <laughs>  Yes.

Jo Reed: How did you get the Guggenheim Museum to agree to allow you to do this performance?

Meredith Monk: I was on my hands and knees and I did everything in my power of--I think I was 25 or 26 years old at that time--to make this happen, and there were all kinds of things like we are- don't have insurance. And I said, "Oh, well, I'll wear rubber soles" and I might be- I was….If you see some of my letters, it's- sometimes I just have to go back to letters to have that courage again. Now where I doubt myself I'm "What about that young woman who got to go to the Guggenheim Museum. Go back to her. What happened to her?" 

Jo Reed: Ok, tell me about the inspiration for Juice. How did it come together?

Meredith Monk: Well, I had already started getting very interested in working on what is now called site specific performance so in 1967 in this Blueprint piece I had done it upstate in Woodstock, New York, and part of it was outdoors and I had the audience down at the bottom of this building and all the events took place through the window. So I was really exploring other spaces then a theatrical space because I just was getting bored with that kind of frontal kind of presentation. So, I was working on big choral music pieces and very simple movements and the architecture really determined what the structure was. So the Guggenheim was kind of a culmination of that year of exploring these different spaces. And in all those site-specific pieces I was thinking a lot about the relationship between the audience and performers and kind of reversing. I had the audience was moving and the performers were still. It kind of reversed the relationship of audience and performer. So I started thinking about different relationships, also distance, how close you were to performers, how far away, almost like a camera lens going in and out, and then another thing I was very curious about is how to subvert--  I think my impulse and still is is how do you subvert something. <laughs> I feel like I still have that spirit- some of that spirit so--

Jo Reed: That's interesting 'cause I just wrote "disruption," which is--

Meredith Monk: Yeah, or subversion I would say would be a little less violent but- although disruption is fine. Probably at that time it was more disruption. Now it's more subversion, but well, it's more this idea of subversion of habitual behavior and from a spiritual point of view now, being a little bit more aware of it. When we all subvert our own habitual behavior we're much more open to the moment and we're much more open to all the moments in our lives so to me that's a strategy in art is how do you subvert these things we just take for granted or our habits that are- we're basically asleep; we're not aware of these habits. And so in art I think art can open you up to waking up to what these things are that close you off from the moment so I think maybe I just intuitively knew that. Now I'm a little bit more aware of it. So another thing I was really trying to subvert was the notions of time: how would you have a more experiential idea of a live situation? And time became something that was very interesting. One thing I explored a lot was performing at different times of the day, but this other idea that I did for Juice was what would happen if you had a piece that actually took place in three different times and your memory of the piece was part of your present of experiencing it. We did two performances at the Guggenheim Museum and that was a piece that had about 85 people in it and it was a big pageant and it also had three parts to it- within it, which I'll go into later, but it was really more spectacle and kind of supernatural. It was so airy and elegant and and all the beautiful echo in that room and using that architecture as a structure of the piece.

Jo Reed: I just want to describe the Guggenheim Museum for people that might not know it. It's cylindrical in shape. From the street the building looks like a multi-layered cake, that's slightly wider on the top than on the bottom. Then, on the inside, the viewing gallery forms this spiral from the main level up to the top of the building. I guess, you think of a corkscrew. Essentially, it's this continuous ramp that spirals around an open court up to a domed skylight. So a part of all the floors can be visible at any point. And so the paintings are displayed along the walls of the spiral.

