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Music review: Meredith Monk weaves a spell with Los Angeles Master Chorale

April 12, 2010 |  4:30 pm
Meredith Monk’s wondrous new work, “Weave,” performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Walt Disney Concert Hall Sunday evening, does just that. It weaves.

Like fish in a stream or cars (when they’re moving) on the 10, two curious vocal soloists, a chorus and a chamber orchestra musically, magically weave in and out. Like strands of thread, melodic themes are sown into energized patterns. Moods mingle like clouds that darken and evaporate. The sun is revealed at the end in sublime radiance, followed by a few sweet plucked raindrops.

On the other hand, "Weave" may have nothing at all to do with weaving. The work was a co-commission with the St. Louis Symphony and the Master Chorale, and Monk had no title for it until the night of the score’s first performance in St. Louis last month.

But this much is certain: Monk is the super-seamstress of performance. Her career has been predicated on the fact that movement, theater, film, music, site, script are all part of a large fabric.
I once described her as a leading American experimental choreographer and dancer who also happened to be a composer with an unmistakable musical voice. I immediately got a phone call with an unmistakable voice on the line correcting the order of things. At the center of her work and being, Monk insisted, was music.

It has taken time for some of us in the music world to fully understand or acknowledge her importance as a composer. The perky rhythms, uninhibited vocal sounds, simple melodies, straightforward harmonies and happy rhythms she and her ensemble sang did once seem to imply a musical naïf.  But she has always been an original whose music was informed by the movement-based activities she does so well.

With “Weave,” you can feel the waves. The vocal soloists -- mezzo-soprano Katie Geissinger and baritone Theo Bleckmann -- are longtime Monksters. They start spinning the basic material, which Monk has described as bell-like sounds, a walking theme and sonic cascades.

There is no text (there rarely is in Monk’s music). Nor do these solo voices always sound like voices; Monk is a master of turning the vocal cords into orchestral instruments. She uses the voice as an inner voice for sounds we might contemplate but wouldn’t dare produce in public. She uses it as an outer voice for sounds that nature and her many creatures make.

The chorus picks up its music from the soloists, becoming an extended body of extended vocal techniques. The strings and winds in the chamber orchestra are also vocally used. But brilliant bell-like percussion is also a Monk sound. For her, two pianos and a celesta are sonic sparklers. Monk’s music rarely lacks a perky side, and standard percussion plays a perky part in that.

The perkiness is not permanent, however. In this 23-minute score, one thing not only leads to the next but also infects whatever it touches. Each section, each theme, each affect has its specific sound that is easily corrupted by a procedure perhaps best described as a timbral caress.

Monk’s instrumental writing (she shares the orchestration with Allison Sniffin) is not an especially great challenge for a traditional orchestra, but her vocal writing is a real stretch for traditional chorus. And the Grant Gershon-trained Master Chorale, which first collaborated with Monk four years ago in conjunction with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox festival, is the ensemble that has mastered her extended techniques best. One of the great thrills of “Weave” Sunday was watching the chorus members lose their old self-consciousness as they gained new techniques.

Gershon set the scene for “Weave” with Arvo Pärt’s mystically intense “Miserere,” for five vocal soloists, a chorus that sings very little and an chamber ensemble that plays very little. The lights were darkened. Fire officials frown on incense in the concert hall, but Gershon’s sensitive performance transformed it into a sacred site anyway.

After intermission, Gershon led a lively account of Monk’s “Night” as well as excerpts from “Songs of Ascension,” her recent collaboration with visual artist Ann Hamilton. “Night” is the rare Monk piece with specific musical references – here to Middle European music. It is cleverly orchestrated by Sniffin, who was also one of the eight singers, but this is a glittery direction I’m glad Monk has not pursued.

In “Songs of Ascension,” Monk finally took the stage, seated on the floor singing and accompanying herself on an Indian squeezebox. A small instrumental ensemble, conducted by Gershon, walked on performing, as did the chorus. This is Monk’s music at its most primal and affecting.

“Ascension” ends with the performers prostrate. In Monk’s world, up is down, just as time and space, sight and sound, movement and music are all woven into the same tapestry.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Meredith Monk with singers at the end of "Songs of Ascension" Sunday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Axel Koester / Los Angeles Times