Friday, 16 August 2013

Meredith Monk - On Behalf of Nature

Meredith Monk wasn't aware of When Bjork Met Attenburgh before we 
spoke, but suddenly I'm giving her a link to the recent Channel Four 
documentary that looks at the relationship between music and the 
natural world through the eyes of film-maker David Attenburgh and 
Icelandic singer, Bjork. The fact that I'm reading it down the line 
during a telephone call to the pioneering seventy-year old composer, 
director, vocalist and choreographer's New York speaks volumes about 
the hi-tech global village we live in. Given that Monk's return to 
Edinburgh International Festival this weekend  following her debut here 
in 2010 with the spiritually inclined Songs of Ascension is with a show 
called On Behalf of Nature, it's also somewhat ironic.

On Behalf of Nature is a poetic meditation on the environment and how 
it is gradually being eroded by man's lack of concern for it. With 
roots in Buddhist thought and the poetry of American Beat Gary Snyder, 
Monk and her Vocal Ensemble use six voices, including her own, 
woodwind, percussion, keyboard, violin and French Horn to score a work 
that gets back to nature in a quietly enquiring way.

“I was just very concerned about what is going on in our world,” Monk 
says in her dreamy and decidedly un-earnest voice. “It's pretty hard 
not to be. While I was working on Songs of Ascension, I was reading 
ecology books at the same time, and I had this image of a two-hundred 
year old woman going down into the earth.”

This image converged with Snyder's influence.

“I had never read him before,” Monk says, “but he's not only a poet, 
but an environmental activist and a Buddhist. I practice Buddhism as 
well, but a different form from him. So I went back to his early work, 
 from the hippy times, around 1970, and the things he was writing about 
then look very much like what is going on now in the world. Snyder 
talked about speaking on behalf of nature, and I took that as a title 
and decided to pick up the gauntlet.”

From these starting points, Monk developed the piece organically.

“I wanted to find some new musical worlds,” she says, “but I didn't 
want to do it as a music concert, although you could do it that way. It 
was finding out how to integrate all these different worlds, but I 
didn't want us running round pretending to be little birds flapping our 
arms about. When material came up, it was important not to reject it or 
question it, but to trust it and see where it went, and to make sure 
that the movement and gestures didn't cancel out the music.”

On Behalf of Nature's concerns tallies with a similarly inclined focus 
on the natural world from artists and musicians as diverse as Chris 
Watson and the Glasgow-based Hanna Tuulikki. While Watson releases 
albums and makes installations using recordings from around the globe 
in-between working as sound recordist for David Attenburgh, Bill 
OddieOddie and others, Tuulikki draws inspiration from birds and other 
animals to make vocal-based performance pieces.

On Behalf of Nature also chimes with a generation of musicians who are 
turning their backs on laptop-based culture to find more natural sounds 
played on real instruments or else just their voices alone.

“This acoustic culture brings back touch,” Monk says, “and we need that”

Despite its themes, one thing that On Behalf of Nature categorically 
isn't is a didactic piece of banner-waving rhetoric. That not only 
wouldn't be Monk's style. It would also be too easy.

“I wouldn't even say it's about the subject,” Monk says. “Rather, it's 
(+italics)dealing(-italics) with the subject. We're looking at a world 
that we're in danger of losing, and how do you do something like that 
without wagging your finger? For me, it's about how you look at the 
world, and, living in it, how you have to try and do something of 
benefit, and become more conscious of it. I think I always knew these 
things as an artist, but since I started practising Buddhism I've 
become more aware of its benefits.

“Bit I feel good about this piece. I think it's got a kind of magic to 
it. It's immersive, and it leaves space for the audience to absorb the 
full spectrum. It's very life-affirming.”

Beyond On Behalf of Nature, Monk will be spending time on much smaller 
projects, including a new piece for cello and a documentary film. As 
for anything on the scale of On Behalf of Nature, Monk isn't sure.

“I play the waiting game,” she laughs lightly. “That's about living in 
discomfort, hanging out in the unknown and going to the edge of the 
cliff again until something happens. Just going from project to project 
in a really organised way might be easier, because the way I wait and 
work is really uncomfortable, but I think I prefer it that way.”

On Behalf of Nature, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 16th-17th, 8pm, 
August 18th, 2.30pm.

The Herald, August 16th 2013


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