You can’t step twice into the same river, wrote Heracleitus, “for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.” Memories, images, and written words preserve only the residue.
Meredith Monk’s wondrous new music-theater work Impermanence was inspired by the death of Mieke van Hoek, her companion of 22 years, and by ideas sparked in a workshop Monk taught for hospice workers and patients. The piece’s two acts, like many of her works, are formed of discrete events. They retain their original identities but together create a whole vision.
Impermanence begins with a series of slides—lingering close-ups of faces with almost unblinking stares. Then Monk sits at the piano and begins to sing. Over plangent single chords, her remarkable voice riffs on James Hillman’s text, drawing out the words (last chance, last dance, last laugh . . . ), getting snared by syllables, and finally, with “last time,” letting a wail escape her.
Allison Sniffin (piano and violin), Bohdan Hilash (an array of percussion instruments), John Hollenbeck (mostly reeds), and five singer-dancer-actors create Monk’s score. Lean yet rich, the music lays out harmonic textures in which notes a microtone apart rub peacefully against one another and unexpected rhythmic shifts subtly alter the flow. Yoshio Yabara’s costumes emphasize the individuality that Monk prizes; Katie Geissinger wears a full-skirted evening gown, for instance, Monk a white blouse and black slacks.
Voices and movements approach loss and remembrance profoundly, making poetry of the mundane and seasoning it with wit. “She liked her eggs over easy,” Monk says in one scene; “she wore the same color ribbon as her dog” and others add to the list. Stepping apart as if preparing for a duel, Monk and Ellen Fisher repeatedly, stiffly, try to embrace, as if they’ve forgotten the shape of each other’s body. Singing a quiet litany, Geissinger and Theo Bleckmann gently move Monk’s arms and lay her down in a skewed position. Each of the three takes a turn being lowered to the floor. Each of them plus Fisher and Ching Gonzalez solos in “Particular Dance,” while the others sing and clap. Lusty, charmingly gauche, they might be at a village party (they pant, sag, or clutch aching backs when it’s over).
In the second half of Impermanence, the costumes are gray versions of the first-act clothes, and the emphasis is on taking turns, replacing one another, joining, and separating. One by one, the singers join Sniffin at the keyboard, each sticking a finger into the accumulating musical pool, while Hilash and Hollenbeck mess with the piano’s strings. Clustered as if for a family portrait, they join in a mesmerizing, wordless song. At first each takes only a single note; then gradually they prolong the tones into an intricate sonic tapestry. They trek together in a line, changing the step each time they round a corner.
Perspective is a sub-theme. Noele Stollmack’s lighting keeps reframing our view. A short film by Pierre Oscar Levy, Jean-Michel Sanchez, and Gabriel Turkieh shows microscopic forms developing into things we know, like leaves and hair. In one video, a swiveling eye repeatedly reflects a bus pulling away. Old photos and daguerreotypes memorialize the unknown dead.
At the end, Geissinger says to Monk, “Teach me the song,” and facing each other, they sing, quietly and beautifully, the “Between Song.” In Monk’s works, music and gestures nudge into the spaces between what’s expected. In this text by van Hoek, boundaries become infinitesimal (“between the paint and the wall,” “between the lid and the eye”). And gradually, slowly, everyone lies down and rolls away.