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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.
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.
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.
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.