Meredith Monk Makes the Guggenheim Dance and Sing

Why would I, a dance critic, keep reviewing Meredith Monk, now most famous as a vanguard composer and theater artist? Is it because, to paraphrase a statement of hers, her body sings and her voice dances? Is it because she trained early on as a dancer, and her process is still akin to that of a choreographer? (She doesn’t present musicians with completed scores, but develops them in rehearsals.) Also, traveling is integral to her work. Those attending the stunning four-hour retrospective of her music and film work at the Whitney on February 1 found that they had to keep moving to new places and changing their focus, while museum visitors came and went and performers appeared in various areas of the huge gallery.

The real answer to my initial question, though, is this: I write about Monk to prolong and share an experience that has set my soul and senses tingling.

On November 7, 1969, Monk presented the first part of Juice: A Theatre Cantata in Three Installments at the Guggenheim Museum (the remaining two installments appeared later in different venues). The event and the concept were amazing. Just two weeks shy of her 26th birthday, she had turned the entire landmark museum—its lobby, upward-spiraling ramp, galleries, stairwells, nooks, crannies, and, briefly, the street outside—into a stage.

Ascension Variations"—Meredith Monk and Cheng Gonzalez
Ascension Variations"—Meredith Monk and Cheng Gonzalez
"Ascension Variations" spirals through the Gugg.
David Heald
"Ascension Variations" spirals through the Gugg.

Almost 40 years later, she returned to the Guggenheim (again for one performance only) to present Ascension Variations. For this, she has braided strands of Juice into her most recent musical composition, Songs of Ascension, and the ground plan of the new work is almost identical to that of Juice. For Section 1, we spectators cluster in the lobby and watch performers appear and disappear at various point on the tiers. Next, we stroll up the ramps, along the way viewing performers engaged in various acts among the visual art on exhibit. For the final moments, we come to the railing, wherever we are, and watch what happens down in the lobby where we began.

Some of the images will be familiar to anyone who saw Juice in 1969. Four people wearing red clothes and boots, their hands and faces painted red, trek up the ramp pressed tightly together—a big red caterpillar, a mega-hiker. Kate Valk leads, scrutinizing the landscape; Gideon Crevoshay and Clarinda MacLow’s faces are usually buried in the back of the person ahead; Lawrence Goldhuber brings up the rear, a basket on his back. From time to time, they disappear, only to reappear at a higher level, sometimes encased in a red glow by lighting designer Tony Giovanetti. Three costumed women, one directly above the other, revolve slowly in place throughout the first part; one represents Marie Antoinette, one may be Cleopatra, and the one with the corset and the towering feather headdress suggests La Goulue. There’s also, as in Juice, a singing chorus of people in white clothes.

But during the years since 1969, Monk has developed into a notable composer. The music is much more complex than that for Juice. Monk and her vocal ensemble (Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Ching Gonzalez, Bruce Rameker, Allison Sniffin, and Monk) are joined by the Todd Reynolds Quartet, Bohdan Hilash (winds), and David Cossin (percussion). The chorus—members of the Montclair State University Chorale and the Stonewall Chorale, plus 24 dancers—makes its own melodic assertions.

The theme of ascension is, of course, perfectly in keeping with the Guggenheim. Look way up past the topmost tier to the interior of the blue-lit dome, and you could be peering into the heavenly vault of a Tiepolo ceiling painting. On the other hand, Monk’s viewpoint isn’t Judeo-Christian; she’s been a practicing Buddhist for the last 20 or so years. And, although Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim emphasizes verticality, it encompasses ascension through the circularity of that upward spiral. In Section 1, as singers and musicians appear at various points on the ramps, disappear, and reappear in different places, you sense the space as layered, with no level more desirable than any other.

The acoustics promote the spirituality inherent in much of Monk’s recent music. Her wordless vocalizations loop and swing out over the ledges and hang in the air. A repeated, melodic “Ah lu” can sound like a non-sectarian hymn or a private meditation. When Monk and Geissinger (or any combination of singers) stand on opposite ramps and call out in what I think of as Monk’s mountain voice, they seem to be holding a conversation, exchanging notes—finishing one another’s sentence, if you like—across a chasm of pure, cold air.

Monk and her singers are capable of vocal sounds outside the Western tradition: nasal intonations, growls, yelps, creakings. Ascension Variations employs fewer of these than usual, although at the end of the first part, MacLow, in Monk’s original red-trekker role, sings a cranky little song among her resting comrades. Very occasionally, too, the chorus’s harmonic chants snarl into dissonance, and, at one point only, the stringed instruments wrangle. Otherwise, the music is melodious, tender. A man calling out could almost be a priest, and when Hilash exchanges his bass clarinet for a Japanese sho, he makes the chambered wooden wind instrument resonate like a little organ.

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