Women in (New) Music: Happy 75th Birthday, Meredith Monk!

by Maggie Molloy

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.

Thinking Outside the Voice Box: Stacey Mastrian on Contemporary Vocal Music

by Maggie Molloy

In order to be a contemporary classical vocalist, you’ve got to be prepared to do a lot more than just sing. Sometimes, you have to be able to act, speak, compose, or play the piano. Sometimes, you have to be able to interpret graphic scores, or trigger live electronics—and sometimes, when the situation calls for it, you have to be able to bark.

Those are just a few of the extramusical activities that are featured in Seattle-based soprano Stacey Mastrian’s Binary Solo+ performance this Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, joined by pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer. The program features rarely-performed works for voice with electronics and piano by two generations of American composers: the venerable Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Alvin Lucier, and the current generation—Mike Boyd, Stephen Lilly, Kristian Twombly, and Steve Wanna.

The pieces range from meditative and intimate to humorous and theatrical—but all are distinctly contemporary. Morton Feldman’s unpublished Lost Love for voice and piano is based on a poem by a Victorian realist, while Stephen Lilly’s Portrait in Song pokes fun at the clichés of the art song tradition, substituting lyrical melodies for a zoo of animal utterances.

The musical scores employed are similarly wide-ranging: the score for Steve Wanna’s Smriti forgoes traditional Western notation for a new musical language comprised entirely of dots and arrows. The score for Earle Brown’s “For Ann, 1 May ’94,” forgoes the concept of a “page” altogether—it is comprised of rectangular patterns scribbled on a bar coaster.

Mastrian’s performance is part of a double bill with pianist Jesse Myers, who will perform a program of works by iconic minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics by the likes of Missy Mazzoli and Christopher Cerrone. (Click here to learn more about that program.)

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Mastrian to talk about electronics, animal sounds, graphic scores, and the thinking outside the voice box:

Second Inversion: As a singer, you specialize in 20th and 21st century vocal works. What inspires you most about new music? What draws you to new and unusual sounds?

Stacey Mastrian: With new music, I am frequently challenged to step outside of my comfort zone.  It demands or permits me to do things that I otherwise would never consider doing, forcing me to continue learning and driving creativity.

I love the chance to contribute to works that have never been done before, works that have not been done often, or works that have not been performed in a way that has done them justice.  I enjoy collaborating with composers to create something new, as well as learning from those who worked with the composers (in the case of those who are no longer with us).  From a musical standpoint, it is an opportunity to participate in shaping history and in linking with the recent past so that we do not lose those connections.  It also has tinges of the revolutionary, in the political-social-musical disruptions that many of the pieces imply or overtly convey—sometimes seriously and at other times with humor.  Sharing this repertoire with new audiences is particularly thrilling.

As far as “new and unusual” sounds, in some cases it is the exploration of the sounds themselves that fascinates me, or the different ways of conceiving of music, of hearing, or of space.  In other cases, the plurality of options helps express the piece in a way that traditional singing might not:  there are times when bel canto singing in the harmonic language of the Romantic period can express grief beautifully, but sometimes that is not enough—sometimes atonality or shouting or noise can be the only response—from the gut, in a raw, theatrical way.  This is not to say that I do not care about solid vocal technique, but there is less concern about only the beauty of sound and more about what the sound conveys.

SI: How does your Royal Room program differ from more standard classical vocal repertoire?

SM: With standard classical vocal recital rep, one typically stands near the piano and sings beautifully for an hour.  In this program I sing, speak, play the piano, trigger live electronics on the computer, compose with water sounds I recorded, make noises with objects ranging from vases to bowls to teapots to an airplane nose cone, vocalize with ridiculous animal and battle sounds, and mime.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses graphic scores? What about music that uses electronics?

SM: With graphic scores, the challenge for me is “Where do I start?  I am not a composer!  Give me parameters!”  There is usually a framework with very specific rules, but the actual content is quite open.  The rewarding part of this work is that every time it teaches me to think outside of the box (haha).  It also is exciting to engage with a score that is so visually compelling and with a result that could be different each time.

With electronics the challenge is “WILL THEY WORK??”  There are so many variables between the hardware hookups and functionality and the software—sometimes the programs just crash, or due to randomness built into certain live electronics processes, they do not cooperate.  This is way more stressful than just singing.  The rewards of working with electronics, however, are many:  I love the way that they sound and the endless possibilities for combinations of options that are not possible otherwise.  The unexpectedness of live processing can be fun when it is not frustrating.  Also working with electronics means that I do not need an accompanist, which is useful for situations that require portability.

