Meredith Monk, Mercy

Robert Davidson

Monk’s melodic style is like no other, but has connections to an enormous range of music; it embraces the notion of music as a universal language. The voice is perhaps the primary musical universal—all peoples sing. To explore the voice as a musical instrument (she calls it “the original musical instrument”), to produce an astonishing range of sound colours and in settings that suggest ritual, is to join a very ancient tradition that nevertheless sounds utterly new. A visitor from 50,000 years ago could relate to this music, but it has also been on New York’s cutting edge since the 1960s.

This makes the music an excellent vehicle for the themes embraced in Mercy, the experience of giving, receiving and withholding compassion. A highlight, for example, is a duet between a doctor and patient, ending with the sung word “help” repeated by both. The voices intertwine to become a single sound, Monk making virtuosic use of the hocket technique so beloved of medieval troubadours and West African singers, where the notes of a single melody are divided between 2 or more performers.

At other points in Mercy, sounds are passed around the whole ensemble (2 male and 2 female singers, piano, percussion and clarinets, with the instrumentalists contributing vocals) creating a mesmerising spatial effect. In “Liquid Air”, pairs of kneeling singers sway around each other, the sound moving between and seeming to wrap around them.

In Shaking, dance and music are married completely—the movement and sound are inseparable. The singers shake their heads from side to side while rotating their bodies, creating constant pitch shifts and tremolos. The effect is both disturbing (with its appearance of insanity) and absorbingly beautiful.

Monk’s troupe of performers are extraordinarily devoted. They constitute a whole singing tradition of their own founded on Monk’s inspiration. And they share great virtuosity (I was particularly impressed, for example, by Theo Bleckmann’s precise, clarinet-like head voice) and theatrical, whole-body sensibility. The camaraderie and community was palpable. The 3 instrumentalists embraced the performance whole-heartedly, contributing improvisation, playing multiple instruments (pianist Allison Sniffin often joining the vocals, and also playing violin; clarinettist Bohdan Hilash performing on all clarinets from piccolo to contrabass) and inventing new sounds (percussionist John Hollenbeck coaxing complex overtones by playful use of a microphone and cymbals).

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

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 43

© Robert Davidson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003