AN INTERVIEW WITH MEREDITH MONK
by Andrew Shapiro
August 31, 2001
(From 21st Century Music, May 2002, reprinted with permission)
SHAPIRO: I read that some of your music was in the film The Big Lebowski. I loved that movie but don't recall the part with your music.
MONK: You know that really funny scene where Julianne Moore is flying on the harness over her painting?
SHAPIRO: When she splatters paint all over the canvas?
MONK: Yeah, that's where my stuff comes in.
SHAPIRO: How did that end up happening?
MONK: Well, I think Carter Burwell knows my music well. He does a lot of the work for the Coen Brothers. He writes scores for them but he also does music direction for them as well. I always love the way that they use music in their films.
SHAPIRO: I like that part when Jeff Bridges goes to the supermarket in his bathrobe after drinking a White Russian on the drive over.
MONK: Such a crazy film!
SHAPIRO: What other commercial music have you done.
MONK: Well, I just finished a Mercedes-Benz commercial for Japan.
SHAPIRO: Do you have a publisher working for you trying to gain those types of opportunities or is it more that you have a bunch of friends that are using your stuff in their projects?
MONK: Well, two years ago, I got a phone call asking me if I would be interested in doing some music for Japanese Mercedes-Benz. The reason I had always said no to those types of things was because I grew up in that world--my mom was a jingle singer--and I ended up making a very different choice for my life. But, the producer said that she knew my music very well and really wanted to work with it. She sent me a reel of some of her stuff and it was very elegant so I knew I could trust her sensibility. That's the only way I'd be interested in doing something like that. It wasn't like she was asking me to do anything else than my own work. So when she called me again in August it was very easy for me to be open-minded about doing it. I've also had some music used in films over the years. Jean-Luc Goddard used a piece of mine, Do You Be in his film called La Nouvelle Vague. David Byrne used some of my music in True Stories. My music has been here and there in films but I'd actually love to write a film score sometime for something other than my own films.
SHAPIRO: Of all of your work, I'm most familiar with your latest piece, mercy. That's because I was down at the American Dance Festival [Durham, NC] this past summer where the piece was premiered, and attended the rehearsals and all three performances. How did you feel about the experience there?
MONK: Well, collaboration is really challenging and I hadn't done one like that for many years. More than ten years, actually. The idea of collaborating with Ann Hamilton, who is a magnificent installation artist, was for both of us to break down our habitual patterns of working so that we could go past what we usually do to try to find something new. While we each worked on our own parts (in my case writing and performing the music and in her case focusing on the visual aspects), we conceived the piece together. So it wasn't like I had brought her in to do set design for me or she had brought me in to create music for her. We were both really hanging out in the unknown and while that's never comfortable, when two sensibilities line up, a third thing is created that is really very interesting. It ends up becoming something that neither of us would do ourselves. That's the best part of collaboration. I felt very good about the music though I'm going to work on it some more. When a piece is performed for the first time it's never really finished. That's the beauty of live performance.
SHAPIRO: And how did you feel about premiering the piece at the American Dance Festival?
MONK: Well, for me to be in a dance context like that is very difficult. I've tried to stay away from it for 30 years because my work is music based. What I really do every day is sit at the piano and work. Compose music. So that's really what my thrust is, being a singer and composer. It's true that, in some of my larger pieces, there's a movement component, but I'm also very content to just do music concerts. I feel very represented just doing that, whether it be concerts just for myself or with my own vocal ensemble. Being in a dance context was very difficult, but at the same time I was very grateful to have the support necessary to be able to make a new piece. Every few years I'll make a large music/performance piece and in between those occasions I'll work on music and record CDs and do concerts. From time to time I make interdisciplinary pieces that include film, images or some sort of movement component. Something that's consistent about my work is that it's fundamentally non-verbal. So in some ways a dance audience can understand that work because it's not like a play or something that is dependent upon text. So in that way a dance audience is very open to my work. In the singing we're doing, we're not using text. I use voice as an instrument. And the singing is very physical.
