When the time comes, perhaps a hundred years from now, to tally up achievements in the performing arts during the last third of the present century, one name that seems sure to loom large is that of Meredith Monk. In originality, in scope, in depth, there are few to rival her. She's difficult to classify, because she has defied conventional pigeonholes.
Since the mid-'60s, she's been making innovative work, both epic and intimate, in dance, music, theater, film and video, contributing as a composer, choreographer, singer, keyboard artist, dancer and director. But mostly she's operated in the twilight zone where a multitude of media come together under one grand, mythical design. If, like so many of our most gifted artistic radicals, Monk is still more celebrated abroad than at home, it's only a classic case of the overlooked prophet.
Still, she's gaining ground, even in the fame sweepstakes. Chosen this year to open the Brooklyn Academy's prestigious "Next Wave" festival last month with "The Games," her apocalyptic sci-fi collaboration with Ping Chong, Monk drew an overflow crowd Tuesday night for the solo concert she presented in the auditorium of the Hirshhorn Museum.
The thing is, any one time you get to see her, you're only experiencing the tip of the Monkberg, and this was certainly true of last night's program, confined as it was to her work for solo voice. And yet, in a way, nothing could have more convincingly verified her creative potency -- there she was, alone on a bare stage, with at most a piano for a helpmeet, having no trouble at all in conjuring up marvel-filled worlds of vision and feeling.
A "voice recital" by Monk is like nothing else you've ever encountered under this label. Most of her compositions are wordless -- she uses the voice itself as an uncannily varied instrument of expression, drawing on such sources as animal sounds, imagined primeval rites, ancient forms of cantillation, children's songs, and vocal traditions ranging from bel canto and flamenco to lieder and balladry. She's a one-person vocal synthesizer, reinventing the technique and art of singing with each new composition.
The first set of 12 unaccompanied "Songs from the Hill" from 1976-77 were composed, as Monk explained, in New Mexico, and were touched with the sense of an ancient desert. The singing modulated from teensy-baby mewlings to lusty baritonal expostulation; from humorous coloratura flourishes to the arid buzzing of insects. "Breath Song" puffed like an antique locomotive. "Fairy Ghost" swooped from sibilant whispers to the laughter of witches. At the end came a virtuosic, reedy chant with Monk accompanying herself (the one exception) on a Jew's harp.
The concert had, if not exactly a "dance" element, certainly a movement aspect, as Monk swayed, twisted and gestured in accord with the musical currents, just as much when she got to the piano for the program's second half. The three songs she presented, from her landmark 1973 opera "Education of a Girlchild," used the instrument for the simple but haunting ostinato patterns typical of Monk's idiom; the songs were the exultant, mesmeric "Traveling Song," the extremely amusing and poignant "A Tale" (one of her few songs with text) and "Biography," which traverses the gamut from somber gravity to youthful innocence. As a coda, Monk performed "The Gamemaster's Song," the burlesqued but ominous crooning number that opens "The Games." It's high time we were able to see one of her major theater pieces in this city.