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12.6.08

Impermanence

In memory of Jerry Consalvi, who passed on
to the next life on May 28, 2008


available at Amazon
Impermanence, Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble

(released March 18, 2008)
ECM New Series 2026
About two years ago, I reviewed Impermanence, the multimedia work composed by experimental vocalist and composer Meredith Monk in 2004-2005, in a live performance at the George Mason University Center for the Fine Arts. About a year after that, Monk and her Vocal Ensemble recorded the work, in a slightly altered form, for this recent release, which makes for worthy listening (out of focus cover art notwithstanding). She gave an interesting interview about the piece on NPR last month. Of course, as nice as it is to have this recording, a CD tells only one part of the story, as Monk's work combines voice, movement, video, rhythm, and light. (Judging from the hatchet job by reviewer Andrew Clements, the absence of at least the memory of the extra-musical parts can diminish the work significantly.)

Meredith Monk's partner, choreographer Mieke van Hoek, died suddenly of cancer in 2002. Shortly after that tragic event in her life, Monk received an invitation from Rosetta Life, a group in England that connects patients in hospice care with artists. Monk went to England, met with several patients, played her music, and talked to them. She even had the patients, in their timorous voices, sing the melody composed by Mieke van Hoek (Mieke's Melody #5, now moved to the end of the work), each with an independent sense of pitch and rhythm.

The result of those visits, Impermanence is a sequence of scenes or sketches about the irreconcilable conflict between one's identity and the unavoidable ending of it. The recorded version still begins with Monk alone at the piano for Last Song, a series of minimalistic chords over which she riffs hypnotically on every possible combination of words implying finality ("last song, last breath, last ditch, last minute") and the frenzied disintegration of those words into phonemes. Liminal features a recitation of the sometimes nonsensical actions attributed to the patients: "she called tofu pillows," "she calls the bed a nest," "he talked back to the radio." In addition to her usual medium, the voice, Monk has scored the piece for a range of instruments besides the piano, traditional (bass clarinet), folk (ocarina), and makeshift (bicycle wheel).

Monk's music is basically minimalistic, a term that no composer seems to want applied to his or her music. The harmony is fairly simple, quasi-tonal, and repeated with small variations. What is complicated is the rhythmic patterns and the range of singing especially. Many of the sounds in Impermanence are calming, although Monk does use some of her hallmark ultra-high singing (parodied in Meredith Monk Scares an Owl on YouTube, of course) and folk-inspired cantillation (even yodeling and cackling). All-vocal tracks like Passage and Maybe 2 (with a few instruments added) are still the most haunting moments in the piece, a exploration of how overlapping lines merge into a waterfall-like cascade of sound, rushing motion that gives the impression of stasis. Monk's incorporation of pop- and jazz-inspired sounds, which might be expected to annoy me, ultimately creates an effective sort of modern danse macabre, especially in Skeleton Lines and Totendanz.

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