Meredith Monk: Yes, and I'lI just want to tell you the overall structure of Juice and then I'll go back to the Guggenheim. It was called Juice: A Theater Cantata in Three Installments. So you got a ticket that allowed you to come to all three installments. So the first installment was the Guggenheim. Then a month later, the second installment was at the Minor Latham Playhouse, which is part of Barnard University, and I was very much working with making conscious what this proscenium arch kind of situation is, which is in some ways kind of like a giant puppet show, but just what is this frame that again we take for granted when we go to see something that has that frontal orientation. So I was really emphasizing that after having done a 360-degree piece at the Guggenheim where it was so sculptural. So here I was working more pictorially, and then there were only nine people in the cast and so we went from eighty-five to nine but the four people main characters in this 85-performer pageant of Juice were these four people that were painted red from head to toe and with red garments, red hair, red everything, bright red. And they became the main characters in the second part of the piece and then there were a few other people that were in that. So it was like the zoom lens went in on those four characters. And then two weeks after that was a show in a gallery. It was my own loft but it was really designed to be like a kind of gallery installation. That was the third installment and that had all the 85 costumes from the Guggenheim, all the 85 Jew's harps from the Guggenheim, the 85 red combat boots from the Guggenheim, all the objects from the second part, and then it had on one end a little room like a living room that the audience could sit in. In the second part in the Minor Latham Playhouse, there was a little room in the back of the stage that kept on being revealed more and more where the musician was sitting in this little room so that little room became what you sat in in the third part. So you could sit in that living room and you could watch a videotape and it was black and white. It was very early video of the four people that were painted red but now you just saw their faces in this- on the screen shot very close as if the TV monitor was like a head or something like that and you just saw their faces. And they were doing little interviews about their lives so you pulled in closer to those people. And then all the objects and costumes from the first two installments were all over the gallery or the loft and you could go very close to them and touch them and smell them but there were no performers in that installment. So it was this idea of going closer and closer on one hand and then ironically there were no performers. So that was kind of the idea that you took the memory of what you had experienced and then somehow that got changed or modified by the next installment so that was the idea of the piece. <laughs>

Jo Reed: That was an extraordinary--

Meredith Monk: That was one idea of the piece.

Jo Reed: What an undertaking--

Meredith Monk: Yeah.

Jo Reed: --that was.

Meredith Monk: Oh. Well, I just did something two years ago at the Guggenheim again in 2009 and I was wondering whether I still had it in me to do that. <laughs> I was like "I don't know" but then it ended up being so incredible. I called it Ascension Variations. And that was from my newer piece that was called Songs of Ascension.

Music up and hot…

But it had little threads of Juice going through it because we were talking with the curator, Alexandra Munroe, about how wonderful it would be to have a few historical little strands going through the piece and the structure was exactly the same as Juice but what I mean by that is that the first part of the Guggenheim piece, both Juice and Ascension Variations, I had the audience sitting on the floor looking up. We had cushions on the floor and all the events when up- went on in the spiral of the Guggenheim, and what was really beautiful about it is that these events would just be coming from these layers or levels of the gallery or the spiral and you never knew when- where or when the next thing would be coming from. That was so beautiful and that was the same thing with Juice. It was so--You'd hear sometimes a sound before you'd see an image because you only saw an image when the performers were right up by the balcony. For me it was so great to work with that thing of disappearance and appearance. And then I always have to laugh 'cause I said, "Well, you know, didn't see this 'cause you were down on the floor but there was another piece going on up on those spirals. Once you were not at the balcony you didn't see us but we were running to get to our next entrance so that we're- and the guard- we were jumping over the guards and there was a whole different piece going on up there to be able to make that thing happen where you didn't know where the next thing was coming from.

Jo Reed: A little bit like Noises Off.

Meredith Monk: Oh, it was so great, and then the second part, again both of Juice and Ascension Variations, I had the audience walking up the ramp or walking down the ramp so you could take the elevator up to the top or you could walk from the bottom up, and then in the little alcoves there were I think about 20 events going on. It was spread out all over the spiral. You'd come very close to the performers and you could choose to stay with them for a while or walk to the next gallery. But the thing that was different with Ascension Variations and Juice which I was very proud of was that in Juice there were some vocal components but it was more in a sense- there were- it was more like movement components, but this time I took one of the pieces from Songs of Ascension and I orchestrated it in such a way that the string quartet and all the singers were really spread out all over the whole building. And we could take the phrases from that piece and we could perform them in any order that we wanted to, and so it became another composition. It was so beautiful and that was a half an hour period that the audience could walk up and down, and so it became this beautiful extended variation of the piece. And what happened was that the whole building sounded like a sound tunnel, or like a giant vocal cord. It was kind of like the whole building became like a giant vocal cord and the composition just, it was just so beautiful and very surprising for me 'cause I've never- I don't think my structural thing in music has ever been as- quite as open-ended as that. It was all material that I had made but it was- how it was put together was different in both the performances 'cause each performer could choose a kind of repertoire of these phrases and then put them together in any order that they wanted to,  

"Porch" - Music warm

and the strings of the string quartet were separated so there was a violin maybe down near the bottom and the cello was two levels up and then the other violin was way up at the top. It was fantastic, and there had been a chorus also in Ascension Variations that I got from the Montclair State University, and there were 90 singers in this chorus. And that was the same thing that happened in Juice. In "Juice," there were 85 people doing this little Jew's harp thing. In a sense of variations, it was a beautiful choral piece that not only were we singing and moving, but all the 90 people from that chorus were--you'd be up in the top of a balcony. And, all of a sudden, this incredible bass would be right next to you singing. So, you know, it was, like, the chorus was integrated with the audience. It was so beautiful.

