Meredith Monk - On Behalf Of Nature (2016) High-Fidelity FLAC Stereo 24bit/96kHz
Composer: Meredith Monk
Artist: Meredith Monk Ensemble
Title: On Behalf Of Nature
Genre: Avant-Garde, Classical, Vocal Music
Label: © ECM Records GmbH
Release Date: 2016
Quality: High-Fidelity FLAC Stereo 96kHz/24bit
Recorded: June 2015, Avatar Studios, New York
For five decades, vocalist-composer Meredith Monk has explored what she calls “primordial utterance,” or non-verbal vocal sound that lay beneath and beyond language, expressing “that for which we have no words.” This exploration has led her to create music that The New Yorker describes as simultaneously “visceral and ethereal, raw and rapt,” an art that “sings, dances and meditates on timeless forces.” With her latest, multivalent ECM New Series album, Monk aimed to address ecology and climate change, she says: “Believing that music speaks more directly than words, I worked to make a piece with a fluid, perceptual field that could expand awareness of what we are in danger of losing. On Behalf of Nature is a meditation on our intimate connection to nature, its inner structures, the fragility of its ecology and our interdependence.” Voices and instruments have equal weight: sometimes each is heard alone; sometimes they are blended to form a new, mysterious sound; sometimes they are combined to create intricate, layered, yet transparent sonic landscapes.
Meredith Monk's influence as a singer and composer extends through Björk, Joanna Newsom and beyond. On Behalf of Nature is a plea for ecological awareness with no lectures, just beauty and empathy.
Over her half-century career as a composer and singer, Meredith Monk has refreshed the language of vocal music. She has cultivated steely modes of expression in her top register, and gravely dramatic timbres in the low end. In between those extremes, she possesses a library of stunning, diverse effects that come across as intensely physical. On a recording, Monk’s voice doesn’t enter the listener’s consciousness from some disembodied ether. The music sails directly from the discrete figure at its center.
The pressed-lip vibrations, throat clicks and beaming yowls of childhood play are celebrated in her singing. And these tricks are also put to use for emotionally varied ends. A tender lullaby might veer into a cathartic silliness. A pulse-driven group chant can collapse into solemn observance. Patterns are present, though mostly for the purpose of being challenged by an unlikely development.
Occasionally she uses short English phrases to anchor a theme. More often, the vocal production is wordless—though it is no less communicative for that fact. The influence of this style is felt both inside and outside the academy. When listening to Björk, Joanna Newsom, or Kate Soper, you’re dealing with a tradition that stretches back through Monk, who has studied classical and folk forms and found luminous ways to channel them.
On Behalf of Nature is titled after one of Monk’s recent, wordless stage shows: a meditation on ecological themes, including climate change. Despite that impassioned editorial focus, her resulting suite of songs and motifs avoids coming across like a lecture. And because she always revises the music from a dramatic piece before creating an album, Nature sounds purposeful and complete throughout its hourlong running time. Aside from her vocal troupe, the instrumental forces include ace percussionist John Hollenbeck, harpist Laura Sherman, and the reed-instrument player Bohdan Hilash. (One current singer in Monk’s group, Allison Sniffin, also doubles on piano, violin and French horn.)
With a spare introductory theme voiced on a Burmese piccolo, opening track “Dark/Light 1” evokes a pre-dawn zone of austere beauty. Later, a brooding bass clarinet is stalked calmly by a vibraphone tones. Then Monk’s voice enters, creating a sense of shamanistic ritual. Her notes could be talismans against danger, or the first melody after a cataclysmic event. Gradually, her sound gives way to that of a male voice, for a short stretch, before the the full vocal ensemble enters with gleaming new harmonies. In moving from a vulnerable, solo state to a zone of greater security and community, the music etches its broad narrative.
Throughout Nature, the composer’s graceful use of diverse sonic phenomena amounts to a plea for biodiversity. This argument works via metaphor, instead of through the language of the stump speech. Rich rounds of vocal writing suggest organic growth processes, on “Fractal Activity.” The murmurs of “Environs 1” sound like the byproduct of a busy hive. Then there are the serene glances at beauty, as in the clarinet, vibraphone and French horn feature “Eon.” And you can understand why Monk rejects the “minimalist” label during a movement like “Duet with Shifting Ground”—where blocks of seemingly stable harmony are interrupted by prickly parts for violin and percussion.
Surprises keep coming, without ruining the charming underlying vibe. Strange string lines sneak up on the vocalists, during the otherwise imperturbable “Evolution.” Unexpected rhythmic stresses make “Pavement Steps” into an unlikely dance number. Occasionally, Monk’s hooks seem to be present merely so that they can be upended. But thanks to the palindrome-like “arch form” of the piece, all these feints and stylistic burrows eventually feel unified, when early motifs reappear in slightly adapted form, toward the close of the piece.
At 74, Monk’s voice doesn’t have quite the otherworldly pliability captured on vintage recordings like Do You Be. Yet she is utterly commanding during this album’s centerpiece, “Water/Sky Rant.” Here, Monk inhabits the role of a woman petitioning the heavens for a downpour. Harp arpeggios support the initial entreaties; an optimistic clarinet tries to help make the sale. Then, a shift in the harmony shows us that the sky is still parched. Monk’s voice momentarily sounds defeated, tinny. Then she unleashes a show-stopping “rant,” full of the desperate, throaty extended-techniques that this singer has been pioneering ever since Julius Eastman was a member of her vocal ensemble.
Of late, Monk has started receiving more invitations to write for orchestras and string quartets. In her liner notes to Nature, it is acknowledged that “the voices and instruments have equal weight” this time—a state of play that might startle those who think of her talent in narrower terms. Still, she’s always been more than one of the world’s great singers. Some of Monk’s best pieces, like the 1991 opera Atlas, have also boasted dazzling instrumental writing. Her vocal instrument remains the envy of singers fifty years her junior. But on Nature, the uniqueness of her compositional vision is just as impressive. --Seth Colter Walls, Pitchfork
1 Dark-Light 1 04:27
2 High Realm 01:27
3 Fractal Activity 02:57
4 Environs 1 01:51
5 Eon 02:56
6 Duet With Shifting Ground 05:22
7 Environs 2 00:56
8 Pavement Steps 02:04
9 Evolution 04:40
10 Ritual Zone 04:08
11 Water-Sky Rant 05:48
12 Memory Zone 04:22
13 Environs 3 00:56
14 Harvest 03:19
15 Dark-Light 2 03:07
16 High Realm Reprise 01:01
17 Fractal Mirror 01:56
18 Ringing 03:30
19 Spider Web Anthem 06:07
Meredith Monk Ensemble:
Meredith Monk, voice
Sidney Chen, voice
Ellen Fisher, voice
Katie Geissinger, voice
Bruce Rameker, voice
Allison Sniffin, voice
Bohdan Hilash, woodwinds
John Hollenbeck, percussion
Allison Sniffin, piano, keyboard, violin, French horn
Laura Sherman, harp
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