Meredith Monk: Songs of Ascension (4 stars)

This article is from 2010

Meredith Monk: Songs of Ascension

There is so much beauty here

It’s difficult to begin describing Songs of Ascension, a new(ish) work by composer, musician, artist and mercurial force of nature Meredith Monk, because it doesn’t fit cleanly into any of the nice, regular boxes we use to describe different kinds of art work. It’s filed in the theatre section of the International Festival programme, but made up mostly of music. There is dance, there are filmed projections. However, the experience of it, as an audience member, is most attuned to the experience of visual art; of an installation piece, freed from theatrical or performance-bound conventions, where any overreaching meaning is left for the spectator themself to decide upon, silently.

Monk begins by disrupting the audience as they get comfortable in their red velvet chairs, programmes rustling importantly, with the occasional shatter of percussion from somewhere in the Grand Circle. Onstage, a female dancer, dressed in white and wearing sensible, farm-hand-y boots, performs a series of ritual dances as a pendulum light fitting swings across the space. When it is time for a formal beginning, she’s joined by the grey-clad Elysian Quartet, their instruments strapped to their bodies, by percussionists and, gradually, by Monk’s own Vocal Ensemble, in rough, warm red, all of them stomping their boots as though to shake the earth off. Monk herself, crying and yelping like a coyote to draw her tribe to her, with her pigtails and short frock closely resembles Laura Ingalls Wilder, even at almost seventy, and the spirit of frontier people, native American chants and prairie farming practicality infuse the series of ritual moments, rain dances, mouth music works and wordless choral intonations that follow just as much as the programme-acknowledged Buddhist and Hebrew influences. Projections of horses gallop in spotlights, birds chirrup and animals wail eldritch from the vocalists’ throats, and we watch a tribe create itself, discover its own rituals and invent its own traditions.

There is so much beauty here, but it is achieved delicately, playfully, and almost unobtrusively -- Monk and her performers never look for any grand, ego-satisfying moment of climax. They were hampered only by the overly formal performance space: as this production depends on performers able to move freely around and through an audience, it would have been wonderful to encounter this somewhere like Glasgow’s Tramway, or even the Edinburgh Corn Exchange. Still, the ensemble are clever enough and their sound to have made even the Lyceum’s stuffy interior resonate like a cathedral.

Edinburgh International Festival, run ended.

Songs of Ascension

  • 4 stars

Where one artform stops and another starts has never been a concern for Meredith Monk as she seamlessly blends elements of music, art and theatre to startling effect. Part uplifting celebration, part devotional ritual, Songs of Ascension is an ethereal, meditative work that combines music, movement and film. Supported by…