An Exercise in Vocal Release

Meredith Monk by F. Scott Schafer, 1999

Meredith Monk by F. Scott Schafer, 1999

Anne Waldman, beginning her Entanglement Variations at the alter of Saint Marks Church, adorned with long black robe and white scarf, gave what felt and looked like a sermon. Moving closer to the audience with each section, Waldman delivered abstracted social and political commentary as a moral teaching – a story whose direction, if not astutely followed, could be lost on us. In Assorted Selection, her middle piece, she taught us about “the original Anne” and the many other iterations of Anne. She imparted information on “the deciders,” depicting the categorization and specification that determine our societal place and who makes those decisions. While I heard the stories and states of other Annes, this Anne held the audience tautly with her words and tones, guiding a long meditation on the state of our culture.

Paintings by Pat Steir were projected behind her, the paint cascading down from the top of the wall behind the alter. These changed color as she moved between pieces and allowed for some visual escape throughout. Rocking and waving like a wizard, Waldman concocted an oral history right in front of me, dipping and swooping with her voice and drawing out the vowels of certain words. She mesmerized in a completely different way than the unmistakable Meredith Monk.

Meredith Monk, whose legend first came to me through a lecture in dance history, somehow outperformed all of my expectations while still embodying exactly what I imagined (I had not yet had the good fortune of seeing her live). When Meredith Monk uses her voice she is equally physically and vocally engaged, allowing her body to assist the sounds she is creating. She exemplifies how closely voice and body are connected, and how one can help release the other. Monk was accompanied by a vocal ensemble and the performers moved in and out of spatial patterns throughout her performance. This physical inhabiting of the space allowed for their voices to fill it in different way than other sound-based performances I’ve seen. They called to each other from across the space in Sacred Song and moved forward and backwards in a line during part of Monk’s new work-in-progress Cellular Songs. Her staging was impeccably designed and executed.

The conversation that occurred between Waldman and Monk was a sound-poem collaboration, one feeding the other and responding back. In each collaborative piece, both parts were equal and held their own integrity; they empowered each other, though at times creating a tug of war with my focus. The words occasionally slipped and fell into Monk’s abstract sound domain as in Falling Dance/Rat Tat Tat Tat where Waldman abandoned her specific poetic vocabulary. In Chenrezig Echoes/Chenrezig Walks Among Us (for the Dalai Lama) the pendulum swung the other way and Monk offered verbal echoes to Waldman’s poems, catching whatever she heard and offering a tonal repetition of the words as they walked together towards the audience.

Both artists have a certain oddity to their performance having to do with the way they connect voice and body. They are definitely both soloists. Their works stand on their own and fill the entire space. Performing together and bringing their works into a shared space was unexpected – unnatural, even. Experiencing them side by side and then witnessing their meeting point revealed how two artists with vastly differing works could use their differences while recognizing their overlap to support one another and create something entirely new and entirely them.

Meredith Monk, left, and Anne Waldman at Danspace Project. Credit Nicole Fara Silver for The New York Times

Meredith Monk and Anne Waldman at Danspace Project. Photo: Nicole Fara Silver for The New York Times

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