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When Frieze opened its inaugural New York fair in 2012 on Randall’s Island – a rather featureless brownfield expanse on the East River – many were taken aback. The site was considered daring and edgy, out of town and off the beaten track, isolated from the city’s well established art scene. But it was not entirely without precedent.
Nearly 20 years earlier, Meredith Monk staged her own experimental event on neighbouring Roosevelt Island. This immersive theatre project – titled American Archeology – explored historical notions of otherness and insanity. The performance began in Lighthouse Park on the northern tip of the island and ended at the disused smallpox hospital on the southern end, with the audience bussed between the two during the interval.
“I always try to be very alert to the environment,” Monk explains. “When I was a child I remember driving on the East Side [FDR] Drive. Roosevelt Island was where they had one of the first mental hospitals in the US. Charles Dickens writes about it. There was a prison on the island and there was a smallpox hospital,” she says. “It has always had a haunted quality for me.”
Where Monk treads, the mainstream generally follows. Over the past five decades her pioneering work as a dancer-choreographer / singer-composer, together with her tireless exploration of new performance techniques, has inspired generations of artists. Throughout her career, Monk has earned plaudits and worldwide recognition, but she has remained true to her own voice – and now, at the age of 70, that voice is still elastic, still interesting, still capable of dazzling technical feats.
I catch up with Monk ahead of her first London appearance in nine years – a recital as part of this year’s Frieze Music programme – via a long distance telephone call to New Mexico. It is here in the town of Cañones, near where Georgia O’Keeffe once lived, that Monk retreats most Septembers to compose and meditate. But she begins by discussing her ambivalent relationship with New York. The city where she was born and has spent most of her adult life, she admits, has been “almost an anti-inspiration” to her work.
Having grown up in a musical family (her grandfather was a baritone who sang in the Tsar’s court in the late 1880s and 1890s; her mother sang pop songs and radio jingles), Monk studied dance and classical music at Sarah Lawrence College. This was the mid-1960s and Manhattan was thronging with young creatives, but while contemporaries were revelling in new electronic media and the sounds of the metropolis, Monk turned to the most ancient and most natural tool: the human instrument.
Early works were purely choreographic, but an appreciation of the honesty and openheartedness of folk music helped Monk develop her own extraordinary singing style. Now known as “extended vocal technique”, this involves a taut and highly complex arrangement of sounds – expressive yelps, shrieks and swoops, or breathy coughs and whispers – creating an effect once described as sounding like “a folk singer combined with a baby bird”.
“When I was first working with my voice I didn’t know anybody who was working in that way,” she says. “It was quite a lonely path, but if I look back on it now, I feel fortunate that I was alone because I really was able to explore my own internal voice.”
Monk may have been alone in this respect, but she was part of a vanguard of artists experimenting with interdisciplinary performance art. In 1964 her first piece, a solo choreographic work titled Break, was performed in the Washington Square Galleries. Five years later, Juice, one of her most important large-scale works, began at the Guggenheim Museum, with a choir of 85 singer-dancers performing along the swirling central ramps; it continued a month later at The Minor Latham Playhouse, and concluded in Monk’s own loft apartment in lower Manhattan.
“It was just very auspicious in that there was this whole community of people coming from visual arts and performing arts that were really trying to break the boundaries of their art form,” she says. “There was a built-in audience for new work at the time – it was called the downtown scene – so I never had to build an audience from scratch.”
Interdisciplinary or site-specific projects are often presented as 21st-century phenomena, but many contemporary projects are guilty of exploiting these ideas as gimmicks. “It was nice to have a sense of community because there weren’t so many people working [in a particular field] and there was certainly no financial gain at all at that time,” Monk says. “There are a lot of people [today] that think they’re reinventing the wheel but really the original wheel was much stronger.”
Although many of Monk’s works engage with political ideas, and are often rich with cultural or historical references, to describe Monk’s work as cerebral would be to miss the point entirely. Her interest relates directly back to the body: the human condition, its physical presence and its carnal, spiritual and emotional demands.
One of Monk’s early pieces, entitled 16 Millimeter Earrings, originating in 1966 but shot as a documentary in 1977, explored a young woman’s rites of passage. Early scenes of Monk in a white cube are accompanied by a deadpan voiceover describing the sexual act; a sequence of close-ups of her eyes behind magnifying glasses, buglike, questioning, amused, leads to a devastating ending in which Monk sings “Greensleeves” while her naked body is consumed by flames.
Later works have sought to address topical ideas, and in August this year she brought On Behalf of Nature, “an ecological artwork”, to the Edinburgh International Festival. For Frieze, she will be performing pieces from throughout her career, including the beautiful, melancholic “Last Song” from the 2008 album Impermanence, and will be joined by her long-term collaborator Katie Geissinger for duets including Volcano Songs.
In recent years Monk has allowed Boosey & Hawkes to notate and publish a few of her works and, for the first time, she has actively encouraged some new interpretations; she speaks enthusiastically of Björk’s take on “Gotham Lullaby” with the Brodsky Quartet, and even mentions a potential collaboration between the two singers.
But Monk is not about to relinquish her place on the performing platform just yet. She is insistent on the need to engage with live events when so much of our experience is now secondary: the screen experience. And, unlike most professional singers, who are expected to retire gracefully in their late fifties, she is keen to push her voice in new directions still.
“I hope I never have to retire, and I’ve always thought, ‘Oh, I want to see what an 80-year-old’s voice would be like,’” Monk says. “I think the joy of being a composer of your own music and the singer of that music is that you’re exploring what your voice can do in each stage of your life.”
Meredith Monk performs at Frieze on October 15, friezefoundation.org