Meredith MONK (b. 1942)
Songs of Ascension (2008)
clusters 1 [3:19]
strand (gathering) [1:55]
winter variation [1:51]
cloud code [3:31]
shift [1:51]
mapping [2:07]
summer variation [3:16]
vow [3:12]
clusters 2 [2:28]
falling [2:54]
burn [4:16]
strand (inner psalm) [3:12]
autumn variation [2:48]
ledge dance [1:50]
traces [1:20]
respite [5:56]
mapping continued [1:29]
clusters 3 [2:09]
spring variation [4:03]
fathom [4:37]
ascent [9:26]
Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble
Todd Reynolds Quartet
The M6
Montclair State University Singers
rec. November 2009, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York.
ECM NEW SERIES 2154 [67:37]

Meredith Monk is one of those artists who seems to have been around pretty much forever, at least, to musicians of my generation. Long associated with the ECM label, her music is at once enigmatic, and also in contact with a vast variety of genres in the Venn diagram of contemporary music – from minimalism, involvement in wider artistic projects, including earlier work with visual artist Ann Hamilton and with education and a variety of collaborations.

With Songs of Ascension, Monk has created an extended composition inspired in part by Paul Celan’s writing about the “Song of Ascents”, a title given to fifteen of the Psalms sung on pilgrimages going up to Jerusalem. Monks’ own response to “this idea of worship, walking up something and singing … fascinated me”, and asking the question “why is up sacred and down not sacred?” These ideas joined with a request from Ann Hamilton to perform in an eight-story tower in Sonoma County, California. This tower has two staircases, each spiralling through the interior of the structure and only joining at the top, a double helix shape which suggested the structure of DNA. This environment is pictured in the booklet though is not the location used for the recording. The limited space and circumstances dictated the types of instrumentation possible, and this compact and portable set of ensembles and individuals contributes to the transparency and intimate clarity of the music.

Songs of Ascension is ‘classical’ in the way much contemporary music is today – gathering from eclectic sources and leaning on historical precedent. This ranges from simple but subtly quasi-medieval gestures of harmony and melody and ancient ‘hocket’ techniques where notes are thrown between singers alternately, through the use of established classical ensembles such as the string quartet, introducing quasi-familiar jazz harmonies and minimalist rhythms, and having no fear of introducing exotic instruments and wider techniques of performance to create a structure which is at once integrated but also a patchwork of fascinating variety. The titles of the pieces are often an indicator of their content. The Clusters form texture from instrument or voices, with limited note ranges or slowly moving harmonies. Falling is a richly gliding filigree of glissandi from strings and voices. There are also movements with considerable rhythmic drive, such as Burn, and unexpected instrumental colours are always popping out of the woodwork and giving the brain plenty of food for alertness and questioning. The more introspective movements, such as Strand (Inner Psalm) are remarkably beautiful – simple and compact, but creating moments of timelessness like the individual miniature worlds in a pane of stained glass – immediate and affecting, but something at and through which one could stare for hours without losing interest.

With such a range of expression there are almost inevitably one or two moments which appeal less than others, and for instance the choral ‘nja nja’s of Ledge Dance didn’t do much for me. There might be a strong element of ‘faith’ in this music, but isn’t a great deal of what one might call religion. Respite is a possible exception, coming across as rather churchy, but always with that sense of an unanswered enigma and a firm relationship with something earthy and natural – those little string birds remind me a little of Janáček’s ‘Cunning Little Vixen’. None of these movements is particularly long, and more important than each individual musical tableaux is the context of each, and their placement within the greater structure. The cyclical nature of the piece as a whole is pointed out most recognisably through the gently undulating two-part lines which infuse each Variation, a poignant motief which to my ears has some qualities which connect it to Appalacian folk music. While most of this music is very approachable, there are elements in some of Meredith Monk’s own singing which might be described as mildly confrontational. The vocal gestures of Fathom for instance, can have an emotional resonance which is perhaps as far as this album goes in terms of discomfort and challenge. There’s a whiff of the John Adams minimalist in the progression for the final Ascent, where everything is brought together in a climax which recedes as the opening Clusters 1 advanced; from silence.

This is a fascinating release and a very fine recording, and ECM has provided a nice booklet with plenty of informative photos. Works like Songs of Ascension can end up either being greater than the sum of their parts, or somewhat uneven collections of more or less related pieces. This work has to be greater than the sum of its parts, since it is hard to imagine any of the individual numbers appearing as ‘hits’ separate from the rest, though there is enough material here to create any amount of new stand-alone pieces. This is different to a good deal of Meredith Monk’s earlier work, and her solo vocals are only one element in a rich tapestry of colour and sonority. The success of Songs of Ascension is both in the refinement of its conception as that of its performance, and I commend it both to seasoned Meredith Monk-ites as to complete newcomers.

Dominy Clements

Highly commended.