by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, November 9, 2009.
The family lineage of Meredith Monk—composer, singer, choreographer, filmmaker, theatre director, and maker of uncommon evenings—almost guaranteed that she would do something memorable in the course of her life. One of her great-grandfathers was the cantor of a Moscow synagogue; her maternal grandfather, the operatic bass-baritone Joseph Zellman, fled Tsarist Russia under suspicion of anarchist sympathies and went on to found a conservatory in Harlem; her mother, Audrey Marsh, was a professional pop singer in the golden age of radio, doing a stint as the Muriel cigar girl (“Why don’t you pick me up and smoke me some time”); and her father, Theodore Monk, ran a lumber business in the Bronx. She inherited a peculiarly American, typically New York story, mixing radical and capitalist urges, culture high and low, the spirit plane and the factory floor.
Monk arrived in Manhattan in 1964, during the heyday of the downtown avant-garde, when Cagean and Warholian provocateurs were laying siege to all the norms of art. Monk’s feat was to bring wholeness, even a kind of epic breadth, to the deconstructive happenings of downtown. On one famous night in 1971, for “Vessel: An Opera Epic,” she bused her performers and her audiences to various locations around the city, conjuring the life and death of Joan of Arc. Her intricately planned theatrical spectacles awoke buried memories of primordial wailing, Neolithic rituals, Greek bacchanals, inscrutable medieval entertainments, and the folk songs of extinct peoples. More disturbingly, they prophesied the shattered culture of a post-apocalyptic future. Monk’s many-side art was rooted in her voice—a ruggedly beautiful, piercingly expressive, ever-changeable instrument, which cut to the core of emotion while largely bypassing language. She spoke of the “dancing voice,” of a “voice as flexible as the spine.” In passing moments, she could evoke an elderly sage, a wide-eyed child, or a shaman. To say that an artist defies categorization is a cliché, throat-clearing for a grant proposal. Monk created a more elemental confusion, to the point that critics in various genres had to negotiate among themselves over coverage of her work. The Times once dispatched a committee of music, dance, and theatre writers to assess her.
Last month, Monk presented her latest piece, “Songs of Ascension,” at the Harvey Theatre, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This time, the report appears in the music pages. Perhaps I’m biased, but music seems to have become Monk’s true home. Since the late seventies, when she convened her own ensemble to perform “Dolmen Music,” a hugely influential study in extended vocal techniques, she has increasingly positioned herself as a composer, relying on music to create contrapuntal effects that she formerly drew from the equal interaction of sound, image, and movement. Back in 1991, the Houston Grand Opera presented her opera “Atlas,” and in 2003 the new World Symphony, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, introduced her first orchestral work, “Possible Sky,” a freewheeling sonic fantasy. Her two most recent recordings for the German label ECM, “Mercy” and “Impermanence,” have instruments dancing actively alongside voices. Perhaps most important, Monk need no longer be present for the execution of her music: the singers of M6, a group based in New York, have devoted themselves to learning and re-interpreting the Monk repertory.
If Monk is seeking a place in the classical firmament, classical music has much to learn from her. She conveys a fundamental humanity and humility that is rare in new-music circles. She is a brainy artist but never a cerebral one; she shapes her ideas to the grain of the voice and the contours of the body. For all the disparate elements that go into her work, she can’t really be described as eclectic or interdisciplinary: her acts of fusion are too organic, too logical. She harks back to a time before disciplines existed and categories were set in stone. Richard Taruskin, in his monumental “Oxford History of Western Music,” relates Monk to the very origins of the art form, the intermingling of oral and written practices in church music of the late Middle Ages. She represents a kind of reboot of tradition. She may loom ever larger as the new century unfolds, and later generations will envy those who got to see her live.