Porch --- Music hot.

I just have to say that I was lying--at the very end, we lie on the floor. And we were looking up at the audience. And I just thought, "You know, maybe this is it. I could just stop after--I don't know if it could be better than this."  I mean, we only had two performances. It was such a shame. But, you know, I thought, "This is as good as it gets. It was pretty great.

Jo Reed: Is there a moment between finishing a new piece and starting a new one that feels--does it feel like, oh, it's exciting. The whole world is in front of you?  Or can it feel daunting?  Or is it both?

Meredith Monk: I think it, you know, depends. You know, sometimes, it's daunting. You know, like, now what?  You know, it has that quality. Sometimes, it just has an incredible feeling. I mean, we're lucky enough that we were going to perform Songs of Ascension the real Songs of Ascension that I had also created for Ann Hamilton's Tower. You know, before I did Ascension Variations. I finished that in the fall of 2008. We were very much looking forward to doing Songs of Ascension in, you know, what I call it's classical form at BAM. You know, which we did at the Harvey Theatre. And that was beautiful on another level. It was so magical. I always wanted to-- I love that space. And I had always wanted to clean the whole space out and not have any, you know, no wings, no-- you know, I loved the back wall. And so just have this magical space. And Songs of Ascension was the perfect piece to do that with. And so that had a different kind of magic. So that was good. I mean, sometimes, it's really hard. You know, I feel like I'm in a period like that a little bit now. I have to start a new piece. And to get the momentum I think that sometimes, it's, you know, before you have that question, or before you really know what a piece is demanding of you or what the world of that piece is going to be. It feels always as, kind of, slightly fragmented quality. You know, maybe having a lot of different ideas or not really any ideas that you can get your fingers on. And then, you've got to wait. I always say it's like throwing seeds into the garden. And then, some things take and some things don't take. So it's a little disconcerting, you know, before those seeds take. Like, "What am I doing?"  You know, that always ends up being-- it's pretty terrifying. I've been working over 45 years. And I'm still scared to death every time. But I think that's part of it. It's, like, let yourself be afraid. Because if you're not, then, you're just doing something you already know. What's the point of doing it if you already know it?  It's better to do something you don't know. And just have to, kind of, have the confidence. And it becomes a more and more matter of faith that this world that already exists is going to reveal itself to you. And process will also reveal itself to you. It's really faith.

Jo Reed: Along the same line, does faith let you know when a piece is finished?

Meredith Monk: That's such a good question. I always think about that with painters. I always ask them, like, "How do you know that that's your last stroke and that your next stroke is not going to ruin it?"  I think that one of the great things about live performance is that you can ruin it. But then, you can go back to what you had before. Whereas, I think in painting, you can't.

Jo Reed: It's hard.

Meredith Monk: And sometimes in film you can't. Because it's so much money to go back to what you had before. But with live performance that's what I actually love very much about it, is that you always get another chance. You get a chance the next night. So once I even open a piece, I'm still working on it. I'm still working on it. We're still seeing how is it going to grow. It's like a child. You know, it organically, the more you perform it, the more it grows. Then, sometimes, it will grow into a direction where you've lost a little bit of what you had as your intention in the first place. And you have to decide to go back to that or to stay with where it's gone. Because sometimes you might have lost the essence a little bit of something.

Jo Reed: It's interesting because in thinking about innovation and there are so many preconceptions people have about innovation but it always strikes me that to be someone who is truly innovative you need so much more discipline than someone who goes along a more traditional path.

