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Blythe Danner | Photo: Julieta Cervantes | August 13, 2014
It’s not an overstatement to say legendary vocal and performance artist Meredith Monk has created a new artistic language over the course of her 50-year (and counting) career. On the eve of her performance of The Soul’s Messenger at Guild Hall (Aug. 23, guildhall.org), she reconnects with her high school pal, acclaimed actress Blythe Danner, to discuss the importance of companionship and finding her own voice.
Blythe Danner: First of all, I want to say how thrilling it was for me to sit next to you at the Quaker George School when we were in high school, and I only wish that more of your brilliance had rubbed off on me!
Meredith Monk: Well, I don’t think that’s true, but the thing that was wonderful was that we were the two people in the school who were really interested in the arts, and so we held the fort for the arts there.
What’s so fascinating to me is how you went from traditional music and took extraordinary leaps into a world that is so far from what any of us knew back then. How long after our time there did you know you were going to take such a different route?
I think I always knew, even when I was a teenager when we were at school together, that I loved creating things. At Sarah Lawrence after that, I was in the voice, dance and theater departments doing a combined program, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do classical singing because I felt very restricted by that. I started playing with putting these things together—like the voice, the body, movement and images and light—and making more multimedia performance pieces. At a certain time, I went back to doing my regular Western European vocalizing, and I sat at the piano and had a revelation that the voice could be like an instrument. Because I also came from a movement background, I trusted the nonverbal aspect of the voice and that I could work with my voice and develop a vocabulary built on my own voice. I realized that within the voice could be male and female, different ages, characters, landscapes, different ways of using it, and that it was a very ancient instrument—it was the first human instrument—and that it could uncover feelings for which we don’t have words. My life changed after that, and I started sinking down into my own voice and seeing what I could find.
You found the most extraordinary thing! I told you after I first saw you at BAM, I was on the Brooklyn Bridge, and all I wanted to do was drive off the bridge and join you in this world you had created. I was proud—and I guess envious in a way—because the performance had such freedom that so few of us ever find as artists. I was just watching Songs of Ascension again and was blown away. How did it feel to have your song from that work used on So You Think You Can Dance? That must be quite thrilling.
I have to laugh because I had never even watched So You Think You Can Dance. I mean, I do love some things—I’m not saying I never watched The Wire—but I saw it on YouTube, and I think the choreographer used the music really well. A lot of the way of thinking about things on that show is along the lines of, how high can you get your leg? It’s a very comodification idea of art. And what was nice is that ‘Vow,’ which is sung very beautifully by Katie Geissinger, is a quiet and lyrical piece. The choreographer’s idea was for the dancer to really do something unusual, and then the audience quieted down. That’s why the judges said they liked it. So it was kind of great.
Of all the things you do, what gives you the greatest pleasure—creating it, performing it, hearing it?
I don’t think of it as separate. Composing is always pleasurable, and sometimes it’s really hard—it’s like hanging out in the unknown. Performing is the blood of my existence. I’ve had these performances, and I’m sure you’ve had them as well, where everything just feels like it’s lined up and you’re totally focused and open to the moment at the same time. You look at the other person and you’re amazed at what’s coming out of their mouth—and what’s coming out of your mouth. Those moments are so luminous, or radiant, even transporting.
Did you ever think of an alternative career, and if you did, what would it be?
I can’t even imagine it. I don’t even like to use the word career, particularly, because I think we’re called somehow. I think every human being is called, whether you’re going to be a gardener or whatever it is, and if you can listen to that call, that’s what you do.
It must have been difficult in the beginning because you were a singular artist searching for things that had never been captured before. What was the passion that kept driving you?
I just had this vision and some kind of urgency. I was driven by trying to fulfill that vision as a young artist, and there was a wonderful, nurturing community when I came to New York; there were artists coming from all different mediums and everybody was trying to push past what they had learned and trying to break boundaries. There was an atmosphere that anything was possible.
I’m very happy that you never paused on that path.
Thank you, Blythe. Having you as a companion in those early days really meant so much to me. I feel like we kept each other going.