Performance as a Life Science: Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs

By Bonnie Marranca

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

“As artists, we’re all contending with what to do at a time like this. I wanted to make a piece that can be seen as an alternative possibility of human behavior, where the values are cooperation, interdependence, and kindness, as an antidote to the values that are being propagated right now.” After a half-century as an influential figure in the creation of contemporary performance culture, Meredith Monk goes right to the heart of the challenge.

Her spare new work, Cellular Songs, is conceived for five women performers—Monk and her vocal ensemble consisting of Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, Ellen Fisher, and Jo Stewart. Dressed in layers of white and beige-toned clothes, the women sing, dance, play the piano together, and lie on the floor, all the while modeling behavior of care, comfort, companionship, and collaboration. Glorious colors of sound arise from the intricate musical textures. The only words of the piece are in Monk’s song of wisdom, “Happy Woman.”

Bodies alone make the landscape. Cellular Songs inhabits its own special realm of music-theater in its soulful interweaving of music, theater, image, and movement. Monk describes her process in spatial terms: “Some of the pieces have much more dissonance and chromatic kind of harmonies, and the forms are almost like three-dimensional sculptures. Earlier, my music had much more to do with layering. Now you can almost see or hear the piece rotating as if it were a sculpture in space, though it’s just a musical form.” A visual architecture is built into its rigorous structure, which may look deceptively simple. The 75-minute work is scored for piano, keyboard, and violin and the shimmering chorus of women’s voices that animate the space.

The work of Monk as composer, performer, director, choreographer, and filmmaker has achieved a singular prominence in the world of performance. Her range extends from solo performance to site-specific works, from theater and opera to compositions for orchestra, chamber ensembles, and solo instruments. Monk’s sense of scale is equally versatile in works large and small, as varied as Quarry, Education of the Girlchild, Facing North, The Games, and the more recent mercy, impermanence, and Songs of Ascension. Starting with her own ecological consciousness and recent readings in medicine, she was drawn naturally to the dimensions of the cell. “The cell is the fundamental unit of life, but it can also reflect the fundamental units of the universe, so that it’s got this sense of us as part of a much bigger whole. I’ve become fascinated by their wit and their vibrancy. What is going on in the cell is so complex and it’s a real prototype of the possibility of what a society could be if you take those same principles and expand them.” Monk has always been interested in the reflective power of microcosm and macrocosm, a theme explored in her most recent music-theater offering, On Behalf of Nature (2013).

What is distinctive in the experience of Cellular Songs is to watch its ethical fundamentals unfold over time in the performance on multiple levels: structurally, musically, and thematically. A philosophic worldview is viscerally demonstrated in the way the performers use their bodies to generate a social world. The women literally breathe into the space, creating the feeling of radiance. If, for Monk, the cell is the fundamental unit of life, she also affirms her belief in the purity of perception: “Over the last 10 years I’ve had this impulse to boil down what I am doing to its essence. It is a very worthwhile thing to take on a theme that you can spend time contemplating, a theme that can never be answered and can only be hinted at and glimpsed. Literally, the process of making a piece is the process of contemplating something. To contemplate the ineffable is a wonderful way to spend your life.”

Art takes many forms to address global crises as a way of comprehending reality. Monk’s work has chosen a path different than the response that is a direct statement of conditions, following instead her Buddhist grounding in art as spiritual practice. Subtly, in recent years, she has been offering audiences a genre that has a certain luminosity and softness, emotion without sentimentality, sweetness along with the dissonance. Her work honors the human need for the feelings of joy and love and beauty. In the integrity of its regard, Cellular Songs is of this world but also beyond this world, like all poetic works of the imagination.

Bonnie Marranca is founding publisher and editor of the Obie-Award winning PAJ Publications and PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, which celebrated its 40th year in 2016. She has written or edited 15 books on theater and the arts. ©2017 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved. 

