Following her performance on Wednesday, August 31, 2023 at The Ford, the audience did not want to let dance and music legend Meredith Monk leave the stage. Following the performance titled Memory Game, and several standing ovations, the Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, along with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, performed two encores followed by a whimsical solo encore by Monk titled Descent of an Insect.
Having begun her performance career in 1964 in New York City, age has caused her to curb her movements physically, but time has not weakened her voice. Many in LA were looking forward to this performance for months and they were not disappointed in the least.
Monk’s talents appear to be unlimited. She is a dancer, choreographer, composer, singer, and writer who has composed works for dance, voice, music-theater, symphonies, Kronos Quartet, opera, film, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, among others. Her bio states that “among the many highlights of Monk’s performances from the last twenty-five years is her Vocal Offering for His Holiness the Dalai Lama as part of the World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles in October, 1999”.
Against a backdrop of the Hollywood Hills gorgeously lit by The Ford’s Lighting Designer and Master Electrician, Cameron Pieratt, the program opened with a performance of Spaceship, from The Games: a science fiction opera arranged by Michael Gordon. The piece was conceived and directed by Monk and Ping Chong in 1983 while in West Berlin. There was a distinct resonance of composer Philip Glass but with Monk’s unique composition knowledge and skills. Following the piece Monk explained that “The Games takes place in a post-nuclear future where everyone is involved in games about survival”. During one section of Spaceship, I thought I was back in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia or Kentucky. The piece was expertly performed by Eleonore Oppenheim, bass; Vicky Chow, piano and keyboard; David Cossin, percussion; Arlen Hlusko, cello; Mark Stewart, electric guitar; and Ken Thomson, clarinets.
The next piece, Memory Song (from The Games), remembering the earth’s history and society, was performed by Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble members Theo Bleckmann, voice; Katie Geissinger, voice; Meredith Monk, voice; and Allison Sniffin, voice and bowed psaltery. Among many things remembered were coffee, champagne, Football, and chess. Sniffin gave an incredible impersonation of a tropical bird and the entire ensemble performed sparse but intriguing arm, hand and torso movements. Words were followed by the repetition of syllables musically composed to sound like conversations that the listener begins to hear as words. It was only a taste of what was to come.
The Game Master (from The Games), performed by Bleckmann, combined Monk’s vocal genius with simple but poignant movement. The master came across as a dictator, his stance and stepping reminding me of photographs and film clips of Hitler or Stalin during WWII.
Migration (from The Games) incorporated lyrically soft arm gestures and a section where Monk’s character is clearly interrupting to others what is being read from a book written in English. Here, the blending of voices felt spiritual and magical without being religious.
The last piece from The Games was titled Downfall where the women appear to be taking on the Games Master who repeats his stance and marching steps. There are harsh hissing sounds and gestures beckoning others to come join them. Downfall had more movement that the other sections, but it remained pedestrian and specifically directed.
Next was a stunning soprano solo, Waltz in 5s, from The Politics of Quiet (1996) performed by Geissinger dressed in a shiny lavender dress, her hair back in a bun. She did not move around very much but her voice was a physical tour de force, resounding around The Ford’s outdoor amphitheater like a chorus of songbirds. The Politics of Quiet was arranged by Meredith Monk and Allison Sniffin.
Monk showed off her great humor with a work titled Tokyo Cha Cha, from Turtle Dreams that was inspired by a trip to Japan, one of her favorite cities in the world. Poking fun at, but honoring the Japanese culture, Monk utilized the formal bowing with the addition of sneezing sounds and the words ‘bless you’. There was the signature arm gesture and in place Cha Cha dancing accompanied by the words ‘Let’s Cha Cha. Be happy’.
The last two works were arranged by one of America’s most performed composers and Pulitzer Prize winner, David Lang. Totentanz, from impermanence (2006) was a wonderful showcase for Bang on a Can All-Stars. Each musician had a solo and there were dynamic sections of short, harsh, and powerful chords played in unison. In Double Fiesta, from Acts from Under and Above (1986) Monk astounded the audience with her magnificent and versatile voice.
She is a legend, an American treasure and one of a kind performer. I remember attending her performances during my time living in New York. There is one event that stands out to me and one that I still find hard to fathom. I went to see a performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Cunningham School in Westbeth. The music coming from the side sounded like a small orchestra but in fact was only one woman, Meredith Monk.
If you have not seen or heard Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble or Bang on a Can All-Stars, buy tickets as soon as you see that they are performing near you.
For more information about Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, please visit their website.
For more information about Bang on a Can All-Stars, please visit their website.
To find out more about The Ford and its performance season, please visit their website.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble with Bang on a Can All-Stars performing Monk’s “Memory Game” at The Ford – Photo by Farah Sosa for the LA Phil