Meredith Monk: I think that it's a different kind of discipline. I remember one time--I think it was the early '90s--talking with a tea ceremony master in Japan, and we were talking about how within a tradition like that every step along the way is mapped out. You're learning this tradition and you're really following that with all your heart and so you know what your path is, but with my kind of work in a way you're trying to follow a path and try to hear what that path is asking from you and it hasn't been charted before. <laughs> So in between inspirations it gets to be a little lonely and maybe sometimes a little scary. For me it's been more trying to go back to the center of my existence and try to hear what my next step would be. That's been my way of really trying to listen very deeply to what the next step of my path is going to be because each step is a new step. So what I try to do is that each piece I do I try to start from as much- I try to start from zero in every piece with no assumptions, no beginners' minds as they would say in Zen Buddhism. And so then it's a matter of working through my fear and anxiety <laughs> each time, but it's always the way of going through that fear and anxiety comes out to be when you find one little clue or one little question. When you find what your question is, then the curiosity sort of overtakes that the fear and then you're basically on the path of that world that you're trying to listen to. It's hard to talk about these things actually but…

Jo Reed: But it's very interesting when you talk about listening to that path or to what the path wants from you because when I think of your work one of the things I think about is how aptly you use silence in it and I cannot help but think it has to do with the way you process the work.

Meredith Monk: I think silence is just another part of music or of sound and stillness is another part of movement so you're always getting emptiness and fullness or in tai chi you'd say, "Full leg, empty leg."  You're always going between those two parts of the same whole and the contrast between those two things I think makes both of them clearer.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this, Meredith. Because you've also done commissioned pieces. You've done them for the New World Symphony. As I recall, your opera, Atlas was commissioned by the Houston Opera Company?

Meredith Monk: Grand Opera, yeah. And now, the St. Louis Symphony.

Jo Reed: And the St. Louis Symphony...

Meredith Monk: And now, my commission that I'm working on now is for San Francisco Symphony, for Michael Tilson Thomas. Yeah.

Jo Reed: What's the difference between doing a commissioned piece and not?

Meredith Monk: I am not a good commission person, to be totally honest. I really have a hard time with it. I just don't work on schedule very well that way. And the way that I've been trying to think of it so that I don't, you know, really start getting so upset that I can't work, is that I find that every time I do take a commission-- and those have been my only commissions. I really start thinking about it as an incredible way of stretching myself and learning, like the New World Symphony. I mean, I had never done a piece for orchestra in my entire life. I mean, "Atlas" was 11 instruments. It was 18 singers, but it was 11 instruments. It was not a big orchestra piece. The New World Symphony was the full orchestra, which was, like, almost 90 people. And I really didn't know how to work with it. I mean, I was very overwhelmed by it and terrified. But, again, what I always say is it's a step-by-step kind of thing. And then, at a certain point, you become very curious about something. And at that point, you dive in. And, you know, the fear starts going away, and you start getting really interested. And that's a switch over. And so, you know, I learned so much about the colors of instruments and the voices of instruments. And then, that could go right back into my work with my own ensemble. Because I have really three instrumentalists on the ensemble. I have John Hollenbeck, a wonderful percussionist; Bohdan Hilash, who's a wonderful reed player, plays many, many different instruments, from the highest little flute down to bass saxophone. And then, Allison Sniffin, who is one of our singers, but also plays piano, French horn, violin. So I started thinking about how I could think about instruments as voices. I'd always thought of voices as instruments. And now I could start thinking about the colors of instruments as voices. And so how I try to, you know, not be overwhelmed by these tasks, or it's almost like giving myself an assignment. It's a way I can learn things that I would've never, never in a million years learned. And that's how I try to think about it. And then I try not to take too many of them. You know, because I do find it very difficult. I'm a person that works much more from the inside out. There are some people who won't write one note if they're not commissioned. You know, that's a very different way of thinking about things. But for me, I find that I have so much inner pressure that the outside pressure, you know, gets to be double pressure. So I try to, you know, just think about this is something where you can really learn and grow.

Jo Reed: For Kronos, for the New World Symphony, I mean, clearly, for the opera. There are other singers who are going to be singing your work. And I would imagine it would be difficult to sing your work.

