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PERCHED ATOP THE NARROW LEDGE OF A MANHATTAN HOTEL-BALLROOM STAGE LAST month, a full head and a half shorter than the rest of her vocal ensemble, Meredith Monk surged and swayed, her whole body -- her entire being -- enveloped within the mesmerizing incantation she was coaxing from the crowd. With her childlike braids whipping back and forth across an impish face that tends to rest in a generously gleeful smile, Monk has a decidedly otherworldly presence, and a bit of the shaman about her. In that particular moment, she was what she would call "transparent" -- an animated vessel for an astonishingly supple three-octave voice that she wields dexterously through a range of evocative melodies.
For Monk, the voice has proved to be a limitless, profoundly capable instrument for communicating the depth and range of human experience. Since the '60s, she has pursued its ability to communicate landscape, character, gender, scale, dimension and emotion in a range of groundbreaking musical compositions. She also has pioneered multimedia theatrical forms (call it new opera, musical theater, interdisciplinary performance -- just don't call it dance) based on her highly physical, extended vocal technique, and worked in film and installation art.
For Mercy, which will play at UCLA's Royce Hall Thursday evening, Monk collaborated with acclaimed installation artist Ann Hamilton. Like Monk, Hamilton has a predilection for immersive, transformative experiences; to this end, she creates beguiling performative environments saturated with a rich multitude of smells, colors and mystery -- walls shed tears, flour rains down, a woman sits quietly sewing next to a 48-foot-long bouquet. Together they've produced a timely meditation on the wonder and horror of human nature. In New York, Monk spoke about the making and meaning of Mercy.
L.A. WEEKLY:What was the genesis ofMercy and this unique collaboration between you and Ann?
MEREDITH MONK: When you work for a long period of time, you try to find ways to create risky situations to get out of your habitual behavior, so I was looking for a way of pulling the rug out from underneath me. I'd been working on installations, but I'd never really worked with a visual artist, and the artist who came to mind was Ann. I didn't know her, but her work seemed very close to how I think about things. There's a quiet in both of our work, and a sense of mystery -- mystery that doesn't need to be solved. In terms of our site-specific work, I think we share the idea of going into a space and excavating a culture.
How did the piece take shape?
We explored the idea of a music concert with images, and tried to find a form that wasn't a theater piece. My last piece, Magical Frequencies, was very playfully theatrical. Mercy isn't quite what I'd call anti-theater, but it's not really theater. It's a very meditative, painterly piece. It has an art-installation aspect to it, but we realized we couldn't use huge materials like in some of Ann's work. With a â touring piece, you don't have three weeks to set up the space. What we're doing sculpturally is with sound. We talked about the volume of the whole space, so I've written music that the audience is surrounded by. Ann did a lot of work with these tiny video cameras -- one is in my mouth, so when I open it to sing, images are projected on a screen, and when I close my mouth, it goes dark.
When we started thinking about mercy, we talked about the potential for help and harm that the mouth and hand could have, which is quite abstract and elemental. On a more specific level, we were working on the piece at the beginning of the Intifada in September 2000. I turned on the television and there on the screen were this father and son caught in the crossfire as they were walking home from school. And they were pleading for their lives, and then they were shot. It was just so shocking. Why couldn't there have been a cease-fire for one minute to let these innocent people continue on their way? Why couldn't there have been just a few minutes of mercy? I started thinking about South Africa, and the really hard problems in the townships before the ANC came into power, where people were killing their own. People were begging for their lives, and they would say, "No. We want your life." The idea that you could actually say that to someone! I'm loath to talk about sources, because people think this inspired the entire piece, and it didn't. I've been doing a Buddhist practice for a long time, and I contemplate a lot on human ignorance, aggression and indifference.
I can see how you'd hesitate to tell that story, given everyone's heightened sensitivity since September 11. How has that affected reactions to the piece?
In a way, the piece is like a requiem. And we didn't know how resonant it would be. For example, there's this image of paper falling down from the sky. After September 11, we asked ourselves, "Are we going to do this?" We hadn't gotten it together for the July premiere [at the American Dance Festival], but from the beginning we'd talked about it, and Ann was working on it in her studio. It was very important to the time structure of the piece, so we just did it. And it's breathtaking.