Audiences tend to view the careers of artists through a documentarian's frame, thinking historically even if the person is still busy with new ideas. Painters, musicians and authors create early work tagged as "adolescent." This informs entry into a "mature" period, expressed as a series of major pieces connecting to a central theme or concern. Their "later work" is analyzed in terms of that central theme, typecasting the material with persistent descriptors that stem from familiarity, no matter how relevant those descriptors actually are.
But all work, at each moment of its making, is new work to whomever is making it. For enduring artists like multidisciplinary innovator Meredith Monk, who turns 70 next month, the challenge remains in keeping people's attention on her work and evolution even while building upon a sterling legacy. That's not necessarily easy for an artist with so many of those descriptors in front of her name that she's conventionally uncategorizable.
On Thursday, the Nasher Museum of Art hosts the singer, composer, dancer, actress, filmmaker and performer for a free talk entitled "Archaeology of an Artist." Monk will present an overview of her career, illustrated with performance and video clips. The event begins a two-week residency at Duke that concludes with two performances of Monk's Education of the Girlchild Revisited.
Best known as a first-wave performance artist and a preternaturally gifted singer, Monk invented "extended vocal techniques" that created a genre unto itself decades before scream vocalists, beatboxers and throat singers started showing up in popular music. Monk is one of those artists you've heard even if you've never heard of her. Björk has covered Monk's songs, for instance, and The Big Lebowski included her music. And, at the very least, you've heard her ideas, even if indirectly: As with Stan Brakhage's cinematic jump-cuts and Iannis Xenakis' sound collages, other artists have so completely absorbed Monk's techniques that they're not even attributed to her. We don't know the name of the first person to stretch an animal skin over a gourd to make a drum, either.
But Monk's about so much more than a set of virtuosic skills. Her ritualistic performances in the late 1960s and early '70s, including the operatic original Education of the Girlchild, realized feminist ideals within personal, historical and humanist frameworks. She stood apart from more overtly political contemporaries. Monk created a sustaining vocabulary of images, movements, characters and stories.
"It's appropriate that the chronicle of Meredith Monk's career is called 'Archaeology of an Artist," explains Andrea E. Woods Valdés, an assistant professor in Duke's dance department. "She's been hard at work excavating our human nature for over 50 years now. Her stories still ring true because, like her music, they move in circles and cycles. Much like our own lives, her work keeps us revisiting emotional and geographic places that we've been to before."
These human patterns have always shaped Monk's work. They undergird Education of the Girlchild Revisited, which consists of two parts—a foundational "Biography" solo dating to 1972 and a collection of moments from other works called "Shards," for which three ensemble members join her.
In its original iteration, the Girlchild solo had an enduring quality. In minimalist relief, it traces the arc of the female lifespan in reverse. With a silver wig and glasses, Monk embodies an old woman sitting on a stool atop a bedlike table onstage. A spare piano suggests a music box as Monk, clothed in a white apron and bathed in bluish light, begins a series of jerky, marionette-like movements. She emits a descending, repetitive tenor chant that seems nonlinguistic, though the word "dying" emerges to senesce among the syllables.
Monk holds a pose that recalls the simultaneous humor and horror of butoh, then removes her wig and hops to the stage, a middle-aged woman now. She sits, chirping and chortling an ascending phrase. She transforms again into the girlchild, removing glasses and smock and loosing her trademark long hair from a braid. Her infantile singing suggests that she's discovering that her voice comes from her own body. In her final image, the girlchild adopts the old woman's last pose, now projecting a sense of curious wonderment rather than exhaustion.
"I think it was strange that at the age of 26 I was making a piece about an old woman," Monk wrote in a 2008 essay entitled "Cracks and Cliffs." Monk applies the structure of the solo to her own relationship to Education of the Girlchild. "How did I know? How did I get that insight at such a young age? I think it had a lot to do with understanding human life as a cycle. Now that I am older, I see the process of life more clearly and, as a performer, I have nothing to prove anymore. The wisdom of what I've experienced is what I am giving."
This perspective makes Monk a perpetually relevant sage, particularly as she cycles back into herself to reimagine this early performance and consider her work as a whole. The documentarian's frame, then, gives way to something more vital and interactive, a matrix that allows the artist to be exactly what they are and not what the requisite adjectives demand.
"I recently read a review that called her a 'dancer and musician,' but I mistakenly read 'dancer and magician,'" Woods notes. "And I thought, how perfect. Her work unfolds like magic but you have to invest in the time it takes for the magic to happen. For me, that's epic."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The antidote to numbing."