SHAPIRO: Seeing your company come in with the musicians and rented equipment along with a truck and wardrobe made me think about the enormous amount of expenses incurred. You have to fly these people down there and put them up in hotel rooms. It really is a huge budget. When you were around 25, how did you look at these sorts of expenses? Did you ever say to yourself, "Oh, I really have to have all of these things in place for me to be able to realize my idea?" Or, did you just focus on doing little things, like "I have a friend who has a little art gallery and so I'll just focus on doing a small, one-woman show because I just don't have resources to do anything bigger?"
MONK: When I first came to New York, I did things like solos and duets. Smaller scale pieces. At that point it was a very interesting time in New York. There were a lot of galleries and churches in which you could perform. In 1966, I made a piece, 16 Millimeter Earrings, that had images and music. I was singing but the piece also had a very complex technical set-up with four movie projectors and four tape recorders and a mixer. At that time, that was a lot of gear and a lot of technical complexity. I would borrow the projectors and tape recorders and my friends would run them in the performance. So things were accomplished in a grass roots kind of way. Then I started doing some big outdoor pieces with about 60 to 100 people. I would make big choral pieces. In those days there were volunteers. Entire families would be in these pieces. Now it's a little more difficult to do something like that because people are so centered on making money because they have to. It's so difficult to survive. In those days, we could take other jobs that would only take a few hours a day. I modeled for artists, I taught music classes for children, and I could get by. And now it's so difficult to just get from one day to the next, because the prices are so high. People are having so much more of a struggle to survive. So in that sense, the spirit of those earlier times is harder to achieve. We're talking about 1966-69.
SHAPIRO: And what about that time with regards to composing inside of the academy?
MONK: I remember being in high school in a theory and harmony class and there was one guy who was really a rock 'n roll freak. He was bringing in all sorts of I-IV-V compositions. But our teacher was pretty open to that sort of thing. At that time, teachers had to be. There was beginning to be a strong sense that pop music was a huge part of western culture. So they had to acknowledge it. Now I feel that there's the danger that it's going to go back again to a much more conservative sort of view. You had mentioned that you went to Oberlin. Back in the early 70's, there were a lot of exciting activities going on there. That was a pretty interesting time. I was there for one of those winter-term sessions. It was a hip school -- very politically active, very forward looking. Now we seem to be in a period when the walls are getting higher. Obviously, right now, it's a much more conservative period politically and so you're fighting some of that impulse. It makes me sad, because Oberlin really was a school known for expanding ideas about music. I've heard that it's a lot more conservative now, but I'm hoping that it'll come back around again.
SHAPIRO: Have you heard the new Bjork record, Vespertine?
MONK: No, but Bjork recently did a cover of my song, Gotham Lullaby, on the internet. I haven't met her but she came to a concert of mine at Lincoln Center last summer. The Lincoln Center Festival presented a three-concert retrospective of my music called Voice Travel. She was at the third one. I like her version of Gotham Lullaby a lot. It's really interesting, so I've been meaning to write to her a card to tell her that I liked it.
SHAPIRO: Back to mercy for a second. The music was mostly for piano, doubling with synthesizer, and a percussionist.
MONK: Alison Sniffin was the keyboard player. She plays about seven instruments. She plays violin, French horn and, in the last piece, Magic Frequencies, I also had her play theremin. She has perfect pitch and is an incredible musician. It just turned out that the music this time around was more keyboard oriented. She plays violin, but only at the end. I'm also very interested in using marimba and vibes this time around. So, between Alison and John Hollenbeck, I've got something resembling a little orchestra. I'd have loved to use a bigger ensemble of instrumentalists but with the two of them I can get a lot of different colors. Budget is very much a part of it, so, in a sense, chamber music is what I'm able to do. It's been hard for me to do larger pieces in the last few years because of the financial limitations.
