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Meredith MONK (b.1942)
Memory Game
Spaceship (1983) [4:18]
Gamemaster’s Song (1983) [5:12]
Migration (1983) [7:37]
Memory Song (1983) [6:44]
Downfall (1983) [3:56]
Waltz in 5s (1996) [3:54]
Tokyo Cha Cha (1983) [9:45]
Totentanz (2006) [3:12]
Double Fiesta (1986) [5:42]
Meredith Monk (voice)
Vocal Ensemble
Bang on a Can-All Stars
rec. 2016-18, New Jersey, USA
CANTALOUPE CA21153 [50:49]

Let’s be frank about this; Meredith Monk’s work has a strong minimalist element. I say that straight away because there are many people who would run a mile rather than listen to minimalist music. But, even if you tend towards that frame of mind, I would urge you to give Monk’s music a listen. Yes she is a minimalist of sorts if it helps to attach a label; but there’s nothing of the dour orthodoxy some dislike in the music of Philip Glass or Terry Riley. Much of her music has a ritualistic feel, and also a quietly joyous feel to it.

This CD’s music represents a meeting of musical minds, a collaboration between Monk with her vocal group, and the brilliant instrumental ensemble Bang on a Can. The result is music which is softly incandescent, haunting and very beautiful. How many composers of the past century have been able to locate that combination of musical beauty and utter individuality? Very few, and for me, Meredith Monk is a vitally important voice in the music of today. Perhaps above all, the sense of sheer enjoyment, of love of the sounds being created is infectiously delightful.

The nine tracks here come from various sources in Monk’s work, five of them derived from her ‘science fiction opera’ called The Games, from the early 1980s. Put simply, it is a stage work (with a political message) set on a distant planet, on which a group of earthlings have arrived following a climatic or nuclear disaster, although the events of the opera are then projected several generations on from the initial arrival. Many simple earthly experiences and concepts are a distant, mysterious ‘race memory’ – birds, trees, coffee and the like.

The opening purely instrumental number, Spaceship, sets the scene, gently transporting us into this strange, alien future. Delicate scoring for solo clarinet and strings, with soft tuned percussion. The jaunty Gamemaster’s Song that follows features the playful vocalisations that are so important in Monk’s music, Theo Bleckmann the singer.

Migration, track 3, and Memory Song, track 4, are by turns wistful and nostalgic, the latter with some evocative animal and bird sounds from the singers – the displaced humans struggling to recreate the sounds of the natural and domestic world they left behind. Poignant, yes; but with the lightest of touches.

Track 6, Waltz in 5s is not from The Games, but was included, Monk tells us, as an ‘antidote’ to Downfall, the bitter fifth and final number from that opera. Waltz in 5s might almost be a disembodied version of Dave Brubeck’s famous Take 5. The pure, wordless voice of Katie Geissinger floats above a quiet rhythmic accompaniment from piano and percussion. This number is taken from the 1990s composition The Politics of Quiet, and might be a good track to sample first – calm, slightly sad, and very lovely.

The next two tracks are more or less free-standing pieces. Tokyo Cha Cha, the longest work on the disc, was composed after a trip to Japan. It is a charming number, with the characteristic dance-rhythm subtly transformed, beneath simple, pentatonic melodic lines layered in the voices. Totentanz, which translates as ‘Dance of Death’ (there is quite a strong German element in the texts), was created, she writes, as a response to the sudden death of her partner – which perhaps makes it sound darker than it is.

And the final track brings us Monk herself as a singer, exploring an incredible range of vocal qualities and ‘shifts of persona’. This number, with its insistent rhythms and abrupt ending reminiscent of Reich, is again taken from a larger work, Acts from Under and Above.

The music is superbly recorded, allowing us to appreciate Monk’s liquid and translucent textures; no wasted notes here. She writes in the booklet that the sessions with Bang on a Can were a ‘rich and joyous experience’. Now we can all share in that. If you aren’t familiar with Meredith Monk’s work, this terrific CD is an ideal place to start.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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