Soundscape: Monk & Pärt
By Thomas May
Dramatic Contemplation in Arvo Pärt
A convergence of Eastern and Western elements lies behind the great breakthrough that led Arvo Pärt to discover his mature voice. Immersion in the religious traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a study of medieval choral music as it developed in the West both resulted in a dramatic transformation of his style in 1976. Silly—and meaningless—labels like “holy minimalism” notwithstanding, Pärt’s radical simplicity is not easily mistaken for the work of any other composer—a paradox, in that his music is based on transcending the individual expression of the ego. (A recent example of his music, paradoxically or not, bears the title “Los Angeles”: the Symphony No. 4, which was premiered last year in Disney Hall.)
Pärt’s “tintinnabuli” style, based on an image of the simple triad as a kind of tolling bell, suggests a mystic’s understanding of time decaying against the horizon of eternity. Pärt further transforms this style in his Miserere of 1989 (revised in 1992 and dedicated to Paul Hillier and the Hilliard Ensemble). Here, he juxtaposes its tendency toward contemplative intensity with a powerfully dramatic structure that evokes more familiar and secular traditions of Western concert music.
Even the sacred texts that Pärt uses in Miserere emphasize the dichotomy. Amid his setting of the penitential Psalm 50 in Latin (as numbered in the Vulgate), Pärt interlaces the Dies irae—the Western Latin poem envisioning the Day of Judgment. He begins in his characteristic style, with a lone tenor voice, followed by held silences and the clarinet’s “ringing” minor triads. The soloists proceed to intone the opening verses of the Psalm (David’s prayer of repentance for his adulterous transgression with Bathsheba). But an ominous roll on the timpani builds until the Dies irae erupts, with full chorus and Pärt’s complete instrumental ensemble joining for a volcanic sequence of A minor scales in descending cascades.
This, too, comes to an end to revert to the remaining verses of the Psalm. This, the third of four sections that make up the piece, is also by far the longest. Beginning from a deep well of near-inaudibility, the bass and then the other soloists deliver the biblical verses. Varying configurations of instruments periodically respond with interludes to the texts just sung. A climactic setting of the image of burnt offerings (“holocaustis”) recalls the fear and trembling of the Dies irae. Pärt returns to the latter text for the final and fourth section, setting the “Rex tremendae” of the Sequence.
But this second appearance contrasts starkly with the first, building in ascending scales to counterbalance the earlier apocalyptic plunge. The Miserere thus cuts to the core of the penitential tradition, with its awareness of human sin and personal failing against the majesty of the cosmos. A gentle organ postlude brings the Miserere to a contemplative close all the richer for the drama that has been experienced.
Meredith Monk: The Voice as “Soul’s Messenger”
Throughout a career spanning more than four decades, Meredith Monk has trained her untiring creative urge on the unclassifiable revelations lurking “between the cracks.” Her art radiates a sense of epiphany. Experiencing one of Monk’s pieces is akin to what happens at the turning point in meditation when our usual, mundane way of taking in the world is reversed. Her music also frequently suggests the enactment of lost rituals or myths that reorient and liberate our “normal” process of perception, guiding us beyond the utilitarian here and now.
The voice, above all, becomes more than an instrument to convey information or routine states of being. Unpredictable patterns of phonemes and fluid vocalise—like the incantations of a shaman—replace the familiarity of language itself. All of Monk’s widely ranging art is grounded in her profound understanding of the voice’s flexibility and expressive depth. She points to the rootedness that comes from four generations of a family tradition of singing. Monk’s great-grandfather was a cantor in Moscow, while her mother—to whose memory she has dedicated WEAVE —was a well-known singer of such commercial jingles as the Muriel Cigar ad.
The range and unique character of Monk’s vocal vocabulary are breathtaking—a strangely beguiling repertoire that can supply, at will, birdlike microtones, robust yodels, insectoid whispers, and dusky chants. Yet Monk’s aesthetic transcends the self-conscious limitations of the avant-garde and its concern with originality for its own sake. She writes that the voice is her “soul’s messenger” and has “the power to uncover subtle shades of feeling that exist between what we think of as emotions.” Her compositions can sound as if they were quarried from an archeological dig—or like folk music beamed in from a distant future. Both of these impressions emanate from her pathbreaking Dolmen Music (1979), for example, which was her first release on the ECM label.
