impermanence is the ninth recording by Meredith Monk for ECM, six years removed from her previous recording, mercy (ECM, 2002). An interdisciplinary artist whose works combine vocals (with extended techniques that take it beyond singing), instrumental composition, dance and video, Monk's arrangements for CD of the original form of impermanence follow the strategy she used on mercy whereby much was significantly altered for a pure listening experience.
Although the subjects of living life, aging and death have been grist for thought throughout the centuries, the main impulses for this work were a series of specific incidents: a book by James Hillman, The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life (Random House, 1999), the sudden death of Miek van Hoek, Monk's partner of twenty-two years, and a request from Rosetta Life, a group that connects artist with hospice patients, for a work based on their patient's stories.
If mercy was on the preachy side, impermanence is a pure gift. It does not tell us how to live, how to die or how to view the life and death of others, but rather it can, as Monk states in her liner notes, "only imply it, offer glimpses, create music that would be evocative but would also leave space for each listener to have his or her responses."
Monk's compositional techniques have evolved so that on this release, the instruments share the stage with the voices rather than merely providing simple accompaniment. The music of impermanence is more complicated, more chromatic and dissonant than mercy, while using mostly the same vocal and instrumental forces. Monk says that she has always written for the voice as if it were an instrument and that she is now thinking and writing for instruments as voices.
Monk creates much beauty and poignancy, as each track investigates a differing aspect of impermanence in human existence. The degree of abstraction in relation to the subject varies from piece to piece, and much of the music can easily stand on its own.
The three longest tracks, all of which are in the first half, bear closer examination. "last song," which relates to Hillman's book, examines the various and contradictory uses of the word "last" and the tension between them. "liminal," which literally means "at the threshold of perception," has a minimalist subtext as the odd length, repeated accompanying piano and marimba figure, with its static harmony, is slowly altered and enlarged by voices and reeds. "between song" begins with a strong religious sound, starting with lightly struck gongs and then exploring "between-ness," the barely existing separation between various pairs of things.
impermanence is a deeply moving work in which Monk's grappling with the subject is palpable. The last track, "miek's melody nr 5," starts as a vocal hymn to van Hoek but then ends with a sparse piano and vibraphone section that sums up the conflict between loss and acceptance.
last song; maybe 1; little breath; liminal; disequilibrium; particular dance; between song; passage; maybe 2; skeleton lines; slow dissolve; totentanz; sweep 1; rocking; sweep 2; Meike's melody #5.
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