Meredith MONK (b. 1942)
On Behalf Of Nature (2013) [60:53]
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble
Bohdan Hitash (woodwinds)
John Hollenbeck (percussion)
Allison Sniffin (piano, keyboard, violin, French horn)
Laura Sherman (harp)
rec. June 2015, Avatar Studios New York.
ECM RECORDS 2473 [60:53]

On Behalf of Nature is in itself a force of nature, the kind of performance that makes a deeply memorable impact even if the music itself is something for which you might find yourself having to acquire a taste. Meredith Monk has for many years been exploring what she calls “primordial utterance;” non-verbal vocal sounds that take the place of conventional language but which easily convey as much meaning and emotion as sung words.

I last came across Meredith Monk on the ECM label with her Piano Songs (review), but this is an entirely different prospect. She has said of On Behalf of Nature that it conjures “multiple realms including the celestial, human, microscopic, animal, plant and mineral, as well as the underlying processes and rhythms of nature.” There is an overall arch structure to the piece as a whole, but there is a distinctiveness of identity between the recording’s 19 tracks, from the instrumental minimalism of Eon with its warm ensemble colours, to the fragility of solo instruments and voices that are either exposed or gathered into a fantastical group and given subtly magical accompaniments in Duet with Shifting Ground.

Convention is disturbed and altered at every level, though connoisseurs of avant-garde music will not be massively surprised by most of the vocal techniques used here. What makes this special is a remarkable combination of sources, from ritual sounding ethnic music combined with a kind of lively Danny Elfman cinematic-vibe in Pavement Steps, the deeply enigmatic and timeless mystery of something like Evolution, and the more extended dramatic tone-poem and quasi-narrative style of Water/Sky Rant. This last is quite confrontational in its vocal content, but there is always a gloss of beauty not far below the surface, something which is allowed to surface in the gentle atmosphere of Memory Zone and the solemn but compelling Dark/Light 2.

There is of course much connection with the natural world here, but as this is taken at every level - from the celestial to the microscopic and just about everything in between - you need have no fear that this is an extended environmentalist manifesto or guilt-trip about how horrible we humans are. Yes, ecology and climate change are issues addressed here, but Monk’s approach takes on “the healing power of music... [making] a piece that had space for imagination and a fluid, perceptual field that could expand awareness of what we are in danger of losing”. This is a “meditation on out intimate connection with nature” and by no means a lecture on where we are going wrong. This is visionary stuff and is something which we should all seek out and embrace. To put it in a nutshell, Meredith Monk is the Hildegard von Bingen of our times, and if Hildegard was still around you'd surely want to hear her latest album.

Dominy Clements

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