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Meredith Monk: impermanence

John Kelman By

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The human voice may well be the most expressive instrument of all, capable of the subtlest of nuance and the most dramatic exclamation, but few have explored its full range as thoroughly as Meredith Monk. Over the course of eight ECM albums beginning with Dolmen Music (ECM, 1981) Monk—a composer, filmmaker, vocalist and pianist—has built a body of work that's been a significant reference point for multidisciplinary singers including America's Theo Bleckmann and Norway's Sidsel Endresen, whose One (Sofa, 2007) consolidated her own experiments with the vast potential of the human voice. It's been six years since Monk's last release, mercy (ECM, 2002), and impermanence represents her largest ensemble work since Atlas: An Opera in Three Parts (ECM, 1993).



Despite the participation of up to eight voices and three instrumentalists, impermanence's subtext on the fleeting nature of life itself is delivered with an ethereal elegance. Originally presented as an interdisciplinary work involving movement and video in addition to vocals and instruments, the suite has been completely revised for its audio release, making it stand alone as an entity separate from its theatrical origins.



Monk continues to evolve a musical approach that brings instruments and voices together to such a degree that delineation dissolves. There's no shortage of melodic content in her vocal arrangements, with the brief, angelic "passage" a minimalist confluence of seven distinct and lyrical lines. Still, phonetics play an equal part as, on the similarly layered "maybe 2," what appear to be random sounds ultimately converge into a series of repeated words, supported by percussionist John Hollenbeck's bass drum and Bohdan Hilash's clarinets—which mesh seamlessly and nearly indistinguishably from the six voices.

But it's on "skeleton lines," with Monk's the only voice heard amidst pianos, vibraphone, marimba, wooden clackers and clarinet, where her vocal innovation is at its clearest. Over a rhythmically propulsive backdrop, Monk's voice assumes word-like but nonsensical articulations. Instead, via her recondite melody, they become as important as the notes she sings, ultimately leaving conventional form behind to evoke a series of sonant phrases that, while unusual, don't detract from the piece's undeniable melodism.



While voice dominates impermanence, tracks like "totentanz," with only Monk and Theo Bleckmann participating, speak to Monk's increased interest in writing for instruments alone. A more abstract and abstruse work than the atmospheric "liminal," the various instruments are ultimately left behind, ultimately ending with the two voices a capella, where rapidly articulating independently but periodically coming together for long downward swoops.



Like most of Monk's work, impermanence requires deserting any preconception that the voice should be solely a medium for lyrics and clear melody, despite both characteristics being a part of what she does. Still, despite her expansion of the voice into unexpected and conventionally non-musical territory, impermanence remains a compellingly beautiful and deeply resonant work that approaches the ephemerality of life in the most personal of terms.


Track Listing: 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.

Personnel: Meredith Monk: voice (1, 3-12, 14, 16), piano (1, 2, 10); Allison Sniffin: voice (3-5, 7-9, 11, 14-16), piano (2, 3, 6, 7, 10, 12, 16), violin (3, 11, 12); Katie Geissinger: voice (3-9, 11, 12, 14, 16), piano (2); Ellen Fisher: voice (5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16), piano (2); Theo Bleckmann: voice (3-6, 8. 9, 11, 12, 14, 16), piano (2, 10); Ching Gonzalez: voice (6, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16), piano (2); Bohdan Hilash: piano (2), bass clarinet (3, 4, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14), Bb clarinet (4, 7, 10, 12), A clarinet (4), soprano saxophone (4, 12), aulos (4), double ocarina (6), Balinese flute (6), zaphoon (6), pung (6), ocean drum (15); John Hollenbeck: piano (2), elephant bells (3), marimba (4, 10, 12, 14), vibraphone (4, 7, 10, 12, 14, 16), percussion (4), bass drum (4, 6, 9, 12), bicycle wheel (5), metal and wood percussion (6), cymbal (6), anklung (6), Chinese temple bells (7, 15), wooden clackers (10), glockenspiel (11), paddle drums (12, 13), percussion (15), magnets (15), Silvie Jensen: voice (5, 6, 8, 11, 14, 16); Sasha Bogdanowitsch: voice (6, 8, 11, 14, 16).

Title: impermanence | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: ECM Records

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