Meredith Monk Cellular Songs Sat, Mar 2 at 8PM Royce Hall

Director’s Note: Carrie Mae Weems – Past Tense

 “The tears of the world are a constant quantity.” – Samuel Beckett

Any work begins with a vague notion, an angry itch, a throbbing at the edge of consciousness – something troubling that keeps you grasping, yearning, anxious. Day after day these feelings drive artists back into their studios, determined to hammer out nonsense on their keyboards until clarity of thought slowly takes shape. Past Tense began in just that way – with a deep desire to get at what was troubling me.

So, I began to write. I put to paper the simple words and phrases, images and elements, that moved around in my mind and yearned for a physical form to emerge and be shown to the world.

I am by no means a playwright. As a visual artist, working the last thirty-five years predominantly in photography and video, I approached this as I would any other project, starting with images and then building music, songs, and text around them. The outcome – Past Tense – is a performance that brings together some of the country’s most celebrated artists, poets, musicians and composers to explore the dynamic role of grace and its meaning in the pursuit of democracy.

There are only a handful of stories in the world; the difference often lies in the telling. After working on Past Tense for months it occurred to me that I was telling the story of Antigone, wherein an innocent man dies by unjustified means and his sister fights for the right to bury him honorably. But the wider community refuses her; her right to justice, and to peace, is denied.

Likewise, Past Tense examines the wider social implications of tensions at work in communities across America. These tensions are marked and defined by recent escalations in violence, the killings of young black men, the rise of nationalism and white supremacy, and the tragic events of the Emanuel Nine. These events and nationwide responses have been contextualized as a song cycle, and the piece incorporates music, song and spoken word interwoven with text, dance, photography and video projection to explore the dimensions of its theme.

In our context, grace functions as a sustaining metaphor and an overarching conceptual frame for a dynamic performance calling for new approaches to old questions. I prefer to work with artists who share a common language and have a visceral understanding of the collaborative process. So, from the beginning we started from a central place—a common but varied knowledge of the dark maze of life.

Past Tense includes works by poet Carl Hancock Rux and composer Craig Harris. They are joined by dancer David Parker and singers Alicia Hall Moran, Imani Uzuri and Eisa Davis, who bring a wealth of talent and nuance to the performance. What began as a gift to our first Black President quickly morphed into a series of profound reflections that critically engaged the tumultuous and remarkable time in which we now find ourselves—both tragic and liberating.

Message from the Center: MOUTHPIECE

The great poet Mary Oliver passed away on January 17th. We were lucky enough to have had her on stage at Royce Hall in 2010, reading her poems in her signature style. This is one of her more well-known pieces, and it has a particular resonance to tonight’s performance of MOUTHPIECE. It is a celebration of knowing, of listening, of discovery, of the freedom to pursue the path. It is a declaration of independence. Here’s to Mary, to the artists of Quote Unquote Collective, and to all women who continue to speak up and speak out.

The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.
—Mary Oliver

Meryl Friedman
Director of Education & Special Initiatives

Message from the Artists: Jesmyn Ward & Mitchell Jackson

Jesmyn Ward & Mitchell Jackson in Conversation

It’s a privilege to share the stage with Mitch Jackson, who is the kind of person who can walk into a room and put the shyest, most socially awkward person at ease. Probably by making one laugh. That’s mostly what I do when we are in the same place: laugh.

I’ve known Mitch for seven or so years, and in that time, I’ve learned that not only is Mitch kind to wallflowers, he is also an insightful, brilliant writer and prose stylist, as evidenced in his latest, The Residue Years, which blesses the reader with revelation after revelation as Mitch explores everything from the prison industrial complex to addiction and the drug trade to sex work to emotional intimacy as he tells the story of what it was like to come of age in Portland.

Finally, he is also brave. Every time we meet, he says something that I perhaps thought but was never forthright enough to say aloud. In the end, I’m proud to be in his literary cohort, to work with him in this endeavor to write us into the public’s imagination, and I’m looking forward to laughing my way through this conversation, and perhaps stumbling across a revelation or two.

—JESMYN WARD

Gilles Deleuze asserts our identity is defined by difference, that we are able to conceive of who we are only as difference from who and what we are not. A writer’s voice is a means of communicating that difference, of proclaiming to the world (or at least a reader) there is but one of us—and we have something to say in a way only we can say it.

