Voice of resounding eloquence

Review: Meredith Monk's distinctive style is a journey through melody and artistry.

April 05, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Folks craving a taste of the avant-garde can be grateful for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where music far off the beaten path is practically the rule.

There was another welcome shot of it Wednesday night, when vocalist/composer Meredith Monk took the stage of the Fine Arts Recital Hall and proceeded to lead her audience on a remarkable journey through sound.

Monk, a significant force in new music for more than three decades now, underscores the concept of the human voice as the first great instrument. Using a startling array of techniques, from traditional melodic vocalizing to purely guttural utterances, she creates works that exist in another realm.

Actual words are nearly always absent from her seemingly improvised compositions, yet she communicates easily with a language all her own (one song in this concert got a lot of mileage out of a phrase that sounded, more or less, like "Gah-mee-kah-doh-mee").

"At times," composer Greg Sandow has written, "Monk sounds as if she might be singing ethnic music from a culture she invented herself."

That description seemed particularly apt during the first half of her subtly amplified program, devoted to a cappella pieces.

With her waist-length, tightly braided hair and severe garb, Monk suggested a modern-day Puritan. The image intensified when she reached "Offering," from her Volcano Songs, the long-breathed, haunting lines sung with palms outstretched as if in prayer.

But there was an irreverent streak, too, in songs accompanied by amusing physical gyrations and plenty of humor, especially in the brilliant evocation of insect buzzes in an excerpt from Songs from the Hill. A tour de force of vocal effects was achieved in Click Song No. 2 and pieces that involved heated dialogues between vastly different voices coming out of the same, solitary mouth.

In Click Song No. 1, the bravura element - simultaneously humming a wide-ranging melodic line and punctuating it with tongue-clucking - was complemented by genuine musical expressiveness. An even greater dose of lyricism came in Gotham Lullaby, one of several works for voice and piano (Monk accompanied herself) that filled the second half of the recital; gently rolling chords, forming a moody harmonic progression revolved around the same high note on the keyboard, supported a bittersweet vocal line.

Monk went in for some ecstatic yelping in an excerpt from her opera Education of the Girlchild and, sounding like a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and Ruth Gordon, romped through a propulsive aria from Book of Days.

Whether producing artfully executed breaths to create a song made literally out of thin air or giving a Jew's harp a kinetic workout to complement a hummed tune, Monk reaffirmed her status as one of the most distinctive and eloquent voices in music today.

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