Monk will soon be sixty-seven. That’s young for a composer but old for a singer. Her voice remains an extraordinary instrument: the dancer-like flexibility, the microscopic control of pitch, and the pure, raw tone are all intact. Still, “Songs of Ascension,” which she created with the video artist Ann Hamilton, seems a reflective, elegiac piece, conscious of passing time. Largely missing is the absurdist, almost Monty Pythonesque humor—the prancing about in animal costumes, the exuberant bursts of gibberish, the witty anachronisms—that Monk has unleashed many times in the past. (I love the moment, in the 1981 film “Ellis Island, when a group of late-nineteenth-century-looking immigrants are taught to say “vacuum cleaner.”) Relatively little happens onstage in “Ascension”: Monk and members of her ensemble saunter about in dark-red garb; form circles and break up; move up and down the aisles of the theatre; and converse musically with the Todd Reynolds String Quartet, the percussionist John Hollenbeck, and the clarinettist Bohdan Hilash (who plays other instruments as well). The production reminded me of Wagner’s later definition of opera—once he got the Gesamtkunstwerk out of his system—as “deeds of music made visible.”
The work begins, as Monk’s works often do, with rough-hewn, folkish, almost singsong motifs, which sound as though have been hollered on some uncharted steppe for a thousand years. The opening section culminates in a flat-toned, brusquely catchy chant of “Hey ya, hey ya, hey ya, hey ya,” in a line that moves down the first four notes of the major scale and then repeats the final step. Soon, though, the voices are coalescing into thickly layered, warmly dissonant harmonies, not unlike something that you’d find in Ligeti or in the Stockhausen of “Stimmung.” Intermittent string episodes combine neatly bustling lines with birdlike cries high in the violin—a precise instrumental echo of Monk’s typical interplay with her singers. Rattlings of percussion hint at tribal ritual. Hamilton’s video projections return obsessively to a single image of a galloping horse. We appear to be out on the open plain, before the railways came in.
At times, the music gets a little too becalmed, too ethereally attuned. But then a decisive shift occurs. In a movement entitled “Little Procession,” Monk starts to sing brief, questing phrases, in irregular, ever-changing rhythms. The other singers accompany her not with their voices but with the plaintive whine of shruti boxes—Indian drone instruments that look like military briefcases and sound like harmoniums or accordions. This rapt, darkly gorgeous music feels like a summons to which the rest of the ensemble responds: the strings pick up the counterpoint to Monk’s phrases, the singers mimic the humming boxes. Reynolds, the lead violinist, launches into an extended improvisation in avian style, setting the stage for one last quartet movement and the grand finale.
Monk is an artist temperamentally averse to any kind of bombast, but in the final section, called “Procession,” she indulges in a touch of Mahlerian show business: at BAM, several dozen additional singers—including members of the Stonewall Chorale and M6—appeared in the balcony to augment the swelling sound. Motifs from previous episodes are reworked and combined anew: the four-note descent of the “Hey ya” chant is reversed and hypnotically repeated. Just when you think Monk is in danger of going over the top, the twilight mood returns. One by one, the principal performers lie down on their backs, still emitting sounds here and there, until silence takes over.
November 16, 2009 | Permalink
"The Book of Bach"
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 11, 2011
"Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt," from BWV 4, "Christ lag in Todesbanden"; John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists (Soli Deo Gloria 128, Vol. 22 of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage).
Johann Sebastian Bach lost both of his parents when he was nine and watched ten of his children die young. He was, in other words, well acquainted with death, and may have been uncommonly sensitive to the emotional chaos that it engenders. The musicologist Gerd Rienäcker has written that Bach possessed a “consciousness of catastrophe”—a feeling for the suddenness and arbitrariness with which suffering descends on unsuspecting souls. The texts of Bach’s church cantatas—I recently finished listening to nearly two hundred of them, courtesy of John Eliot Gardiner’s recorded survey—indicate that the life of man is like a rising and vanishing mist; that we live with one foot in the grave; and that those who sit among us like gods will be forgotten. The world is said to be like a hospital in which countless people, even infants in cradles, lie down in sickness. The words “Kyrie eleison”—“Lord, have mercy”—have been set to music thousands of times, but in the first bars of the Mass in B Minor, Bach’s valediction, they become a peculiarly visceral cry, a collective plea for grace.
