Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Meeting Meredith Monk

Tonight, select members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus met with composer Meredith Monk, whose as-yet-untitled "New Work," commissioned by Grand Center, we will perform in March. We're also working on her "Panda Chant II," and a smaller group is participating in another Monk piece called "Night."

It was an interesting workshop. Monk led the chorus through an extensive regime of warmups, more physical and mental than vocal. The aim of these calisthenics was to get us thinking about our voices as air moving through space. A fly on the wall of Powell Hall this evening might have witnessed members of the chorus walking, running, and skipping across the stage while singing a drawn-out "Moo." We stretched all sorts of ways. We paired up and took turns, each with his or her partner, one singing a vocalise while the other manipulated parts of his/her body, such as lifting the hand and letting it drop, turning the head, etc. Monk and her assistant emphasized relaxation and poise.

The chorus topped off this enjoyable prep period by learning a round, possibly of Meredith Monk's invention. It goes like this: I think this would be a cool thing to teach to any choir, from school kids on up. First, you teach everyone the melody, a few notes at a time. (Monk broke it up into three phrase-segments as she taught it to us.) Then everyone sings it through until they're confident with it. Then you can sing it as a four-part round, with each successive group starting when the first group reaches the next entry point, designated by the numbers above the staff. Everyone keeps the eighth-note pulse going by softly walking in place. When each group reaches the end of the line, they clap on the quarter-note rest and start over. I reckon the fermatas would be a good place to stop, so that all four parts could end at the same time; or, at some prearranged signal, each part could simply stop at the hand-clap until the last group finishes.

The way we did it was really cool. After all four parts were going pretty well, Meredith Monk signaled us to start walking around. We milled around at random, crossing and re-crossing the stage, mixing up with members of other groups, so that we were constantly surrounded by different combinations and balances of the parts. This experience highlighted the rhythmic complexity of the piece. It made me feel like I was inside a swirling, darting flock of birds, or part of a great machine whose parts turned and danced in interweaving patterns. Towards the end, Monk had us slowly fade out and, finally, stop where I put the fermatas.

I scribbled the notes on a scrap of paper as soon as I had a break, so that I wouldn't forget how the piece goes. And so, hopefully without violating someone's intellectual property, I pass on this clever round/vocalise with my hearty endorsement.

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