Aureole etc.

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Meredith MONK (born 1942)

Theo Bleckmann, Alison Easter, Katie Geissinger, Ching Gonzalez, Meredith Monk (voices); Allison Shiffin (voice, piano, synthesizer, viola, violin); John Hollenbeck (voice, percussion, melodica, piano); Bohdan Hilash (clarinets)
Recorded: Sorcerer Sound, New York, March 2002
ECM New Series 1879 (472 468-2) [57:23]


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Choreographer, dancer, multimedia artist, Meredith Monk is also – and, I would say, first and foremost – a composer who has written a sizeable vocal output (often for her own voice) finding many new ways of using the voice, and continuously exploring the human voice in all its possibilities, as is evident when listening to her large-scale piece mercy recorded here for the first time.

Mercy was originally conceived as a multimedia project with installation artist Ann Hamilton. The present release is, as already mentioned, its premiere recording made with the original cast although it also includes several pieces written before Monk started working with Hamilton. These include the writing for Bohdan Hilash’s clarinets which was not featured in the stage work as well as some music for mallet instruments and the Epilogue. The whole piece is some sort of synthesis of Monk’s musical thinking and music making since this is also the first time that Monk has written for mallet instruments played here by John Hollebeck.

As a whole, mercy is a meditation on the quality of mercy throughout history, and a humanistic demand for mercy in troubled times. Needless to say that all this is particularly badly needed given the present universal social and political environment. Literary sources are manifold ranging from contemporary world literature to historical documents and the daily news. Musically speaking, Monk relies on the whole gamut of vocal production from whisper to screaming. Voices are also aptly and often subtly supported by the instruments, which undoubtedly adds a further dimension to Monk’s music, which – to a certain extent – might be best described as sophisticated Minimalism though there is much more to it than this description might suggest. On the whole, it is a much more complex work, technically and emotionally. There are some really impressive moments in this substantial score from the composer’s full maturity.

However, one’s reaction will depend on how one can attune (or not) to the global conception of the work. I for one am rather undecided about it, but this has nothing to do with the quality of the music and, most of all, the sincerity and honesty of Monk’s humanistic concerns. I think that this performance can not be bettered for all concerned have a long working association with Monk who also takes part in it as one of the vocalists. Nevertheless, as is often the case either with similar multimedia works or with some operas, the absence of the important visual element considerably lessens the global impact of the piece. One’s reaction to any piece of art is (nearly) always a matter of subjectivity, and probably the more so with a highly personal and even idiosyncratic work as this one.

This is a clear ECM product notable for the interest of the music, the quality of the playing and the recording, but also for the conspicuously sketchy insert notes (which, in the present instance, is a euphemism for there are no insert notes as such but rather a series of close-ups of wide-open mouths, and most of the above comments have been drawn from the press information provided).

So, in short, an unquestionably sincere and honest piece of music making superbly played and recorded; but ,in the last instance, it is up to you to decide whether Monk’s musical world appeals to you or not.

Hubert Culot

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