By Bonnie Marranca
“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.