Interdisciplinary artist Meredith Monk recorded mercy shortly before her sixtieth birthday in the year 2002, making it the eighth in a series of releases on the ECM New Series reaching back to Dolmen Music of 1981.
The original production was a multi-media stage work done with installation artist Ann Hamilton, while the recording involved much reworking of individual sections and parts including the addition of clarinet parts played by Bohdan Hilash. The result is a highly unified album held together by both mood and musical motive.
The atmosphere created is meditative with more or less vague religious undertones, except for isolated sections of some of the early movements while "shaking" and "urban march (light)," both in the last third of mercy, have more bounce and hence stand out.
Running through the work, starting with the title, is the concept of "mercy." Inherent to this concept is the releasing of someone from full retribution for evil actions, usually because the evilfor some reason, is thought to be in their nature and hence they cannot be held fully accountable. Thus, we have God's mercy on man because his evil is due to original sin or attachment to the material world, or society's mercy on the criminal because of his childhood. The real question is when, if ever, is mercy justified and defensible. Because the 9/11 attacks occurred not long before mercy was recorded, this very issue seemed especially pertinent in the work's performances. Whether mercy is an appropriate response to 9/11 is left to the reader.
Monk's music is centered on her extended vocal techniques that utilize syllabic sounds rather than words, making the pure voice an instrument among others. While not sounding like English, the syllables do sound like they could come from some other language, lending a universal quality to the work. Indeed, it is mildly shocking when actual words or phrases are heard'help' in "doctor / patient" and 'come in' in "woman at the door." The mixing of the various voices many times creates a sound like Renaissance vocal music, (especially the last track, "core chant") connecting the work to that music's religious character.
The main instruments that accompany the voices are piano (played by Allison Sniffin), vibraphone and marimba (played struck and bowed by John Hollenbeck) and various clarinets played by Hilash. Unification is achieved by the piano that plays a motive that is minimally modified throughout the work. Bowed vibraphone is an eerie, very pure sound that blends well with the voices and creates a strong floating, meditative feeling.
It is possible to detach the music from whatever message it might be making and simply to bask in its static harmonies and pensive, minimalist phrases that have a low, glowing beauty. Taken this way, mercy does achieve the goal of helping the listener slow down and introspect.
Track Listing: Braid 1 and leaping song; braid 2; urban march (shadow); masks; line 1; doctor / patient; line 2; woman at the
door; line 3 and prisoner; epilogue; shaking; liquid air; urban march (light); core chant.
Personnel: Theo Bleckmann: vocals; Allison Easter: vocals; Katie Geissinger: vocals; Ching Gonzalez: vocals; John Hollenbeck: percussion, marimba, bowed marimba, vibraphone, bowed vibraphone, xylophone, piano, vocals, cymbals with microphone, melodica, patatag, ice bell, wind tube, opera gong, cowbell, triangles; Meredith Monk: vocals; Allison Sniffin: vocals, piano, viola, violin, synthesizer. Bohdan Hilash: Bb, Eb, A, bass and contrabass clarinets.