Meredith Monk’s Songs of Ascension set for EIF
The multi-disciplinary american composer on her Edinburgh show
This article is from 2010.
Meredith Monk’s Songs of Ascension is a characteristic multi-disciplinary work that combines music, film and movement to create an uplifting ritual. She tells Claire Prentice about her background and career – and why she’s so excited about visiting Scotland
What inspired Songs of Ascension?
I was talking to my friend, the poet Norman Fischer who was translating the Psalms from the Old Testament. He was talking about certain Psalms that are called ‘Songs of Ascent’ that were sung as people were walking up the mountain outside Jerusalem. I became fascinated with this idea of singing and moving as worship and how there are so many cultures in ancient times and also now for whom travelling upward is this metaphor for worship or spiritual consciousness. At the same time my friend, the multi-media artist Ann Hamilton was finishing work on an eight-storey tower and she invited me to sing in it. I decided to do a piece called Songs of Ascension bringing these things together.
What effect do you hope the piece will have on audiences?
I hope people will feel uplifted. It’s a meditative, ritualistic piece. You get a sense that this is about human beings who have done this for thousands of years. There’s a sense of inevitability about it. We wanted to make it immersive – we have video screens, which rotate around the stage, there will be surround sound in the whole house and the chorus will be in the balconies. We really want the audience to feel a part of the piece.
You are included in the theatre section of the EIF programme. Is the piece theatre?
The best way to think of it is as a music concert with visual elements. It’s not a theatrical experience. It’s not like going to the opera. It’s more a kind of a ritual feeling.
You have performed Songs of Ascension in a wide variety of settings. Does the Royal Lyceum Theatre pose any particular challenges?
I love to adapt my pieces for specific settings. This is going to be a new challenge. It’s a more conventional theatre setting but it is a beautiful building which will bring something special to the performance. I’ve got a couple of days before the performance to go into the theatre and figure it out.
What kind of audience feedback have you had?
A man downstairs from me in my building in New York said he came to see the piece and felt good for three weeks. We can’t promise everyone will feel like that but hearing that made my day.
You and your work are very hard to define. How would you describe what you do?
I always say I’m a verb not a noun. My music, particularly my vocal music, is at the centre of everything I do.
Your career spans more than 45 years. How has your work evolved over that period?
As I’ve got older my impulse has been to make my work simpler and simpler, more essentialist, refined, honest and quiet. That’s very deliberate. It takes a lot of work to get something very simple.
Last year you released a new compilation album, Beginnings. What struck you about your work, going back through some of your early music?
It took me five years to go through the archive looking for a representative sample. The early work was very raw, visceral and energetic. I still want that visceral quality, that’s the base, but musically I’ve grown as a composer. In the early days I was mostly just working myself and using my voice. Later I worked with other people and used instruments.
You come from a very musical family. Did you ever think about doing anything else?
My mother was a radio jingles singer. My grandfather was a bass baritone who also played the violin and came to the United States from Russia. My grandmother was a concert pianist. So I had music all my life. My mother said I sang back melodies before I could talk. I read music before I could read. When I was three, I’d entertain all the kids in the neighbourhood singing the latest songs. I sang at such a young age it was a very natural language for me.
What does appearing at the Edinburgh International Festival mean to you?
I’ve been wanting to perform there for so many years. I’m thrilled. Scotland is a dream I’ve had since I was ten years old. My parents travelled a lot so my sister and I would be left with a lady called Janet Stewart who taught us to Highland dance and told us all about Scotland. It sounded like such a wonderful place. I want to take a train and get out and see some of the countryside.
Songs of Ascension, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 473 2000, 28–30 Aug, 8pm, £10–£27.