The singers—and that includes the ranks of the chorus—don’t just plant themselves, they reach out from the balustrades, lean over them, gesture to the air. Fisher begins the piece by advancing up the ramp; as she goes, she turns this way and that, swirling her arms as if summoning or beckoning. At this moment, she’s some sort of mage, and the only one of the principal singers to wear gray (like the instrumentalists), while the clothes for the others (by Yoshio Yabara) are red or reddish.

An aura of mystery surrounds all this. There are sounds you can hear but not see, like a distant clanking of metal pieces or wooden slats. People disappear and reappear unpredictably in new spots. Spectators crane to see what may becoming from where. Only the three turning women in period costumes remain fixed points.

In 1969, the Guggenheim happened to be showing Ray Lichtenstein’s paintings. The current exhibition, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, of which Ascension Variations is considered a part, is more in tune with Monk’s spare, incandescent aesthetic. During Section 2, when we become strolling museum-goers—looking at art, stopping to greet friends—it becomes apparent that Monk has mated events with artworks and architecture in subtly bewitching ways. Two little girls chase each other and read books within a key-shaped niche. Women thump to the floor, sit spraddle-legged like dolls, upend themselves on the outskirts of James Lee Byar’s astonishing three-sided room papered in gold leaf. A countertenor aims his high voice at a rugged construction of what could be railroad ties. MacLow does a reclining dance in front of three chaste, calligraphic watercolors by Jackson Pollock that match her redness. Ha-Yang Kim plays her cello before Sam Francis’s muscular painting, Red and Black, as if expecting to take it on in a martial-arts bout. A few steps past where Valk lies motionless, eyes open, beneath the pale rain of Natvar Bhavsar’s Delaware, you come upon three of the white-clad people in a pile, eyes shut, with Andy Warhol’s Sleep looking down on them.

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.

Details

Meredith Monk
Guggenheim Museum
March 5

If you see a particularly large clump of spectators, they’ve probably paused to watch Monk and Gonzalez do an awkward little dance of raising their palms to each other and advancing together without ever touching, intermittently murmuring fragments of song. Echoing their gestures is Bruce Conner’s image of white hands on a blue ground.

When we’re summoned to the railing, we see that the rotunda has been cleared of stools, and in the center, in a pool of light, is the woman responsible for all this magic. She’s sitting on the floor, stiff legs spread a little apart, like the dancers we’ve glimpsed in several locations. She’s singing and squeezing a harmonium. Seen from above (high above in my case), this masterful 65-year-old artist, with her long pigtails and pure voice, seems as small as a child alone in a room. But her voice is rich in experience. She starts in a soft, deep register and works her way up to high melodious, insistent calls. If someone opened the door to the outside right now, dark as it is, birds would flock in.

Eventually most of the others join her, strolling around, singing. But some chorus members remain on the higher levels, attentive to conductor Heather J. Buchanan. On either side of me, a man raises his voice. Wonderful! The counterpoint must be floating down to meet the voices that rise. In the end, all the people below lie quietly down, one violinist playing almost until the lights go out. In our grounding is our ascension.

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