For historically subjugated groups especially, of which Jesmyn and I belong, a literary voice is often DuBoisian, a way of expressing, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals.” A writer’s voice is also a response to cultural or political pressures, and can become a means of expressing their values as well as making visible elements of themselves that those in power try to erase or invalidate.

The talk will in part cover voice, which is to say our literary identity—how it evolved, how it reflects our personal and cultural experiences, our political ideals, and the place we call home.

—MITCHELL S. JACKSON

Jesmyn Ward & Mitchell Jackson in Conversation, Thu, Feb 7 at 8PM, Royce Hall, UCLA

Message from the Artist: Jérôme Bel on Gala

Photo by Josefina Tommasi

About the cast

What has always interested me about amateurs is their fragility, the fact that unlike professionals who become masters of their respective art forms, amateurs are defenceless. Amateur practice is based on the principle of pleasure, of desire. Every amateur is in the process of becoming, and will never become as accomplished as a
professional.

That momentum, that attempt, is without doubt one of the things in common with my own approach. As an artist I’m not seeking mastery of my tool, which is theatre. On the contrary, I endorse an experimental idea of theatre where each one of my works should lead me to something I do not master, even though that is not always the case.

A project consists of trying, attempting and exploring, rather than controlling or mastering, even if it means failing. As a spectator I always prefer seeing a show that takes risks over a successful piece that teaches me nothing new. For me the amateur dancer incarnates a certain idea of art that I am fiercely attached to. As Samuel Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.

About the deconstruction of the institutional representation of dance

I must say that I’m starting to have a real problem with the representation of bodies in what is now called “contemporary dance”. I find it terribly standardized. In 99%of dance shows the dancers are between 20 and 35 years of age, are svelte, in great
shape and good-looking and even very beautiful. I find that extremely limiting for an art whose tool is the body.

There are all sorts of bodies, and I think all of them should be portrayed. It’s come to the point where contemporary dance produces an academicism to match that of classical dance. Judgement is of course another sinew of war that the status of the
amateur undermines, which delights me.

With judgement thus invalidated, what remains? What remains is the meaning of dance, what it signifies, what it expresses of the dancing individual (amateur or professional), what dance reveals of the individual that language cannot.

About body disparity and diversity

I’ve always thought that a dance company should reflect onstage a certain idea of the world. I mean the dance of modernity, the dance that began with Isadora Duncan, Nijinsky etc. It seems to me that major choreographers have continued in that vein, which is what I find interesting in the work of Pina Bausch, Maguy Marin, Yvonne
Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, William Forsythe, Xavier Le Roy, Trajal Harrell, Boris Charmatz and Anne Teresa de Keersmaker.

In the historical moment that is ours, the work of choreographers should take into account the diversity of their societies, for the related social issues are absolutely gigantic.

About the value of all forms of dancing

Most certainly all forms of dance have worth and value, just as no human being is worth less than another. Allow me to quote the last sentence of Sartre’s The Words: “A whole man, made of all men, worth all of them, and any one of them worth him.” The equality that I am trying to produce among the different dancers of Gala is a meta equality, if I may say so, for Gala is based on the greatest possible diversity of its performers, thus allowing for an equality that is due to the singularity of each member in that community. It is because each one of them is unique that they suddenly become equal, worthy of the same interest; they are equal by unicity. Each one becomes a source of richness, considering that any otherness is a promise of richness for everyone else.

Message from the Artist: Nadia Sirota

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘composer’? I imagine most of us picture some sort of be-wigged gentleman who may or may not be Bach, Beethoven and Mozart all kind of swirled-up together. Either way, it’s a dude, it’s a bust, and it is scowling.

Luckily, real-life composers are fascinating and often not-dead! It takes a special kind of person to summon sound from silence, and tonight, we’ll sit down with two of my favorite sound-summoning humans, Caroline Shaw and Andrew Norman.

Growing up, Andrew Norman was a confident kid-composer, writing orchestra pieces for his middle school friends and getting written up in the local paper. But when Andrew went to college and discovered capital-m Modernism and atonal compositions, his confidence crumbled; how do you write music if you don’t really understand what music IS?

