Perennial Relevance, Irrepressible Wit and Catchy Tunes From Meredith Monk at the Jewish Museum
Thursday night at the Jewish Museum, Meredith Monk sang a playful, relentlessly catchy, perennially relevant mix of songs spanning over forty years. Now well into her seventies, the iconic composer still has the same clarity and purity in her upper register that she had back in the 1970s when she first came to prominence as a young lioness of the avant garde. Since then, just about every quirky songstress, from Laurie Anderson, to Bjork, to Carol Lipnik, owes her a shout for blazing the trail.
Monk always looks like the cat who ate the canary, an outward calm masking an inner delight that she can’t resist sharing. Her leaps and bounds and sudden rhythmic shifts seem more seamless – and easy to sing – than they actually are, considering what a brilliant tunesmith she is. Bright, kinetic melodies from throughout the show lingered long after it was over. She opened solo, a-cappella with Wa-li-oh, a 1975 number from her Songs from the Hill collection, where she’d literally gone to the mountaintop for the inspiration to write them. Its subtle echo effects may well have reflected that milieu.
She delivered similarly dappled, sunspotted pointillisms in a couple of other numbers: the Xosa-inflected Click Song, from 1988, and later in a series of brief pieces from last year’s suite of Cellular Songs, the final puckishly titled Lullaby for Leaves. By then, she’d been joined by two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger, tall blonde valkyries flanking the modestly dressed, slender bandleader. The two womens’ harmonies, frequent upward flights and command of Monk’s frequently challenging counterpoint were the icing on the cake.
The night’s most memorable number was Scared Song, for organ and vocals, its macabre undercurrent reflecting its response to Reagan-era fearmongering. “Fear becomes violence when we don’t know it’s fear,” she advised.
Another starkly relevant moment was when the trio sang Memory Song, from Monk’s dystopic 1984 suite The Games, a calmly surreal evocation from the point of view of a quasi-griot enumerating lost cultural references, from the essential to the ridiculous. That’s why Monk’s work has always had such resonance beyond the cutting edge: there’s always something funny to lighten even the darkest points.
Monk related how she’d recorded the bittersweetly circling Gotham Lullaby in 1975, solo on piano on her debut album, and felt like she’d botched the take. Producer Manfred Eicher told he it was fine – she could do another take if she felt like it, but he’d be going out for coffee while she did. And he was right, she demurred: there was magic in its imperfections, although her take this time out certainly didn’t seem to have any.
The most operatic moment of the night was a song from her 2006 Impermanence suite. The most trickily rhythnic was Waltz in 5’s, from 1996’s The Politics of Quiet. The most enigmatic was her own solo rendition of Happy Woman, from last year. Monk’s everywoman narrator seems on the surface to be perfectly content, but it turns out she’s also troubled in almost innumerable other ways. At face value, she maintained a resolute calm, but the turbulent undercurent cuoldn’t be masked. In an era when state legislatures are falling like dominoes to a lunatic misogynist fringe, that song couldn’t have had more of an impact.
This was it for this spring’s series of concerts at the Jewish Museum sponsored by the Bang on a Can organization, but they typically do an outdoor summer series at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City as well. Meanwhile, the Museum’s must-see Leonard Cohen exhibit will be up through Sept 8, and trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s noir cinematic trio Sexmob are there for free on June 11 at around 6 as part of this year’s Museum Mile Festival.