The tiny pigtailed woman dressed in black slacks and utilitarian blue top walking through the hotel foyer doesn’t immediately look like an icon and pioneer of America’s late twentieth century avant-garde. Nor does the sixty-seven year old strike one as a collaborator of Bjork and DJ Spooky, or as someone whose vast canon of vocal and orchestral work has appeared everywhere from Carnegie Hall to an extensive back catalogue of recordings on the elite Munich-based record label ECM, and even on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers movie The Big Lebowski. Meredith Monk, however, has done all of the above, with a similarly higher state of grace central to her first appearance at Edinburgh International Festival for her music theatre collaboration with multi-media artist Ann Hamilton, Songs of Ascension.
“I was working on a piece for string quartet called Stringsongs,” Monk explains through sparklingly beatific blue eyes, “and was becoming interested in the use of strings as voices. Around that time my friend Norman Fisher, who’s an amazing poet and also used to be the Abbot of the San Francisco Buddhist centre was working on transplanting the songs of the Old Testament in the Bible into contemporary language and from a Zen point of view. He was also talking about the poet Paul Celan, who was a survivor of the Nazi camps, who’d been working on Songs of Ascent from the psalms, which were traditionally sung as people were walking up a mountain.
“I became fascinated with all of that, and wondered what it would sound like, people rising and singing as they walked, and wondered why worship was a going up kind of process, whereas in the Tibetan tradition it’s more circular, and in Native American culture it’s the ground that’s sacred. So many of western European traditions think that up is sacred and down is, I don’t know what, hell. From my point of view it’s all sacred.”
The 2006 piece involves Monk’s own vocal ensemble, a string quartet, two musicians playing the harmonium-like Shruti and a choir of no fixed number. In Edinburgh, some forty singers culled from the university will rain down vocal epiphanies from the circle of the Royal Lyceum Theatre. While originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, the roots of Songs of Ascension date back to a serendipitous approach by Hamilton, who invited Monk to perform at the opening of a new large scale sculptural piece built in the form of a tower.
“We’d just finished a collaboration on a piece called Mercy,” Monk remembers, “and Ann had just finished work on this eight storey tower that had taken her eighteen years to build. The inside had a double helix, and it seemed the perfect place to try out Songs of Ascension with my ensemble. After that, Ann and I decided that rather than build a tower on a stage in a literal fashion, it should be the music that represents the ascent and we should have these circular video projections surrounding it. So rather than have a big theatrical staging, it should be the music that leads things.”
In this way, the physical purity and open spaces of Songs of Ascension resembles something that theatre director Peter Brook, another western explorer of the east, might have done in his staging of Indian epic, The Mahabharata. This isn’t something that Monk has previously considered, although matters spiritual are clearly at the heart of her life and work.
Like many of her generation who blossomed into full creative life via the freedoms offered by the 1960s counter-culture, Monk looked to the east for inspiration. As a typically cynical native New Yorker, however, she also retained a healthy scepticism to pick and mix guru seeking, and only later fully embraced Tibetan Buddhism.
“I’ve been practicing formally since 1985,” Monk says of the holy influence on her music, “although in 1975 I’d been asked to teach at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colarado, which through people like Allen Ginsberg became the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I immediately felt an aesthetic connection, because at that time aesthetics was it for me, but I noticed there was these qualities in my work that I’d always liked, and little by little I realised they were very fundamental Buddhist values of fluidity of time and silence and space, presence and immediacy.
“I guess I was sceptical of any organised spiritual practice and the spiritual supermarket that some people go after, and it was only ten years later, when circumstances in my life were so confusing, that I fully embraced Buddhism. I think sometimes you come to these things when you’re in such desperate shape there’s no other possibility, but however you get there is good. Making art is essentially a spiritual practice, and I followed that through intuitively when I was young, but the Buddhist practiced help integrate the life aspects of my art, and helped me be more aware that I want my art to be of benefit, and not be ashamed to say that. Because, let’s face it, talking about spirituality isn’t hip.”
Monk’s vocal experiments have become hugely influential on a younger generation of singers, the most familiar of whom is Icelandic dervish Bjork. That particular connection came about after Monk was given a recording of one of her songs performed by the former Sugercubes front-woman.
“I thought she really captured the essence of the song,” Monk says.
Monk sent Bjork a card saying how much she’d enjoyed her rendition, and received one similar by return. The pair were interviewed on a radio programme, and became friends. Somewhere along the way, a plan was hatched for the pair to work on a duet, which looks set to happen in 2011.
“It’s like she’s my artistic daughter,” Monk laughs. “I love her spirit.”
Monk’s only previous date in Scotland was an appearance at Tramway in Glasgow, the open-plan nature of which was more in keeping with Monk’s desire to include the audience in an immersive experience. In Brooklyn, where Songs of Ascension played in 2009, the space was similarly expansive in a way not easy to replicate in the Lyceum’s more traditional proscenium arch space. Monk, however, remains typically philosophical about the challenge.
“I love to go into a space and find out what it has to say,” she beams. “We’ll figure it out.”
Songs of Ascension, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 28th-30th, 8pm.
The Herald, August 25th 2010