Caroline Shaw grew up playing the violin and singing in choirs, and while she always wrote music, she never thought of herself as a ‘composer,’ until one day she wrote a really fantastic thing for her vocal ensemble and won a Pulitzer Prize. All of a sudden Caroline was thrust into the compositional spotlight. So how does someone who never really identified as a composer grapple with composition’s fanciest accolade?

While (or possibly because) Caroline and Andrew have struggled with what it means to be a composer, they have both gone on to become major players in the classical music world, writing for some of the most impressive folks out there. What really blows me away, though, is that they are also a couple of the loveliest individuals I have ever met.

So tonight, we’re in luck: we get to see what makes these guys tick. And with the help of the fabulous ensemble Wild Up and conductor Christopher Rountree, we’ll witness some of the most stunning, most original, and most moving music I have ever heard.

Here’s the thing, these works are not sacred relics. The scores are not unimpeachably perfect, to be blindly obeyed, but something else entirely: human, vital and moving.

This is Living Music.

—Nadia Sirota

Rebecca Solnit on Sam Green’s Utopian Cinema


The word utopia means, literally, no place and this is a movie that unlike almost all other movies can only be in one place at a time, this place you’re in now with its filmmaker Sam Green and musicians. These live performance films attempt to embody it by weaving together images and ideas and spoken words that will never be replicated exactly, a movie being born as you see and hear it, as alive as music.

Maybe little utopias are realized all the time, the utopias of people together in spirit and in body for a dance or a protest and everything in between. And sometimes we only realize their sweetness as they recede. A lot of us now look back at the golden age of cinema as a bygone paradise, the communion of strangers in the dark with each other, with darkness, with light, with story, with enchantment, drawn together to see a flicker of projected light come to life onscreen.

Were you to ask people if they’d be comfortable sitting in the dark surrounded by strangers from all walks of life, people would undoubtedly say that sounded scary, but every evening all over the world, we pay admission and settle in to do exactly that, and the audience becomes the Greek chorus of the film, laughing, snickering, hushing or fidgeting, instructing each other how to see and hear.

Television chopped up movies with commercials and put them in the middle of domestic distraction, but that was nothing compared to this moment when films are on your iPhone and your laptop and in fuzzy tiny windows on YouTube. The worst thing about these new modes of viewing isn’t that they diminish cinema as visual and imaginative spectacle. The worst thing is that they’re watched furtively and alone. Cinema, which was once a great banquet in a dream palace, is now often a snack devoured absentmindedly in isolation. And only in society, only together, do we have the power to live out those old dreams, or new ones.

Utopia is sociable, and Sam Green’s work gives you back the sociability of a movie, the way it was always about coexisting, by making it as live as a silent movie with an orchestra, a nineteenth-century Chautauqua lecture, a sermon or a party. Take it as an invitation to think about utopia, not only the old ones that might have failed, but whatever faint aroma of paradise might arise in a room where you hope and think and breathe with others

— REBECCA SOLNIT

Message from the Center: Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn’s latest album is full of places and spaces: the Blue Ridge Mountains, Harlan County, dirty coal mines and tumbled down company towns. Even the album’s title, Echo In The Valley, evokes a linkage of sound and space.

How are art and space connected? The philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that art functions as a sort of clearing-away, a making of space. Much like a settler might clear an area in the forest for her home, art makes room, creating openings for uniquely human places that we can dwell in.

A sculptor carves away at rock, releasing something that was, in a sense, always there. This opens a space for us to experience the uncovered truth. Béla and Abigail creatively sculpt from the raw material of American musical history, finding new spaces within old traditions.

Abigail sings on “If I Could Talk to a Younger Me” that:

If I could talk to a younger me

I’d tell me to go slow

This time on earth

It moves so fast

And when it’s gone it’s gone

So take this opportunity to slow down and dwell in the spaces that Béla and Abigail open up. Allow yourself to be transported. Settle in that valley. Listen for the echoes. Wherever you come from and wherever you are headed, tonight you are home.

