Meredith Monk: A Spirit of Renewal

The beginning of a new year is always accompanied by a sense of reflection and renewal, themes that are very much at play in the forthcoming world premiere (Jan 18-20) of Meredith Monk’s newest work, “On Behalf of Nature.”

We’re especially proud to play host to the ever-evolving Meredith Monk as she is one of our resident artists this season. Meredith generously arrives early next week to begin working with students on yet another new original work that they will perform in the Freud Playhouse courtyard prior to each performance of “On Behalf of Nature.”

Though she recently turned 70, Meredith also remains a tireless explorer of her own craft. “On Behalf of Nature” is an exploration that builds on compositional themes she set last year during the creation of “Realm Variations,” a piece originally commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony.

Reflecting on the difference between “On Behalf of Nature” and her earlier, more-theatrical work such as “Education of the Girl Child,” Meredith says that her continuing evolution as a composer has had a great impact on the resulting work she creates.

“As I’ve gotten older my form is to the bone,” she describes. “I go to essentializing. It seems more simple but it’s a very very complicated process, and the result is very pure.

“My music has developed so much, it has become more complex,” she says. “Once that element has become complex, some of the other elements become less complex.”

Monk says “On Behalf of Nature” is an elegiac “meditation on the fragility of nature,” not set in any one particular landscape.

“I think almost any piece I’ve ever done is about nature,” she said. “I’m evoking the mystery and the wonder in the processes and workings of nature and the inner structure of nature, and the mystery and wonder and the beauty of what we take for granted.”

The piece is purposefully abstract, as is natural to Monk’s aesthetic and process, and audience members are meant to make their own interpretations, Monk says. It’s not an activist piece, but in its own subtle way, it is certainly meant to inspire eco-conscious thought, a purpose that Monk says also drove elements of its creation.

Monk imbued the entire creative process of On Behalf of Nature with a spirit of re-using, rediscovering, transforming and re-imagining something new from something already in existence.

Two sections of “On Behalf of Nature” are from “Realm Variations” but re-orchestrated for Monk’s ensemble of six vocalists and three instrumentalists. (“Realm” was created for six singers and seven instrumentalists).

Monk said she also revisited old notebooks from the 1990s, extracting elements and phrases that would become wholly new pieces. For video in “On Behalf of Nature,” Monk used elements of footage from her 1998 film “Book of Days, ” re-cutting and adding new imagery.

In creating the costume design for the piece, Monk’s longtime collaborator Yoshio Yabara worked with a collection of previously worn items the performers brought in from their wardrobes. The result is some “really wild creations,” Monk says.

(Side note: A couple of years ago Yoshio was inspired to create a series of cleverly minimalistic Meredith Monk puppets).

Next weekend’s performances constitute the birth of “On Behalf of Nature,” but Monk says she fully expects the work to continue to grow and evolve.

“The beautiful thing about live performance is it’s a very process-oriented thing,” she says. “It’s always an organic process. This piece is extremely organic in the structure, the music. I tried to follow that and not be afraid of that.”

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