The Bach Collegium Japan, under the leadership of Masaaki Suzuki, recently performed the B-Minor Mass at Carnegie Hall, as part of Carnegie’s season-long festival of Japanese culture. The Tohoku earthquake was on everyone’s mind, and there was probably no need for Clive Gillinson, Carnegie’s executive and artistic director, to have mentioned it in remarks before the concert began. From the first colossally churning chords, it was clear that Bach had heard the news in advance. What seems so extraordinary about this work, along with other monuments of Bach’s sacred writing, is that it captures the human and the inhuman in equal measure. We feel both the blind mechanics of catastrophe and the desperation of those caught in its midst. Perhaps the most uncanny example is the opening chorus of the “St. John Passion.” The orchestra begins with a divine maelstrom: swirling sixteenth-note figures, stinging dissonances, a pulsing drone in the bass. Three times the chorus cries out “Herr!”—“Lord!”—and then is caught up in the rapid-moving instrumental rhythm, in an image of mortal helplessness.
Suzuki, who was born in Kobe, in 1954, founded the Bach Collegium Japan in 1990. He has since established himself not only as a pioneer of early-music playing in East Asia but as an international Bach authority. For the BIS label, he has recorded the large-scale sacred pieces and is nearing the end of a survey of the church cantatas. (Volume 48 is just out; seven volumes remain.) Renditions of Bach’s vocal works these days fall between two extremes: the old-school approach, in which a big chorus and ensemble gather to make a hearty din; and the austere stance of early-music radicals, who deploy only an ensemble of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, on the theory that Bach intended one voice to a part. (In the wrong hands, the “one voice per part” approach can yield a scrawny sound, but in recent cantata recordings under the direction of Sigiswald Kuijken, on the Accent label, it has the effect of clearing away centuries of musical clutter.) Suzuki, like Gardiner and the august Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe, follows a pragmatic middle path. At Carnegie, he had a chorus of twenty-one singers and an ensemble of twenty-six players. In interpretive style, he tends toward subtlety rather than flamboyance, avoiding the abrupt accents, florid ornaments, and freewheeling tempos that are fashionable in Baroque performance practice. He is strong on clarity and musicality, sometimes lacking in force.
So it was with Suzuki’s B-Minor Mass. The chorus was a marvel of focussed pitch and blended tone: in the opening bars, the sopranos immaculately pierced the air. Suzuki showed a patient structural command, giving an arc-like shape to the Kyrie by waiting a hundred or so bars before applying a substantial crescendo. As the evening went on, though, I yearned for more drama, less detachment; the unearthly “Crucifixus,” the scene of Christ’s crucifixion, was oddly pristine, and the shivery Judgment Day chords in the “Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum” section passed by without tremors of strangeness. The fine and experienced soloists—Hana Blazíková, Rachel Nicholls, Clint van der Linde, Gerd Türk, and Peter Kooij—struggled at times to be heard in Carnegie’s velvet cavern. By the end, I wondered whether Carnegie was fundamentally inhospitable to Suzuki’s super-refined style; an intimate space would have revealed more. Still, the Bach Collegium Japan delivered a performance of gently glowing beauty, with Bach in consoling rather than apocalyptic mode.