–Andrew Hartwell

Message from the Artists: Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed

I spend a lot of my time trying to encourage people to live more creative lives — to take risks, to make something out of nothing, and to expand their sense of wonder. I can get really passionate about this. (Another word would be “pushy.”) Sometimes I wonder why I care so much. What does it matter to me if people are making art or not? Who cares whether anyone out there is writing novels, or learning new languages, or dancing or singing or growing or transforming? Well, in the end, I think it comes down to this: We appear to be living in a universe that is constantly creating and recreating itself. The evidence for this is literally everywhere. Nature is always changing from one form to another. All you need to do is look in a telescope and you can see galaxies being born. Look in a microscope and you’ll see bacteria evolving and adapting right before your eyes. The whole thing reeks of a giant cosmic arts-and-crafts project — an infinite, ever-unfolding experiment in constant creative response. It appears to me that energy only wants one thing: to create. And you, of course, are made of energy. So start creating! Because once you start creating, you will step into alignment with the direction that the entire universe is heading. You will be in the flow of life itself. And that will you make you happy. That will make you healthy. That will make you belong. That’s why creativity matters so much to me — because I want a sense of healthy belonging for myself, and I want it for you, too.

— ELIZABETH GILBERT

Writers don’t have job descriptions, but if we did the first line on mine would be this: tell the truest story you can about what it means to be human. That’s the thing I’m always digging for, and by digging I mean that rather actually. On the page and in my life, I attempt to uncover to the truth that lives beneath the easier truths that sit on the surface of our lives. I seek to understand and convey not who we are, but who we are really. This kind of emotional excavation has been an obsession of mine since I was a child. I always wanted to know why. Not why the sky is blue or why birds have feathers (though these are certainly worthy questions!), but rather why does she love him, why did you leave, why are you ashamed, why did you go down this path instead of that one, why did this sorrow lead to that beauty, why can’t you, why will you, why are you going keep loving or walk away or change your mind? My deepest curiosity is the inner workings of what gets called the human heart, but it’s really something far grittier than that. It’s the dark core of who we are, which I have found endlessly, shimmeringly beautiful.

— CHERYL STRAYED

Message from the Artist: Luciana Souza

In her excellent book Nine Gates, Jane Hirshfield says that a good poem begins in the body and mind of concentration. She goes on to explain that by concentration she means a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.

I had fallen in love with Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing many years ago. Everything about that book is important and interesting to me. The poems, the drawings, and his way of illuminating the truth of a moment, of revealing things, his clarity.

As I started setting these poems I wanted the words to be heard, but not necessarily defined. To me, the string instruments offer the best canvas for these songs. Like the voice, the sound of plucked strings decay and brings on silence and more possibility for listening. Also, the idea of counterpoint between the voice and strings was essential to me. The music would have to be simple and unadorned.

I am often asked if I conceive projects based on themes, and if I return to poetry from time to time. To me, a project shapes itself and is generated by what is occupying more space in musical and artistic mind for a certain period. But I never leave my other interests completely. I am always navigating between poetry, Brazilian, and a
more wordless and instrumental context. To me, these things are interchangeable and they are one. I can always find the stories in wordless melodies, and I can always find the silence in poetry.

The other day I taught a class and caught myself describing the process of setting a poem to music as falling in love. Falling in love with a poem. Locking myself in a room and reading the poem ten, twenty times. Walking around with the poem looping in my head. Driving in my car and feeling possessed by the poem and thinking — You are mine! I do think the process is a bit obsessive and all-consuming, but deeply rewarding… when you are granted permission by the publisher.

When you play with musicians such as Chico Pinheiro and Scott Colley, you are treated to such a generosity of possibilities. Questions get answered without having to be asked because the trust and intuition are so generously displayed. Questions are also left unanswered, which is a necessity in music (and life) — to have things open and possible.

On the liner notes of the record I say that making music with Chico and Scott is a thing of wonder. And I mean that in the sense of what is mysterious, miraculous, and beautiful about making music and lifting poetry from the page.

— Luciana Souza

Thoughts from the staff of CAP UCLA