SHAPIRO: With this in mind, I'm wondering how much you've focused on the soundesign elements that synthesizers can give you.
MONK: I'm focusing on that sort of use to a certain extent. The organ sound is actually a sample from my old Gibson Kalamazoo organ. I love that organ. You just don't hear a sound like that anymore. You can't get a sound like that from a synthesizer. I still have that organ. It has a really rich bass sound.
SHAPIRO: What I really mean, though, is to ask if you've ever rolled your sleeves up at a current-day synthesizer and used it as a tool to give yourself a new "sound" altogether?
MONK: I have a sampler and I've tried different things with it. The first time I tried working with it was for an opera commissioned by Houston Grand Opera called ATLAS. Since we only had 10 instrumentalists, we experimented with interesting sounds like the sound of rubbing a glass but down two octaves and stuff like that. We sampled in some other non-instrumental sounds as well. But, I'll tell you, my focus is still writing for the voice. I feel like the voice has limitless possibilities. So the thrust of my music is there. I'm still totally captivated by the voice. That's where my primary compositional energy goes. But I'm sneaking into working more instrumentally. Right from the beginning, I have always thought of the voice as an instrument. I've been commissioned to write a piece for full orchestra. It's for Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony -- a 90-member orchestra. I've been enjoying thinking about instrumental color and just thinking about the orchestra as a group of singers in a way. I'm slowly realizing that, to a certain extent, the way that I can get certain things out of the voice, I can also get out of orchestral instruments. What I'm trying to do is work with instruments in ways that we just don't associate with those instruments. The goal is to find different types of sound. It seems so difficult to get past what has already been done with a Western European orchestra, and yet I feel like it's very challenging to think about the orchestra in a different sort of way. I'm thinking about it as being a group of individuals.
SHAPIRO: And where are you with it?
MONK: I'm just in the beginning. I went down to Florida last March and did a process with the orchestra. I brought another piece down there and we played with that material. I'm now beginning work on some other material. Part of this process is unusual because I'm working with the instrumental players in a similar way to the way I do with my own ensemble; I bring in the material but we try different variations such as altering the ways that we voice things. It makes the instrumentalists feel very much more a part of the process. I think that that's Michael's idea -- to put the piece in front of a younger group of people who would be more willing to engage themselves in the process. We had a great time. I came back so energized and inspired by being with them. They were showing me all of these different things that they could do. I think that the orchestra feels excited because normally, who they are is not at all factored into what is being written for them.
SHAPIRO: Will it be recorded?
MONK: I'm sure it will be eventually.
SHAPIRO: You said that between larger musical theater pieces that you make records. Are these records of songs or compositions?
MONK: A lot of my music is in song form and it always has been, for instance, Gotham Lullaby that I mentioned earlier. I've been recording for ECM since the early '80s. I've done around 14 albums all together, many of which have been on ECM.
SHAPIRO: Have you ever cared to make the distinction between being a composer or a songwriter? Do you think of yourself as being both of those things?
MONK: I think of myself as a composer and a singer. But within that, there are song forms. The way that I work on songs has a much more abstract quality than a usual song because it doesn't have words. I wouldn't call myself a songwriter in that sense because I'm not someone who has lyrics and then sets those lyrics to music. That's not really how I work at all.
SHAPIRO: Are you familiar with the Cocteau Twins?
MONK: I've heard of them.
SHAPIRO: For the most part their singer, Elizabeth Frazier, sings in her own made up language.
MONK: That's how I've been working since the mid-60's. From the beginning, I've always thought that the voice is an eloquent language in itself.
SHAPIRO: So, it got pretty exciting for everyone leading up to mercy's first performance.
