Meredith Monk has secured a place in history as one of the most singular and significant voices of the 20th and 21st centuries. For nearly six decades, she has redefined and revolutionized contemporary vocal music and performance, seamlessly weaving in elements of theatre and dance to create visceral musical experiences that transcend the confines of the classical tradition.
Monk’s compositional range is as wide as her vocal one—but her inimitable creations are united in their merging of ancient and modern musical ideas. In her music, abstract vocalizations, primal rhythms, hypnotic dances, and ritualistic soundscapes come together in an intimate embrace of the human experience.
In honor of Monk’s 75th birthday today, we take a look back at three of our favorite Monk masterpieces:
Education of the Girlchild (1972):
Benjamin Button meets feminist deconstruction in this interdisciplinary (and unapologetically avant-garde) one-woman opera which traces the life of a woman in reverse from old age to childhood.
Turtle Dreams (1983):
Sprawling vocal textures, hypnotic organ loops, and unconventional choreography are spliced together with black and white turtle footage in this surreal 30-minute film exploring themes of time and space.
On Behalf of Nature (2016):
Extended vocal techniques pirouette above a whimsical instrumental accompaniment in this wordless exploration of the space where humans coexist with the natural and spiritual world.
This Sunday is Earth Day: a worldwide event dedicated to education and awareness around issues of environmental protection and sustainability. But here in Seattle, every day is Earth Day; every day, we strive to take care of our planet and work toward a sustainable future.
So in celebration of our beautiful planet—both last weekend and every day—we’re sharing some of our favorite pieces inspired by plants, animals, and the overwhelming magnificence of Mother Nature:
Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants
We experience plant life through a variety of senses: sight, taste, touch, smell. But have you ever wondered what plants sound like? Japanese post-minimalist composer Mamoru Fujieda decided to find out.
He spent 15 years of his career creating music based on the electrical activity in living plants. Using a device called a “Plantron,” he measured electrical fluctuations on the surface of plant leaves and converted that data into sound. Fujieda then foraged through the resulting sonic forest for pleasing musical patterns, which he used as the basis for his magnum opus: a bouquet of piano miniatures blooming with ornamented melodies and delicate details.
Meredith Monk: On Behalf of Nature
Meredith Monk likes to think outside the box—the voice box, that is. Famous for her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument and a language in and of itself, her music speaks volumes without ever using words.
Monk’s multidisciplinary performance piece On Behalf of Nature is a wordless poetic meditation on the environment; an exploration of the delicate space where humans coexist with the natural and spiritual world. The result is an almost ritualistic soundscape of extended vocal techniques dancing above a hypnotic and at times eerie instrumental accompaniment.
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean
Just about everything in John Luther Adams’ musical oeuvre qualifies as organic Earth Day ear candy, but we Seattleites are partial to his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Become Ocean, commissioned and premiered by our own Seattle Symphony in 2013.
Inspired by the spectacular waters of the Pacific Northwest and composed in reaction to the imminent threats of global warming, Become Ocean is a literal ocean of sound—a sparkling seascape that immerses the listener in beautiful washes of color. Harmonies ebb and flow with the fluidity of the tide, cresting into bold, climactic waves amid misty and melodic winds.
“As a composer, it’s my belief that music can contribute to the awakening of our ecological understanding,” Adams said. “By deepening our awareness of our connections to the earth, music can provide a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture.”
Nat Evans: Coyoteways
Seattle composer Nat Evans spent many a night listening to the lonely howl of the coyote as he hiked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail. So many, in fact, that the animal became the inspiration (along with the writings of Beat poet Gary Snyder) for an album that explores the mythological role of the coyote as a cunning trickster and schemer.
Coyoteways evokes the vast and expansive landscapes of the American West by layering field recordings from Evans’ travels brushed with long, sweeping guitar lines and occasional whispers of saxophone and percussion. The result is an ambient soundscape that echoes with the simple splendor of the great outdoors and the stealthy gaze of the coyotes that watch over it.
Whitney George: Extinction Series
Our planet is currently in the midst of itssixth mass extinctionof plants and animals—the worst wave of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago. Composer Whitney George is fighting to change those numbers.
George’s Extinction Series is an ongoing collection of somber and introspective miniatures for various solo instruments, each one composed as a musical obituary to an extinct animal on the rapidly-growing list. The sheer volume of this indeterminate series serves as commentary on mankind’s careless destruction of our planet—and it also poses a direct challenge to Earth’s inhabitants: in order for the series to ever be completed, we must first fundamentally change how we interact with our environment.