Unlocking the Power of the Voice

As a musical instrument, the human voice can convey a remarkable range of emotions, especially when freed from the constraints of words and traditional musical conventions. We know this thanks to the groundbreaking work of Meredith Monk, winner of the 2017 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

Since it was established in 1994 by the bequest of cinema actress Lillian Gish, the annual prize is awarded to an artist who, in Gish’s words, “has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world, and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” Past recipients include artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Ingmar Bergman, Merce Cunningham, Spike Lee and Maya Lin.

An American composer, singer, director/choreographer and creator of new opera, multimedia works and installations, Monk is most perhaps best known for her pioneering exploration of what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.”

“Back to my blood”

Hailed “a magician of the voice,” Monk was born into a musical family and is a fourth-generation singer. Her mother sang popular music and jingles on the radio, her grandfather was a bass-baritone and founded a music conservatory with her grandmother, and her great-grandfather was a cantor in Russia. For Monk, music was “as natural as breathing,” and she learned to read music before she could read words. Early on, she realized that she wanted to create her own work rather than follow her family tradition of being interpreters of music.

At Sarah Lawrence College, Monk studied not only voice, but also dance and theatre, and by her senior year she was creating pieces that combined all three. After graduating and moving to New York, she made works based in movement and image, but “I missed singing,” she says. “I went to the piano and started vocalizing again using regular, classical Western European exercises, and one day I had a revelation that the voice could be an instrument, and that the voice itself was a language.”

This revelation changed everything. “The day I realized that within the voice there could be different characters—there could be male and female, there could be different ages, landscapes and different ways of producing sound—that was like going back to my blood, but in my own way,” she says. “I sensed the ancient power of the voice as the first human instrument. It changed my whole work from that point on. I knew then what the heart of my work would be.”

Spinning, falling, jumping

As a choreographer, Monk already had a discipline for working on a form. “I applied that same method to my singing. I went in the studio and started working with my voice in different ways, seeing how I could stretch my range and explore different ways of producing sound.”

Monk also became fascinated with the notion of songs or sounds that were kinetically based: “How would the voice spin or fall or jump?” she wondered. “And I was also interested in a kind of abstract idea of emotion, like, what would a laughing song be.”

This exploration opened her range to four octaves and allowed her to discover additional expressive possibilities that weren’t limited by text or by language as a narrative element.

“Looking back, I actually feel very fortunate that I had to rely on myself,” Monk says. “It’s very confusing now to find your own voice when you can hear everything on the internet. I was compelled to uncover what was in my own voice. And that is what I always tell young people: ‘There’s only one of you in the universe, and if you want to be an artist, really try to find what it is you have to say.’”

Starting every work from zero

For Monk, every piece is different and “is its own world.” Her job, she says, “is to find out what that world wants and what its laws or principles are. There may be a part of the material that I think is great, but if it doesn’t belong in that world, then I have to let it go.”

Monk starts every work from zero: “That’s part of my discipline—to not use what I’ve done before as much as possible. And that’s very risky, but also very exciting, because discovery is what keeps me going from one day to the next.”

Her commitment to risk and to the beginner’s mind of her Buddhist practice anchors her creative process. “I usually just start by saying to myself ‘step by step by step,’ and also try to remember playfulness,” she says. “Then I’ll find something and realize I’ve never heard anything like that or I’ve never seen anything like that before, and then I know I’m on the right track.”

“I’m scared to death at the beginning of each new process,” she says. “But little by little, curiosity starts taking over, and the fear transforms into interest and excitement.”

The tactile experience

In addition to her work as a composer, Monk is known for her innovative mixed-media performance pieces that incorporate music and movement, image and object, light and sound. While she has also created films, albums and installations, the live performance experience is something she highly values.

“I would be very sad if live performance didn’t continue. There’s something about the tactile quality of a live performance, and the fact that we are all in the same space at the same time,” she says. “People are having a real, not a secondary experience through a screen, or through what somebody told them. That direct communication and tactility is something that I think we need to affirm in our life now, because I think that we’re losing a sense of touch.”

Art as a beacon

Monk feels a great affinity for the vision Lillian Gish described in her bequest—to honor an artist working to “contribute to the beauty of the world.” Beauty, Monk says, is “a kind of antidote to the darkness of our time right now. Lillian Gish was thinking of the prize being a kind of beacon. We need to encourage that level of shining generosity in this world.”

Ultimately, says Monk, “if you want to do something that’s really meaningful in art or in anything, it first has to come from love. That’s the first impulse. The thing that keeps me going over the years is that I have such a deep love and devotion to doing this work. And while it might seem like a narrow focus, it’s been a path that has led me around the world and allowed me to see how much human beings have in common.

“I’ve also experienced how music, art and movement are so universal that people can really experience a heart-to-heart kind of communication. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t used a lot of text in my work, because language, spoken language, is a filter system that sometimes gets in the way.”

To Monk, the Gish Prize affirms the value of art in society. “We’re really fighting against this anti-culture, anti-intelligence, anti-sensitivity, this anti-kindness set of values,” she says. “This award is remarkable, in that here’s a beautiful woman who was a fantastic artist and an extraordinary human being, and her strength and clarity still inspire us. Her vision is helping us to convince people that anything of beauty is worthwhile. What a wonderful thing. Hallelujah.”  

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