MONK: It was wild. I've never gone through something like that before. We didn't have a dress rehearsal! I've never not had a dress rehearsal before. It was pretty amazing that we got through it all in one piece. As performers we were prepared because we had run through it in New York many times. But the challenge was getting it together as far as the technical problems were concerned since we hadn't run it through along with the video and all that other stuff. So, that was the thing that was really hard for me, and I think for Ann [Hamilton] as well.
SHAPIRO: Speaking of Ann, I wonder how you feel about the collaboration.
MONK: Well, each of us is usually in charge of all the elements that are involved--sound, visual, video and other elements as well. So it was really wild because in a sense this piece was about both of us giving up territory. From a spiritual point of view it's great because in doing only your own part of the work you're finding something in yourself that you would never get to if you were doing everything yourself. In something like that you find a "third" thing hopefully.
SHAPIRO: I noticed that mercy didn't have any program notes. Are you against the idea of using them?
MONK: I'm not really interested in going in front of an audience and telling them about the work or telling them how they should react to something. I'm trying to give people a really direct experience. That's one of the reasons why I don't use text in my performances. I can perform all over the world and people have a direct experience with the music because it can go directly into the bloodstream or the heart or whatever. You don't have to pass through the filter of language.
SHAPIRO: I've been thinking about some established collaborative artists that for a long time just worked by themselves. Do you advise younger people to just do "their" work and then wait for the other shoe to drop?
MONK: Well what I would say to someone like you and the situation that you're in is that you should just keep on honing your own work. You have to spend years patiently doing just that. You need to spend all of your time and energy figuring out who you are and what you have to say that's really different from anyone else. Your energy has to go there first before you think about things like who is going to play your music and who is going to produce it. That will come but it's important to understand that that's something that comes next. The first thing is to spend the money and the time on the thing itself really. If you build that now, you're building your inner strength and your own aesthetic and style -- who you really are. Then, when things are hard you'll have the strength to get through them. Also, when things are good you'll have the strength to make things happen for yourself. Sometimes good times are also very complicated. So if I were you I'd just be spending my energy working along just trying to develop what it is that you have to say. Then the other aspects will just come along. Opportunities will find you. The world will then open up. I think if you try to open the world up first, before you've straightened out what the core of your work is, it starts getting confusing.
SHAPIRO: I'm wondering how you went about hiring the people you perform with.
MONK: For years, from the '60s through the '90s, I rarely had an audition. What would happen would be that someone would just walk into my life and it would be the right person at the right time. Before the vocal ensemble that I formed in the late '70s, the work that I did was for solo keyboard and voice. I formed an ensemble because I wanted to expand upon the solo work that I had been doing. When I started working in the mid-60s, I was really working alone. I had discovered one day while vocalizing at the piano that the voice could be an instrument. Within the voice are limitless possibilities of texture, color and range. My life changed after that. I went on to work for many years alone. But at a certain point I wanted to create more complicated vocal textures and counterpoint. An example of finding someone to work with would be an outgrowth of my time spent at Oberlin when I was doing some work there in 1974. There was a student named Andrea Goodman. She sang with me in a piece that we made there. In the late '70s I asked her to continue working with me. So, up until the late '80s that's the way things happened. I never did big auditions or anything. There was one where I had to replace a group of people and someone who auditioned for me was Ching Gonzalez. I chose him right away. I met Katie Geissinger in 1990 when I made a big piece for Houston Grand Opera. At that point the Ensemble that I had been working with for about 15 years was changing. People had reached the age where they wanted to leave New York, they wanted to have children, have other lives. So I had to audition people. It was a huge audition of about 300-400 people and then I chose 15 people from that. Katie was one of those people. I've been working with her for about 12 years. Theo Bleckmann is a jazz singer and someone suggested that I use him for a piece called Facing North. Each person comes in a different way but I've been lucky in that I can work with the same people year after year. A lot of people have to pick up new companies all the time. I've been working with this Ensemble for 10-15 years. Something happens when you work with people for that long. It becomes a sort of shorthand of working. There's so much that I don't have to say to them. They just know.