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Meredith Monk’s ‘Cellular Songs’ and ways of living

Prior to creating "Cellular Songs," composer Meredith Monk presented the powerful "On Behalf of Nature" (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Meredith Monk’s “Cellular Songs,” which the composer performed with members of her ensemble at Bing Concert Hall this Saturday, is an prolonged meditation on the way we live, from the level of our cells to the level of our social fabric. Monk, a fixture of American classical music for over half a century, has given extended focus in her recent work to ways of living. The 2011 album “Songs of Ascension” focuses on ritual notions of physical and spiritual ascension around the world, and 2016’s “On Behalf of Nature” is a meditation on the environment, creating musical realms that evoke natural ones. Cognizant of the work of those who have expressed deep concern about earth’s current ecology, “On Behalf of Nature” weaves a tapestry not the presently dire state of the environment but the always-present interdependence between us and our earth.

It wasn’t always like this. For a time, Monk wrote more explicitly political music: “I felt it was important to state the problem,” she explains in the documentary “Inner Voice.” But she began questioning the use of writing music that tried to reflect all the dire problems facing the world. Because her music was not explicitly verbal, she couldn’t imitate something like Brecht’s cerebral theater. In Brecht, Monk notes, the art is designed to draw explicit attention to the problem, and to engage the audience intellectually rather than emotionally: “the work is really about thinking — going home and thinking about something.” But trying to state problems with music didn’t work, because people didn’t go home and think about the problems.

Instead, Monk began trying to create an alternative experience that engaged the senses and the emotions, that brought us out of the cerebral and into a richer experience of living. Monk’s new approach did not moralize or espouse a specific way to live, but rather premised itself on an idea that “when you have that feeling of magic and aliveness, you might go outside after a performance and see things a little differently or notice something you never noticed before,” as Monk put it. And this changed experience, rather than going home and thinking about a problem, might have a real effect on how you lived your life.

This approach of evocation rather than moralization didn’t mean Monk turned away from the world, as evidenced in the explicitly temporal focus ofOn Behalf of Nature’s” environmental theme. And in “Cellular Songs,” her latest large-scale work, Monk continues her meditations on life and interconnectedness. She shrinks her focus, however, from ecosystems to cells — biological cells, but also musical cells. Building blocks of life and building blocks of music.

The idea of the musical cell is especially appropriate for the type of music Monk writes. “Minimalism” is a catch-all musical term that does justice to none of the minimalist composers, but it does reflect a focus by these composers, including Monk, on building music out of simple patterns of notes — “cells,” Monk calls them. Monk’s experience and skill in building sustained pieces of music out of simple patterns makes the theme of “cells” especially suited to her compositional style.

The music, choreography and staging of “Cellular Songs,” performed at the Bing Concert Hall, put prime focus on the connections between the performers and the relationship between the performers and the audience. The performers — Monk herself and four women of her ensemble who developed the piece with her — were dressed in white. On a spare stage with five stools and a piano in one corner, the five women sung sometimes to each other, and sometimes at each other and sometimes past each other. At times they sung together toward the audience, and at times toward some distant point past the audience.

The performance began not on the stage but on a large screen behind it, which showed a close-up top view of five pairs of hands arranged in a circle, making movements evocative of primal life — the movements and symmetry we might see from an anemone or coral formations. At the same time, the movement of the hands emphasized the connectedness of the five performers, a theme that would repeat to touching effect throughout the performance.

After the first piece, involving musical lines “thrown” between the three performers (a difficult technique called a “hockett”), one of the performers took Monk’s hand in hers, the other cradled her shoulder and they walked together back toward the rear of the stage. Beyond making music together, the women were humans together.

In one of the standout songs, the main cell was the phrase “oo-oh I’m a happy woman, I’m a happy woman.” This cell changed not in pitch or rhythm, but rather through adjectives, like “hungry,” “thieving,” “grieving” and “patient,” which, occasionally rhyming, replaced “happy” throughout the song. The sense of the words were treated with subtle changes in inflection by Monk, who sung in one corner of the stage in a small rectangle of white light, while the other four women accompanied her from the remaining corners. This staging juxtaposed the separateness of the women in the four corners with the unity of the music they produced.

In the first few repetitions, the word “woman” felt natural and unremarkable — Monk, after all, is a woman. But as “woman” was repeated and paired with adjective after adjective, the word took on more significance and became vividly multidimensional. Monk recounts that she composed the initial phrase “I’m a happy woman” spontaneously, but as she developed the piece, she began writing it on behalf of all women, and each woman. “Within each of us, we have all these qualities, and in this patriarchal world, we’re getting so flattened out,” she explains. In “Happy Woman,” Monk expressed the wholeness of women and gave a vision of a way of living that recognized this wholeness.  

The strikingly austere final song was built largely from two cells: the phoneme “nyem” and the phoneme “nyoom” (approximately), which developed on different notes, rhythms and harmonies throughout the ten-minute song. The persistent motion throughout the piece reminded me of Conway’s game of life, a mathematical simulation of cellular life that shows the steady proliferation and complex interdependence of self-replicating systems.

In the middle of this song, the five performers of Monk’s ensemble were joined by ten girls from iSing Silicon Valley, a Palo Alto-based girls’ choral organization. As these 15 women clothed in white walked about, the screen showed a top view of the stage. On the screen they seemed to be darting goldfish, or tadpoles, or cells. Finally, the original group of five lay down at the back of the stage, curled, holding and supporting each other in a small circle. Two girls coalesced in turn into two more groups of five, leaving three spotlights on three elliptical cells of humans, an image that underscored the themes of cells and interrelatedness that permeated the piece. Each woman had a separate body, yet their bodies intertwined and supported each other. Each group was separated from the others by darkness, yet connected through the musical unisons they sung.

Cells, this last image suggested, mean distinctness but not separateness. It was a subtler message than the inanity of “we are all one.” Rather, we are individuals, yet we live necessarily in connection and interdependence with one another, and as building blocks of a larger whole. With this final image, the spotlights faded into darkness.

“Cellular Songs” not only suggested a vision of how we could live, but also a model for how art could relate to how we do live. Monk is wholly cognizant and deeply worried about the state of the world. In “Cellular Songs,” she continues to focus not on the problems that ail us, but on the beauty and vitality of our lives. From the elaborate relationships between cells to the intricate relationships between humans, from the littlest building blocks to the mosaics of life that they build.

Though Cellular Songs remains a live performance, you can find studio recordings of three of the pieces mentioned on YouTube: “Trio No. 1,” “Happy Woman,” and “Nyem.”  

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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