Gardiner, the vital English maestro who has animated repertory from Monteverdi to Percy Grainger, undertook the project of performing and recording Bach’s sacred cantatas a decade ago. Beginning on Christmas Day, 1999, and ending on the last day of 2000, he travelled with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists to more than fifty churches in Europe and America, including hallowed places where Bach worked. As much as possible, the cantatas were programmed according to their appointed place in the liturgical calendar, so that Christmas works were played at Christmastime, Pentecostal ones on Pentecost, and so forth. In a magnificent display of stubbornness, Gardiner went on recording his “Bach cantata pilgrimage,” as he called it, even after the Deutsche Grammophon label withdrew its support. He eventually established an independent company called Soli Deo Gloria—Bach liked to end his scores with those words, which mean “to the glory of God alone”—and began releasing several two-CD volumes each year, with lavish annotations and striking cover photographs of South Asian, Central Asian, and African faces. The twenty-seventh and final installment appeared last fall. (Four other volumes had earlier appeared on DG and are now available as part of a twenty-two-CD boxed set titled “Sacred Masterpieces,” which, at around fifty dollars, is an amazing bargain.) There are five rival cantata surveys—by Helmuth Rilling, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman, Pieter Jan Leusink, and Suzuki—and each has its virtues. Gardiner’s is the most consistently vivid, and offers some of the loveliest Bach singing on record; Magdalena Kozená, Bernarda Fink, Mark Padmore, Gerald Finley, and Dietrich Henschel are among the masterly singers who join the tour.
More than half of the sacred cantatas were written between 1723 and 1726, when Bach was in the early years of his long, and often unrewarding, appointment as the cantor of the Thomaskirche, in Leipzig. For extended stretches of the liturgical year, he produced one cantata a week, and for the most part he refused to take the easy path of reworking older pieces, whether his own or others’. Instead, in what seems a kind of creative rage, he experimented with every aspect of the cantata form, which traditionally served as a musical meditation on the Scriptural readings of the week. There are intimidating fugal choruses, sublimely extended operatic arias, frenzied instrumental interludes, weird chords galore, episodes of almost irreverent dancing merriment. To hear the entire corpus is to be buffeted by the restless energy of Bach’s imagination. Recently, I listened to around fifty of the cantatas during a thousand-mile drive in inland Australia, and, far from getting too much of a good thing, I found myself regularly hitting the repeat button. Once or twice, I stopped on the side of the road in tears.
If Suzuki tends to play it too cool, Gardiner can err in the opposite direction. He likes strong contrasts of dynamics and tempo, telling shifts of texture and mood. In notes for the cantata “Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt” (“For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from Heaven”), in Volume 20, Gardiner observes that the continuo part “goes ballistic” when the Turks and the Papists are mentioned, and Gardiner’s execution of that idea is by no means the only instance of ballistics on the set. Sometimes such interventions seem arbitrary, but more often they serve the charged imagery of the cantata texts: you hear the rain and the wind, the power and the glory, the weeping and the wailing (a shrieking soprano recorder communicates holy terror in the chorus “Ihr werdet weinen und heulen”—“Ye shall weep and lament”). In “Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig” (“Oh how fleeting, oh how trifling”) the orchestra even conveys the self-important bustle of an urban crowd.
The almost operatic quality of these narratives is heightened by the changing moods of the liturgical year. The pivotal moment comes at Eastertime (Volume 22), where the sepulchral chants of “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (“Christ lay in the bonds of death”) give way to the brassy shouts of “Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret” (“The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices”). Among many brilliant efforts by the Monteverdi Choir, the rendition of “Christ lag” stands out: Gardiner has his singers intone the solo lines in unison, each syllable chillingly precise. This release and the preceding one, Volume 21, make for an excellent introduction to the series.
There is no way to tell from the sound itself that “Christ lag in Todesbanden” is being performed in the Georgenkirche, in Eisenach, next to the font where Bach was baptized, in 1685. Once you know it, though, you cannot forget it. A sense of occasion, of ritual time, is sustained throughout. Gardiner adds layers of significance in his spirited liner notes, which are based on a tour diary: he speaks of visiting Buchenwald, outside Weimar; of a Leipzig pastor’s resistance to East German oppression; of French soccer fans blasting their car horns moments after one concert ended; of a spooky old cleric congratulating the musicians on having administered a good beating to the Devil. Most of all, this mammoth project—an act of devotion worthy of Bach himself—lays bare what is most human in the composer’s enterprise. Listening to “Christ lag,” I pictured Bach’s parents looking on at the baptism of the infant and wondering whether he would live. They had no idea.
November 10, 2009 | Permalink