SI: What goes through your head when you’re looking at a graphic score for the first time? How do you make sense of it? Are there certain things you look for to orient yourself?

SM: My process looks something like this:

Look at it.  For a long time.  Decide it is impossible to perform because I will never have enough ideas. …or I have too many ideas and do not know where to start. Look at it again.  Think.  Jot down notes.  Repeat. Ask the composers (or performers who worked with them) a lot of questions. Be prepared for them to tell me to read the instructions again. Think some more. Throw away some ideas. Start over.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance? What do you hope audience members gain from it?

SM: With this performance, I look forward to giving several world premieres of works by longtime friends and colleagues and performing some works I have wanted to do for a while, as well as a few entertaining favorites. Performing with pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer is always a pleasure, and I am honored that Jesse invited me to be a part of his program.

I hope that the audience will enjoy a new sonic and theatrical world—one filled with humor and humanity as well as links with art, everyday items, meditation, poetry and prose, theater, and technology. Mostly I just hope that people will come.  It is difficult to take a chance on a composer or a performer you may not know; it might be terrible and you waste an evening—but it might be amazing! And you either have that opportunity to experience it, or you miss it.

Also—come hear me bark.


Stacey Mastrian and Jesse Myers perform this Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee by Matana Roberts

by Maggie Molloy

matana-artist-pic1

In the world of music, the saxophone represents many things. It is classical and jazz, it is woodwinds and brass, it is melody and military—it is sexuality and it is soul. And given its multifaceted role in American musical traditions, it is also a fascinating lens through which to explore America’s complex political history.

Composer, saxophonist, and sound experimentalist Matana Roberts does just this in chapter three of her massive, 12-part “Coin Coin” series. Gigantic in scope, the series is a visceral musical exploration into the sounds, the stories, the history, and the legacy of the American slave trade—a panoramic sound quilt piecing together the diverse trajectories of the African diaspora.

Each album in the series features a different configuration of instruments and sound textures—the first featured a 16-piece ensemble, the second a sextet, and the third? Just a single performer: Roberts herself.

“Coin Coin Chapter Three: river run thee” weaves a rich musical tapestry of saxophones, songs, field recordings, loop and effects pedals, and spoken word recitations—all composed, performed, and carefully layered by Roberts.

So what does it sound like? Well, it’s sort of like a surreal sonic dream—a musical merging of ritual and spectacle. Roberts’ influences are a melting pot of jazz, improvisation, classical, and the avant-garde, and her album is a vivid wash of colors and sounds, wailing saxophones and spoken word, field recordings and folk music.

But aside from the idiosyncratic sax solos, one of the most striking elements musically is Roberts’ voice. She flows just as easily from mournful singing to spoken texts, folk song fragments to vocal improvisations. If “river run thee” is a one-woman opera, then Roberts is the star, viscerally experiencing each twist, turn, and tragedy.

Her voice brims with a gritty, earthy, urgent soulfulness, echoed by saxophone moans and static swells. Oscillating tones, ghostly whispers, and eerie electronics providing a foreboding accompaniment—and each track bleeds into the next as she paints a vivid and unflinching narrative, a tragic history of civil rights issues in the U.S.

“I have a particular fascination with history as narrative and how narrative constantly gets cut up and changed and completely taken out of context, or put in context and taken out again,” Roberts said in an interview with Bomb Magazine. “To me history is not linear; it’s on this constant, cyclical repeat.”

Roberts recorded the album in the same Montreal studio she used to mix the first two albums in the “Coin Coin” series. For this third installment, she played the “river run thee” tape back over and over again, responding to what she’d already recorded and adding new musical layers in real-time from start to finish—thus injecting the energy and spontaneity of improvisation directly into the album.

But for all the intensity and intimacy of this one-woman album, “river run thee” is actually an entire symphony of sounds and stories. Roberts took her source material from across generations and geographies, amassing historical and documentary information through interviews, site visits, field recordings, and travels—and for that reason, the album is so much more than just a personal reflection on the state of race relations in America. It is critical musical analysis of our nation’s art and politics: past, present, and future.

“One thing I love about history in the making is that it has shown time and time again that there is resolution,” she said. “It won’t be a permanent resolution, because this country still hasn’t fully acknowledged that it is built on denial. I sense that this is not going to change soon; therefore it’s important for American artists to make work that reminds us of our responsibility for progression. The choices that I make as an artist have a lot to do with that.”