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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

In this sense, Partch's most direct conceptual descendant is Meredith Monk (b. 1942), a composer whose career was only beginning at the time of his death, and who has never mentioned him among her influences. Like Partch, she began as a lonely outsider, creating an eccentric music “corporeally,” by training her own voice to do things no one (at least within the traditions of her schooling) had thought of doing before. At a time when no one could duplicate (or was interested in duplicating) her effects, she became her own performance medium. She told an interviewer, who asked whether her pieces were autobiographical, that her relationship to her work went deeper than that. “I was using,” she said,

myself as material. I was very objective about it, though, so it wasn't really autobiographical. It was more that my hair was material, and my singing with a guitar was material. It was personal in a way that I let myself use myself—anything that I had—as material. But then it was made into a piece of poetry, because it was extremely objectified.35

Partch could have said that. Monk's music was, like his, produced at the outset from within her own body. But where Partch (like the ancient Greeks) did everything for the sake of words and their expressive projection, Monk tried to dispense with words without dispensing with the expressive projection. Most of her early compositions are solo songs, with simple piano accompaniments (usually ostinatos and grounds) for herself to play while producing an astonishing variety of nonverbal vocal sounds: sometimes invented syllables sung conventionally, sometimes more elemental sonorities—unusual wobbles and vibratos, nasal timbres, extreme registers, guttural breathing, vocalized inhaling—that Monk, preempting a common reaction from listeners, called “folk music from another planet.”36 Looking back on her early work in 1979, she summed it up as “working with the solo voice as an instrument.”

After classical voice training and experience as a folk and rock singer, I realized that I wanted to create vocal music that had the personal style and abstract (as well as emotional) qualities that come into play in the creation of a painting or a dance. My method began as one of trial and error: translating certain concepts, feelings, images and energies to my voice, seeing how they felt, how they sounded, and then refining them into a musical form. Over the years I have developed a vocabulary and a style designed to utilize as wide a range of vocal sound as possible.37

At the time she was recalling, a person with Monk's training inevitably assumed that painting and dance were nonrepresentational media that channeled subjective feeling into objective form in the manner of abstract expressionism. Monk's ideal was a kind of musical (or vocal) abstract expressionism, and that required the dethroning of words. “The voice itself is a very eloquent language,” she told an interviewer, “and I've always felt that singing English on top of it is like singing two languages at the same time.”38 To another interviewer, she elaborated:

Usually, if I do use text, it will be very simple, and it will be there as much for the sound of it as for the meaning. I also think that music, itself, is such an evocative medium. It's very openhearted. And I don't like the idea that people have to work through the screen of language …. Language, in a way, is a screen in front of the emotion and the action. I like the idea of a direct communication that bypasses that step …39

And again like Partch, at a certain point Monk made “an inevitable decision”

to teach some of my techniques to other voices in an attempt to expand my writing — to see if these principles could be translated (transferred) to other singers and made into group forms. My main concerns in the group music have been to work with the unique quality of each voice and to play with the ensemble possibilities of unison, texture, counterpoint, weaving, etc.40

Monk's “classical” training shows through in her use of the word “writing” as an interchangeable equivalent for “composing.” But just as her early solo work, while fully composed (never improvised), had been unwritten, since there was no need to communicate the music to any other performer, so the ensemble music remained unwritten, the product (like rock) of intensive daily rehearsal and rote memorization. The avoidance of notation was partly due the fact that there were no conventional symbols for the vocal effects Monk had been evolving. But only partly. “I don't know how you would notate some of the vocal work,” she said when asked,

and I don't know if I want to or not. I'm struggling with that right now because I do want to pass my work on. It's not that I don't want to have other people do it, but I think that the way it's made comes from a primal, oral tradition that is much more about music for the ears. In Western culture, paper has sometimes taken over the function of what music always was.41

Whether by accident—ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, as a biologist might say—or by design (on the basis, perhaps, of her music history classes at Sarah Lawrence College), many of the textures and structures Monk has employed in her ensemble music recall the textures and structures of medieval genres—organum, hocket, rondellus—that found their way into written sources only after considerable development as oral practices.

The first work Monk created after forming her own performing ensemble was the wordless Dolmen Music (1978), for six singers, a cello (played by one of the singers), and percussion (played by another). The title, derived from an old Breton word that refers to prehistoric cult monuments like Stonehenge (upright stones supporting a horizontal stone), evokes an imagined antiquity. The various movements—“Overture and Men's Conclave,” “Wa-ohs,” “Rain,” “Pine Tree Lullaby,” “Calls,” “Conclusion”—seem to suggest the primordial rituals and practices out of which music emerged. “In all cultures there are what I would call archetypal songs—the lullaby form, work song, love song, march, funeral song.”42 Just as by avoiding words she sought a universal vocal language, so “it's interesting to hook into these song categories that exist all over,” forms that speak wordlessly of life's functions and their ubiquitous, eternal round.

