Meredith Monk, Mercy

Gail Priest

Porch and Woo-la weh from Monk’s 1977 work Songs from Hill have a folk-based melodic progression exploring vowel sounds. Vowels and notes seem completely interlinked, in symbiotic relation. Her Insect Songs investigate some of the harsher edges of the voice, the first using a dry throaty static, the second ringing out nasal tones accompanied by playful gesture. Movement is inherent in the production of the sounds and Monk adopts a different body position and attitude for each piece, like the open-chested exuberance of Bird Code. Of these unaccompanied works the most impressive were the Light Songs from 1988, duets for solo voice, like Click Song 1 with its soft-palette humming accompanied by its own rhythm track of tongue clicks and tocks. The jawharp piece from Songs from the Hill was also a highlight with beautiful manipulation of vibration and harmonics.

These early pieces set the conceptual framework for Mercy, performed in a pared-back concert version but with a distillation of choreography, spatialisation and gesture to evoke a sense of the depth of the work. Mercy begins with Monk’s expanding arpeggios and the haunting tones of disembodied voices perfectly underpinned by the bowed vibraphone. The other performers join Monk for the collective calling of “leaping song.” It feels like a summoning. The ensemble is virtuosic—expansive voices with constantly shifting qualities and gloriously minimalist piano cycles augmented by perfectly placed woodwind and percussive lines. Of particular beauty are the reflective drone interludes performed by John Hollenbeck for cymbal and microphone. The highlight of the piece is doctor/patient, an astounding duet between Monk and Theo Bleckmann of syncopated vocal leaps and yelps for help, one of the few ‘words’ in the opera. Bleckmann and Monk go note for note, their voices so tightly plaited that you can’t tell whose voice is whose. Each segment of Mercy is divine, with shifts of tone and context, investigations of each singer’s vocal qualities, and the astounding beauty of the voices slipping around, melding and then separating again. Monk has written a cry for compassion that sinks into the flesh and dwells in you.

In the artists’ talk following the performance, Monk lets us in on some of the imagery created by Ann Hamilton for the fully-staged work, including a mouth held video camera, huge sheets of bubble membrane and paper cascades. You can’t help yearning to see Mercy in full production (the same goes for Laurie Anderson’s recent concert tour of Happiness), however the meticulously presented concert version is a rewarding and inspirational experience.

Meredith Monk: Mercy, Brisbane Powerhouse, July 25-26

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 43

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003
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