Meredith Monk (1942- )
The possibilities for sounds, textures, and timbres expanded enormously during the twentieth century, and many composers began using non-traditional techniques to create new and unique sounds in their music. Meredith Monk was one of these composers, experimenting with the sounds of the human voice in her compositions.
Dolmen Music is a unique blend of six voices, a cello, and percussion. The piece features in some sections minimalistic accompaniment with the cello playing several open chords repeatedly. There are no lyrics in the composition; instead, all six voices are asked to sing and speak in a wide range of syllable sounds and noises. The overall effect of these voices is a very raw and primitive sound, and I was occasionally reminded of some of the field recordings of Bela Bartok that we listened to in class – even some of the music itself vaguely resembles parts of Bartok's Mikrokosmos. In a documentary by Peter Greenaway featuring Monk along with several other American composers, Monk mentions that her inspiration for this piece came from seeing the dolmens (a type of ancient stone burial tomb similar to the stone structures of Stonehenge) in Brittany, France. She felt as though they could have been created by people on this planet or by some other creature from a different place, and so she decided to reflect this by blending an old style of music with a somewhat futuristic style to create Dolmen Music. Monk embraces the archaic qualities of the composition alongside the unique, contemporary sounds. I find it very interesting that the voices are able to simultaneously sound primitively folk-like and eerily out-of-this-world. Watching the Greenaway documentary added the visual element that further shaped my view of this work; in many instances, the ensemble of singers appeared to be communicating directly with each other through the singing. This added to the strange sensation of a different “language” being spoken – one that is not from this world.
The piece is split into six sections:
A. Overture and Men's Conclave
D. Pine Tree Lullaby
At the beginning of the piece, a slow, simple melodic line precedes the voice parts, which are mostly female at first and then transition to male voices. As the male voices sing, they frequently break off into sections in which they speak in a garbled, distant fashion. Gradually the female voices join them again and the movement finishes soon after. As the piece progresses, the voices hardly sound human at times – occasionally, they are asked to replicate the sound of the Jewish harp or sing in an almost obnoxiously nasal tone. The final movement of the piece returns to the beginning themes found in the first movement, creating a circular effect to the piece as a whole. As eclectic as the composition sounds, I find Dolmen Music to be an intriguing example of the abilities of the human voice as an instrument. Emotion often translates much more effectively through the voice rather than a standard instrument, and the extreme contrasts between these emotions create a tension in the piece that is difficult to describe. The moods of Dolmen Music can vary from ethereal to incredibly aggressive within a matter of seconds.
Upon first listening to this piece, I was turned off by the crude sound of the voice – as a vocal accompanist, I am used to hearing a more classically trained, beautiful sound. But after listening several more times, I came to realize that these voices were indeed incorporating and utilizing advanced technique, such as rapidly repeated glottal attacks or extreme color changes.
I think that Monk really stepped outside the comfort zone of audiences and performers alike to create an intense, expressive piece of art. However, I can understand how she is not included in the canon because of other composers who experimented with various vocal styles alongside her, such as Berio. Also, I believe that it is extremely difficult to place any composers/compositions in the 20th century under any type of canonic label. The range of compositional ideas and experiments are truly limitless in this time frame, and without a sense of standard, it is virtually impossible to compare these works. Furthermore, even the fundamental definition of music is changing during this time. With factors such as these, I can hardly say one way or another whether Dolmen Music deserves a place in the canon, but it can definitely be considered an interesting, thought-provoking piece of music.
Jowitt, Deborah, ed. Meredith Monk. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.