At the very end of Dolmen Music all of the voices coalesce into a “composite” parallel organum (multiple fourths, fifths, and octaves) of the kind described in ninth-century Frankish treatises. Twentieth-century musicians of the avant-garde making contact with their ninth-century forebears dramatizes the idea of “cyclic time,” a notion that many in the late twentieth century have found irresistibly attractive, and have used as a weapon for dismantling the idea of linear historical progress. Monk has occasionally made this agenda explicit. Asked by an interviewer how she felt she related to the “Western musical tradition,” she snapped, “I know there are people very concerned about where they fit into music history; but I would say that's a very male point of view.”43 As with many marginal figures who are eventually discovered by the mainstream, Monk has had to make an accommodation with convention. In the late 1970s she began (like Steve Reich) to record her music for the German ECM label, and she embarked on a series of concert tours that by the mid-1980s amounted to as much as four months a year. Finally, in 1986, a consortium that included the Houston Grand Opera and the American Music Theater Festival commissioned from her a full-length opera, Atlas, based loosely on the discoveries of Alexandra David-Néel (renamed Alexandra Daniels in the opera), the first European woman to travel in Tibet. It was first performed in Houston in February 1991.

Unlike Monk's earlier theater compositions (some of which she had rather loosely called operas), Atlas, which requires a cast of eighteen singers and a ten-piece pit band, actually looked like an opera: a sequence of scenes with action and costumes and a semblance of plot. It remained almost entirely wordless, however, using the “language of the voice” to tell the story of Alexandra's quest—through desert heat and Arctic cold, rain forests and agricultural communities, finally back home—in a way that sought to translate the explorer's discoveries into universal emotional experience. And it kept faith as far as possible with Monk's “oral” ideal. The instrumental music, mainly the sort of accompanying ostinatos and grounds Monk had formerly extemporized at the keyboard, had to be written down so as to be playable at sight (see Ex. 10-3), but the vocal music was, much of it, worked out in rehearsal and committed to memory as before.

Imaginary Folklore

fig. 10-4 Meredith Monk as Alexandra Daniels in Atlas (Houston Grand Opera, 1991).

Imaginary Folklore

ex. 10-3 Meredith Monk, Atlas, ostinato from “Travel Dream Song”

Another concession Monk had to make in Atlas was to electronic technology, something she had hitherto resisted. Her pit band included electronic keyboards and “samplers” (to be further discussed below) to increase the range of sounds available to a small ensemble. But she used electronics the way she used notation, as sparingly as possible. It was a principled renunciation. Some of her earliest pieces (like some of Steve Reich's) were created by layering tape loops. In Monk's case all the layers contained recordings of her voice, and the composite was then used as an accompaniment to a dance performance or film. But once she had an ensemble she rejected the process of “overdubbing” in performance (although she retained it as a creative tool). She told one of her many interviewers that she often worked pieces out by layering voice tracks, but then taught the various tracks to different singers, since the object of composing was to enable a performance (an act in real time, a social process), not just produce an object (a score or CD).

“I don't think anything can really replace people making music together,”44 she said, leaving little doubt that “can” really meant, “should.” Technology, with its inevitable tendency to “reify” and “commodify” (i.e., turn whatever it touches into things for sale) endangered the social and disinterested aspects of performance. Like Partch, she had a finger in the dike but could not stop the flood. The ironic fact is that her music (like Partch's, like everyone's) is now known primarily through commercial recordings.

Her increasing fame finally landed Monk a contract, announced early in 2001, with Boosey and Hawkes, the most distinguished and commercially potent classical music publisher in a shrinking industry, to disseminate her works in written form. This meant not only taking them down from recordings (a task performed by the publisher's staff, subject to the composer's approval), but also codifying and verbally explicating her vocal techniques for the first time, and distributing compact discs of Monk's performances along with the scores “as an aid to performance practice and interpretation.”45 A publisher, in other words, is trying belatedly, and for commercial gain, to reclaim Monk's quintessentially oral art for the literate tradition. Contradictions abound.


(35) William Duckworth, Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers (New York: Da Capo, 1999), pp. 352–53.

(36) Ibid., p. 359.

(37) Liner note to Meredith Monk, Dolmen Music, ECM Records 1–1197 (1981).

(38) Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker Smith, New Voices: American Composers Talk about Their Music (Portland, Ore.: Amadeus Press, 1995), p. 189.

(39) Duckworth, Talking Music, p. 359.

(40) Liner note to ECM 1–1197.

(41) Smith, New Voices, p. 189.

(42) Smith, New Voices, p. 191.

(43) Smith, New Voices, p. 192.

(44) “A Conversation with the Composer” (interview with David Gere), booklet accompanying Meredith Monk, Volcano Songs, ECM New Series 1589 (1997).

(45) Boosey & Hawkes Newsletter, October 2000, p. 8.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 4 Aug. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010007.xml