Volcano Songs

Meredith Monk

at the Dance Center of

Columbia College, February 24

By Justin Hayford

Meredith Monk is a most un-American American artist. Not just because her work defies classification (and thus commodification), taking root in the cracks between dance, opera, music theater, performance art, and a half dozen other disciplines. And not just because her many choral compositions, musical performances, installations, films, and videos appear to lack all sense of purpose–the great physicist Werner Heisenberg defined America’s dilemma as the inability to distinguish between utility and truth. But primarily because after 30 years as a working artist, achieving international renown and garnering numerous awards, fellowships, and even a MacArthur “genius” grant, she continues to produce some of the most startling, unconventional, demanding work you’re likely to see. She’s one of the dwindling few American art celebrities with no apparent interest in cashing in.

Monk seems to draw sustenance from taking risks, from redefining herself. Starting out with New York’s interdisciplinary Judson Church crowd in the 1960s, she progressed through site-specific performance installations in the following three decades to her three-and-a-half-hour opera Atlas, commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera a few years ago. You never know what’s going to come out of her next. But no matter how avant-garde, her work welcomes the listener-viewer with its unexpected familiarity. Her gestures are simple, her images archetypal, her melodies hummable. Unlike her male contemporaries Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, with whom she is often indiscriminately lumped, Monk does not thrust her genius upon us from Olympian heights, crushing us with its endlessly praised brilliance. Rather it bubbles up from within and carries us gently along. Her work is eminently approachable. It seems we could all be Meredith Monk if we dedicated ourselves to our inner visions.

From the moment she appears onstage for her one-woman Volcano Songs–a tiny, vulnerable figure walking with unaffected solemnity toward a huge red square on the floor center stage–she is unmistakably one of us, only more so. More poised, more centered, more present. Her delicate frame and unwavering intensity fill the Dance Center’s cavernous space–or, more accurately, redefine it. Pausing briefly before entering the red square as if she were a devout Catholic crossing herself before taking her seat in church, she makes the big, hollow Uptown space suddenly seem sacred.

Monk spends the next 40 minutes articulating and exploring the quirkily sacred realm suggested by her title (in many cultures, volcanoes are seats of divinity). But while most Westerners enter a holy place with a mixture of humorlessness and dread, Monk infuses the sacred with an impish playfulness. She begins by singing a gentle invocation, her voice flowing through languid oohs in the upper register of her three-octave range. As she sings, an expression of utter earnestness appears on her face; she is trying to tell us something, but God knows what it is. Then she bends forward from the waist to slap her long braids against the floor. Standing again, she sings a low, jumpy “humba baya,” arms slightly akimbo, bouncing slightly in time with her chant, all swagger and smirk. Another braid slap and she sings a breezy, chirpy imitation of, well, a dumb blond.

But Monk isn’t playing characters or even embodying personas; what she does is too subtle for that. Rather she’s modulating energy and point of view. The kind of nuance that’s given her wordless vocalizing such emotional variability through the years in recordings finds its physical equivalent here in a slightly slumped posture, a tiny tilt of the head, a minute droop in the hand. Something is different in each new section, yet it isn’t large enough to accomplish a full shift in character. The performer changes even as she remains the same.

This resolute lack of certainty saturates every moment of Monk’s mesmerizing piece. For 40 bewildering minutes, she suggests purpose but denies intent. She is a vessel of metaphorical possibilities, like the empty jar Wallace Stevens places on a Tennessee hilltop in “Anecdote of the Jar.” When Monk dons enormous black rubber gloves and raises her hands above her head as though confronting the teeth-rattling rumble pervading the space (a volcano about to blow?), is she commanding a divine force or surrendering to it? When she lies facedown with arms outstretched, one hand flailing blindly, is she reaching for a helping hand or pushing one away? When she hikes up her skirt and sways her hips alluringly, is she a flirtatious schoolgirl or an elder tribal dancer? Even the huge faces in the video projected against the white scrim at the rear of the stage remain curiously ambiguous, and not just because their expressions are unreadable; the camera’s focus is so tight, revealing only eyes, nose, and mouth, that the faces become quasi abstractions.

Like Stevens’s jar, which “took dominion everywhere,” Monk is a harbinger of significance not yet articulated out of chaos. Her grace, precision, and painterly vision give the work a sense of drama though very little happens. Like the poetic sculptures of Martin Puryear, which appear useful but remain joyously useless, Monk’s lyrical conundrums never reduce form to function. Rather they float in a preconscious realm out of which meaning has yet to coalesce. Their suggestiveness tweaks the imagination. Their purity confounds the imagination. Volcano Songs is meaningfully meaningless.

Such irreducible paradox defines the sacred. God is three and yet one. The Tao is everywhere and nowhere. Faced with such folly, the coward turns away and the brave fool plunges in headlong. As G.K. Chesterton points out in Orthodoxy, contradiction is what gives religion its strength, faith its backbone. Remove the impossibilities and you’re left with mere philosophy. For the most part, we Americans look for answers in religion when we would be better served by questions; an answer is only a destination, while a question is a way. In our insatiable thirst for utility, we often forget that the deepest truths spring from nonsense.