Performance as a Life Science


Photo: Julieta Cervantes

By Bonnie Marranca

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

Her spare brand new work, Cellular Songs, can be conceived for 5 women performers—Monk in addition to her vocal ensemble consisting of Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, Ellen Fisher, in addition to Jo Stewart. Dressed in layers of white in addition to beige-toned clothes, the women sing, dance, play the piano together, in addition to lie on the floor, all the while modeling behavior of care, comfort, companionship, in addition to collaboration. Glorious colors of sound arise through 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, in addition to movement. Monk describes her process in spatial terms: “Some of the pieces have much more dissonance in addition to chromatic kind of harmonies, in addition to the forms are almost like three-dimensional sculptures. Earlier, my music had much more to do with layering. today you can almost see or hear the piece rotating as if which were a sculpture in space, though which’s just a musical form.” A visual architecture can be built into its rigorous structure, which may look deceptively simple. The 75-minute work can be scored for piano, keyboard, in addition to violin in addition to the shimmering chorus of women’s voices which animate the space.


A section of the score for “Hey-nyo,” by Meredith Monk

The work of Monk as composer, performer, director, choreographer, in addition to filmmaker has achieved a singular prominence from the entire world of performance. Her range extends through solo performance to site-specific works, through theater in addition to opera to compositions for orchestra, chamber ensembles, in addition to solo instruments. Monk’s sense of scale can be equally versatile in works large in addition to tiny, as varied as Facing North, Education of the Girlchild, in addition to quite a few performances at BAM including Quarry, The Games, mercy, in addition to Songs of Ascension. Starting with her own ecological consciousness in addition to recent readings in medicine, she was drawn naturally to the dimensions of the cell. “The cell can be the fundamental unit of life, although which can also reflect the fundamental units of the universe, to ensure which which’s got which sense of us as part of a much bigger whole. I’ve become fascinated by their wit in addition to their vibrancy. What can be going on from the cell can be so complex in addition to which’s a real prototype of the possibility of what a society could be if you take those same principles in addition to expand them.” Monk has always been interested from the reflective power of microcosm in addition to macrocosm, a theme explored in her most recent BAM offering, On Behalf of Nature (2014 Next Wave).

What can be distinctive from the experience of Cellular Songs can be to watch its ethical fundamentals unfold over time from the performance on multiple levels: structurally, musically, in addition to thematically. A philosophic worldview can be viscerally demonstrated from 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 can be the fundamental unit of life, she also affirms her belief from the purity of perception: “Over the last 10 years I’ve had which impulse to boil down what I am doing to its essence. which can be a very worthwhile thing to take on a theme which you can spend time contemplating, a theme which can never be answered in addition to can only be hinted at in addition to glimpsed. Literally, the process of generating a piece can be the process of contemplating something. To contemplate the ineffable can be 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 which can be 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 which includes a certain luminosity in addition to softness, emotion without sentimentality, sweetness along with the dissonance. Her work honors the human need for the feelings of joy in addition to love in addition to beauty. from the integrity of its regard, Cellular Songs can be of which world although also beyond which world, like all poetic works of the imagination.

Bonnie Marranca can be founding publisher in addition to editor of the Obie-Award winning PAJ Publications in addition to PAJ: A Journal of Performance in addition to Art, which celebrated its 40th year in 2016. She has written or edited 15 books on theater in addition to the arts.

©2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

Performance as a Life Science

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