Monk’s expressive inflections fall between the cracks of conventional Western musical notation, too. Earlier in her career, she began training her own ensemble of performers in her intuitive and highly rigorous method—often performing in unusual venues or as part of site-specific events. But the past two decades have brought opportunities to collaborate within the traditional framework of the opera house and concert hall as well.
In 2006 the Master Chorale performed Invisible Light, the concluding a cappella section from her first “official” opera,
ATLAS, which was premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 1991 (Monk earlier applied the term “opera” to Quarry, her epochal music theater work that was presented in 1976 at La Mama in New York.). ATLAS draws on the travel writings of a woman explorer from the Victorian era to trace an epic, archetypal spiritual quest. Monk’s signature extended vocal technique enhances her elliptical narrative style.
Increasingly, since the millennium, Monk has been focusing on expanding her musical language—including writing for instruments. A commission from Michael Tilson Thomas for his Miami-based New World Symphony resulted in her first work for orchestra, Possible Sky (2003). Here, Monk began to “think instrumentally”—which, she clarifies, meant applying her intuitive sense of the voice as a complex instrument to the orchestra. The experience, she says, “opened up the possibilities of sound for instruments considered as voices.” This feedback between the two realms is evident in the compositions we hear tonight by Monk.
Even the earliest of these—Night—reflects her recent turn toward interweaving vocal and instrumental music-making. Night began as the eighth sequence (subtitled “Elegy”) in The Politics of Quiet, an eleven-part work from 1996 that loosely shares some of the preoccupations found in ATLAS.
Monk was especially troubled by the resurgence of genocide in postwar Europe in the former Yugoslavia, where she had spent a lot of time touring. While she was working on Night, she happened on a Hungarian gypsy minor scale and evolved her own version of its soulful melancholy—archaic yet painfully up to date—which is passed between instruments and voices. Their imitations of shrieks and sliding sirens add an eerie contemporary edge. Monk later realized her original reduced scoring, featuring two keyboards, horn, and violin, would benefit from a richer orchestration. She collaborated with Allison Sniffin, one of her close associates, to create this rendering in 2005.
In Songs of Ascension, Monk continues to explore the possibilities of combining singers and instrumental players. In 2004, the Kronos quartet commissioned Monk’s debut string quartet, Stringsongs. Writing it led Monk, she recalls, to think of the strings as a gathering of four voices. “So the next development, organically, was to try the mix of strings and voices.” Images of breathing and ritual procession are mirrored by both in the climactic section that we hear.
Songs of Ascension also represents another of Monk’s recent spiritual investigations, which are imbued by her Buddhist practice. impermanence (2007) transforms memory and loss into an acceptance of change as the inescapable reality. The stimulus for Songs of Ascension was Monk’s encounter with the translation of the Psalms made by Norman Fischer into a Zen-infused language, which led her further to the image of worshippers ascending a mountain, pausing periodically to sing a psalm. She also collaborated with visual artist Ann Hamilton, whose design for a tower further enhanced Monk’s fascination with the connection between worship and images of spiraling and ascent.
The full-length Songs of Ascension (which Monk recorded in November 2009, to be released later this year on ECM) was created with video and site-specific movement elements as part of an “immersive experience.” But Monk’s musical imagery works beautifully on its own terms. Not all cultures, she points out, equate the sacred solely with a pattern of ascent. The music of Songs encompasses both soaring patterns and textures that feature the low end of Monk’s extraordinary three-octave range. Certain passages call attention to the earth-centered concept of the sacred—as we hear in the solo Monk performs, accompanied by a shruti box. Following this is the communal “Procession” concluding Songs, where drone-like breathing from the chorus and strings sets up a foundation from which individual lines leap in ecstatic figurations. “The solo voices call everyone to come on this journey,” she says, “but then the chorus goes into another realm.”
WEAVE develops this imagery of aspiring movement even further and makes for a rapturous counterpart to Night. Monk remarks that she decided to add a rich layer of percussion to the score—a web of sounds that are either plucked or hit, but all from tuned percussion. These patterns interact with the other instruments and voices in a continual process of transformation.
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.