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March 25, 1997

Modern Composer

Meredith Monk. Volcano Songs. Volcano Songs: Duets; New York Requiem; Volcano Songs: Solos; St. Petersburg Waltz; Three Heavens and Hells; two selections from Light Songs. (ECM New Series, CD # 78118-21589-2) 1997.

Few people who have encountered the work of Meredith Monk are neutral or indifferent to the work or to her. In describing the "extended vocal technique" that characterizes her work, the Grove Dictionary of American Music notes that Monk sounds "as if she might be singing ethnic music from a culture she invented herself." Her work as a composer, singer, dancer, filmmaker, choreographer, and director has received an impressive list of awards and honors.

This new album from ECM New Series contains the premiere recordings of five compositions from 1992 through 1994, plus two "Click Songs" from the collection Light Songs from 1988. The four Volcano Song duets are sung by Monk with Katie Geissinger. Monk says that her aim in these duets was to make the "two voices so intertwined that you can hardly tell that two different people are singing," and in some sections she and Geissinger achieve just that. Both the solo and duet Volcano Songs are meant to use what Monk calls "essential human utterance" to evoke a sense of a particular type of landscape, though not any particular site. Monk points out that volcanos may symbolize the dangerous and destructive aspects of nature, but that "volcanic land is some of the most fertile land on earth." In her work the notion of the volcano represents "a tension between death and destruction on the one hand and rebirth and fertility on the other." This tension is more obvious in the Volcano duets, but present in the solos as well.

Three Heavens and Hells, from 1992, is the first work in which Monk has set words to music. The work is for four female voices, and its text is a short poem of the same title: "There are three heavens and hells./People heaven and hell/Animal heaven and hell/Things heaven and hell/What do the three heavens and hells look like?/They are all the same." The notion of a "things heaven and hell" is, Monk points out, both funny and quite profound at the same time, suggesting some interesting questions. Is "people heaven and hell" one entity or two? If there is a "things heaven and hell," what would it (they?) look like and--more to the point-sound like? The last line of the poem notwithstanding, each of Monk's three heavens and hell has its own character, though the music leaves the first question open--it's not clear if each of the three "heavens and hells" is a unity or a duality.

The piece is loosely divided into five sections, with the middle three corresponding to the three different heavens and hells. The last section deals with the question posed in the poem, but in a somewhat cursory way; the nature of the three heavens and hells, the ways they are alike and the ways they are different, are laid out and explored in the middle sections, so the last line of the poem is presented as an inference from the middle sections, rather than a revelation.

Though Three Heavens and Hells is a departure for Monk in its use of text, musically and stylistically it very much is in the mainstream of her earlier work. It is a treat for her fans.

You can hear Three Heavens and Hells by Meredith Monk on WHIL- FM (91.3) Thursday, April 3 at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

21:11 -- J. Green


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