Last Tuesday, multidisciplinary artist Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble arrived at Duke for a two-week Duke Performances residency leading up to her performance of Education of the Girlchild Revisited, an iteration of her 1972 operatic work. Recess Editor Michaela Dwyer, who saw the piece as an impressionable young dancer at the American Dance Festival in 2008, talked to Monk about her own college experience, the human voice as artistic instrument and the risk inherent in live performance.
Recess: I know that you went to Sarah Lawrence College, which is a school that a lot of my friends who are sort of artistically inclined always talk about wistfully, like, “Oh, we could have gone here.” Coming from someone who’s both a college student and an artist, I’m wondering what was it like going to Sarah Lawrence. Had you already established your artistic interests or were they developed there and in what capacity?
Meredith Monk: Well, first of all, it was four of the best years of my life. I mean, I loved it…At that particular point in my life it was really nice that it was a women’s college because in those days, it was that if men were there, they got much more attention and their minds were more respected. So, going to a women’s college, there were a lot of really smart women there, and the teachers were top-notch teachers, so the first basic thing I noticed that was so different was that your mind and your thinking were respected. That was really extraordinary: you were immediately pushed to have respect for your own thinking and your mentality. And the other thing that was so incredible for a person like me was that, by my senior year, I was able to design my own program.
Strangely enough, when I first got to Sarah Lawrence, I thought I was going to be a writer…then I think what happened was that for my own growth and my own mentality and integration as a human being, that lifestyle of myself up in my room and writing all day long for me was not the best way to go at that particular time in my life. And so there’s something about doing the applied physical arts like singing and dancing and doing theater that was very important to me.
R: I was watching a clip from a 1983 documentary of your work and you were talking about the word specifically as being—I think you said, “I have contempt when the word is used as the glue of something. I really don’t like that one has to sit and listen to words all the time when really all the other faculties are not being used.” I’m curious to hear you speak about why you’ve gone with a non-verbal but still a voice-based approach.
MM: It’s not that I don’t love language…I absolutely adore it. But I just feel that language sometimes becomes a filter system to direct experience. And I feel that we do live in a hierarchical society that values the word more than anything else as a way of checking our experience. In other words, you read a review of a piece in the newspaper and people come in and look at the piece, listening to the voice of that person who wrote a review from only that particular point of view…it becomes a filter system. We’re brought up in a way to say that the only validity toward experiencing something is if someone writes about it and talks about it. I actually trust the nonverbal expression more because I think that nonverbal expression cuts through discursive thoughts in our minds and goes right to direct experience, so you can actually let that little narrator in your mind telling you what your experience is...you can let that guy or gal rest a little bit. Also, because of not having a lot of text in my work, I’m able to travel all over the world and people all over the world get that direct experience.
R: In the context of Education of the Girlchild Revisited, could you speak about how an audience should approach this type of work and in turn how you prepare to do this type of work?
MM: For the audience, basically the preparation is to be present and to not be afraid of just experiencing, emotionally and perceptually, what’s actually going on.
For Girlchild I have to do a physical warm-up, I have to do a vocal warm-up and preparation of the makeup [for] the transformation aspect, which you could say is more an acting thing…I’m not really doing psychological characters in the sense of Western acting; they’re much more iconic in a way that’s closer to an Asian idea of character...mythic or archetypal. So I have...a lot of mental preparation. I don’t know if you remember, but I’m sitting on a little stool as the old woman when you walk in for about 20 minutes. And so that quieting down is also a preparation to perform the piece.
R: The piece is about aging represented in reverse. What is it like between performing it in 1972 or 1973 when you were a younger person and now when you’re older?
MM: That’s pretty ironic, because in a way, in ’72 or ’73 I was a young woman who was fantasizing my old age. And now I’m an older woman—between the middle-aged woman and the old woman—remembering my youth in my body, actually feeling that sense in my body again.
R: One thing I’m always curious about with performance work or multidisciplinary work is at what point a work is finished or presentable.
MM: Well, very good friends of mine said if I’m doing a run it’s very good that you come to the first and then the last performance because it’s a very different piece by the last performance…We can change it all the time…It’s like a baby and it needs to go through all the processes: a newborn, a little toddler and hopefully you get to a teenager. I think the beauty of live performance is that there’s a possibility of process.
You just have to be daring enough to know that if it’s not quite working you should do it anyway because you’re going to learn from that. You have to be pretty brave.
Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble perform Education of the Girlchild Revisited and Shards Friday and Saturday in Reynolds Industries Theater at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for students.