Music up and hot…

Meredith Monk: It's much harder than it seems. If you look at the page, instrumentalists and singers just think, "Oh, I can read this down."  And then, I'd always say, "You know, I don't think so."  It might look like that. But once you try to sing it, it's so much more complicated than you would imagine. It's very, very intricate. And there are certain principles of music that it won't really come to life unless you understand these principles. And those are not necessarily on the page. And that's why it ends up being quite complex to think about what my legacy will be. Because that's why I've always said that well, I actually think that, you know, my main legacy will come from the oral tradition of people that have sung my work and pass it on. And then, I am with Boosey and Hawkes. So little by little, I've been trying to pull together scores that I think are something that, you know, can be done by other people. Like, say, choral pieces seem more possible than some of-- certainly my solos cannot-- either I do pass it on person-by-person, or not done at all. The ensemble, I have these wonderful singers in the ensemble. And they are very good at teaching some of this material to other people.

Jo Reed: But there has been a notable exception of having somebody perform your work that you liked was Bjork.

Meredith Monk: I really like what Bjork did with "Gotham Lullaby" because what she did with it was she kept the essence of the feeling of the piece. But she did find her own way. She wasn't just imitating the way I did it. And yet the parameters weren't so far away from "Gotham Lullaby" that it was unrecognizable. So in other words, I think that sometimes the misunderstanding is that it's a free for all. So it never is-- my work is really combination of discipline and freedom within small parameters. Very specific. It's very specific what I'm looking for. But I think with her, what she ended up doing was she kept the integrity of the feeling of the piece. And yet, didn't try to follow exactly what I was doing, note by note. And so I thought that it really worked out really well.

Jo Reed: So it's more about the spirit to which one approaches the music?

Meredith Monk: Yes, it is. And it's a kind of state of mind. I mean, there are these sounds that I'm going for that really have to do with the sound world, you know, that has revealed itself to me. And that's how I find my syllables. You know, the syllables or the phonemes come very much from a certain sound world that I'm trying to create. So I'm not trying to say that every time I do it, it's completely different. But within that sound might be another variation. And I think that when you codify something it's always going to be exactly the same. It's just like everything else in life. It becomes a commodity. And, you know, I'm very much against that. Let's hear it for mystery and a little bit of humility in relation to, you know, what's given to us.

Jo Reed: Meredith, what do you want to give your audience?

Meredith Monk: I want to give them an experience that's very full perceptually. You know, where they really feel the richness of their own perceptual makeup. You know, that their ears, eyes, feelings, intelligence, bodies, souls, are nourished in some way. So there could maybe have some moments where they can drop the narrator in their minds, or what we call "discursive thinking" in their minds. And have that sense of being completely present. And present and aware of larger and fundamental energies that have always existed. So I want it to be very experiential and very rich in feeling and, hopefully, it, you know, moves people to think about living in a different way. And seeing things that one might take for granted in a different way. And, maybe, in this world that is so full of distraction and, you know, the whole culture is so much about distraction, about not concentrating, about diversion, entertainment. Maybe people would have for a moment a little bit of a rest period from that and get back to themselves. You know, the fundamental kind of aspects of themselves as beings. And that hopefully, it would be restful in some way. You know, restful and that hopefully would wake people up a little bit to the moment.

Jo Reed: And what is it you want from the audience?

Meredith Monk: What I love about the live performance is that we're all in the same place at the same time. And that there's a kind of figure eight, or an infinity sign of energy that's going from us to the audience. And back from the audience to us. And that there's this kind of exchange of energy. I think that there can be nothing better.

Jo Reed: Meredith Monk, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Meredith Monk: You're very, very welcome.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

Jo Reed: That was performance artist, Meredith Monk who continues to make work that resists category.

And check out the new issue of NEA ARTS which celebrates innovation. Go to and click on NEA Arts for the full issue and special web features, including Meredith Monk's thoughts on innovation and slides of her work.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts of "Duet for Voice and Echoplex" from the cd, Beginnings, used courtesy of Meredith Monk Tzadik Records. 

Excerpts of "Porch" from the cd, Key, used courtesy of Meredith Monk and Lovely Music.

And excerpts of the following all used courtesy of Meredith Monk and ECM Records. 

"Gotham Lullaby" from the cd, Dolmen Music, performed by Meredith Monk.

"Ascent" and "Summer Variaton" from the cd, Songs of Ascension.  

Performed by Meredith Monk, the Todd Reynolds Quartet, the M6, and the Montclair State University Singers.

"Travel Dream Song" from opera, Atlas. 

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company takes center stage.   

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Meredith Monk reflects on her 45-year career as a performance artist.