Meredith Monk in her apartment, October 2010 [photo: Erica Beckman]
Meredith Monk is the most striking, strong, and wholly peaceful woman that I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. We met in October 2010, when I had arranged for Brooklyn electronic duo Blondes to interview the revered composer for a Dummy feature while I was in town. They’d told me a couple a months previous that they’d sampled her piece Rally in what would become Lover, the first track of their debut album ‘Blondes’. They were interested in her use of vocal, non-verbal communication, and the sheer power of her often-chanted compositions. The interview took place in the beautifully ramshackle rent-controlled apartment she’d lived in since the ’60s. She was very patient, somehow a little sad, yet still so full of wonder. She ended up kind of interviewing Blondes. I was reminded of this extraordinary afternoon today after listening to the On Being public radio programme she recently took part in. It’s a wonderful insight into her approach to life and work, and the importance of art in helping us live our lives and deal with the inevitable loss it entails. I urge you to listen to it here.
Plus here’s the audio from Blondes and Meredith Monk’s interview in October 2010 below.
Interviewer: Do you think it has become easier for women to follow their vocations?
Rebecca West: I don’t know. It’s very hard. I’ve always found I’ve had too many family duties to enable me to write enough. I would have written much better and I would have written much more. Oh, men, whatever they may say, don’t really have any barrier between them and their craft, and certainly I had.
[Paris Review interview, 1981]
Reading this just now brought to mind something that Meredith Monk said last October in conversation with Blondes (google for the feature on Dummy, it’s a great read). Some years ago a conflicted student had asked her for advice and she had told him, “a creative life is a very lonely life.” Clearly this struck me but at the time I had naively assumed she meant in a romantic way. Now, having read the above, I realise the sacrifice is so much greater.
A few weeks ago a friend reminded me of an argument we’d had at university that had sprung from a statement I’d made about human capacity for flight. I’d read something about how at this present evolutionary pit-stop we only use a teeny percentage of our brains. I had reasoned that somewhere else in the grey mush may lay the ability to take to the skies, no plane required. My friend had a field day. Part of me still wants to believe it, a little to ruffle his feathers but mainly because it’s just so much more fun. Imagine! ‘What if…?’s are where the magic lives. The unknowable is richer and the maybes more beautiful that any static certainty.
It’s my last day in New York today. I’ve been here almost a couple of weeks and a little of that fabled American dreaming has got to me but I’m grateful for the reminder. It’s too easy to be cynical sometimes, almost a reflex to sneer, and really difficult to dream when the weight of everyday presses down.
What’s more, believing that anything is possible is simply shit scary: the odds that the evidence will stack against us, let us down, are high. But the opposite is grimmer: a life of mapped out monotony, of never trying to strive for anything because it probably won’t go the way we want it to. Well, yeah, it might not but then, guess what, we might discover a different way that spins us off on a whole new tangent. That feels alive.
So, yeah, while the screen dream skyline of NYC has definitely perked me up, it was the music I went to see (Mount Kimbie, The xx, Warpaint, Teengirl Fantasy, Gatekeeper, Blondes, the Roulette group) and musicians I spoke to (FaltyDL, Meredith Monk and Blondes) that really got me excited again, got me believing again. What they share – what all artists share – is the daring to imagine their own worlds, to build something beautiful out of uncertainty and invite us in. It’s in these maybe-places I want to live.