The pigtails are perfect.
The long braids of hair draped over the shoulders might seem incongruous for a woman who turns 76 in November. But as Meredith Monk has become one of the world’s most distinguished artists — earning awards including the MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 1995 and the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2015 — the pigtails remind us how Monk has retained the fierce, unfettered curiosity common to children. Her 54-year career has been fueled by a steadfast commitment to the power of her imagination.
Although she has created plays, dances, films, performance art and museum installations, Monk is best known as a pioneer of “extended vocal technique” — that is, stretching beyond the typical sounds of singing. It’s difficult to imagine artists such as Björk and Joanna Newsom without Monk’s influence.
This, too, is deeply rooted in her childhood. Monk says she could read music before she could read words, and remembers singing herself to sleep at an early age. She also was born with a condition called strabismus — each eye works independently of the other, preventing her from seeing in three dimensions. If she attempts to look with both eyes at once, she can’t fuse the images. She sees double. Consequently, “I probably perceived the world more through my ears,” she said.
Monk’s latest project, “Cellular Songs,” premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in March. This 75-minute opus, centered on the female voice, likens the energy and harmony of purposeful group voices to the work of cells in the human body.
She and four female members of her long-standing vocal ensemble will perform the piece this week at Walker Art Center, a frequent patron of Monk’s work. Abetting the work are film and dance components, plus a female chorus from Minnesota Opera’s youth training program.
Monk was in great spirits — decompressing from a hectic summer spent reorganizing her opera “Atlas” for the Los Angeles Philharmonic — when reached by phone at her home in New Mexico last week. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: You have said that you live for moments when you happen upon a new project, because each project has its own sound world. Was that true of “Cellular Songs”?
A: Yes, “Cellular Songs” was a wonderful project to process. Really satisfying. Two of these vocal trios were first presented in 2015. So much of that year we were doing a retrospective of my work, and it was getting on my nerves. I just wanted to take a chance and do something new.
Out here [in New Mexico] is where I get a chance to read. And I read this book, “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, about the history of cancer, and I got extremely interested in his description of cells. At the same time I had been working on these tiny little intricate pieces for a cappella voice. And I thought, the way these pieces work is something like that kind of energy; the way the intelligence and intricacy and cooperation in each cell makes a very complex system function. Making that connection was really the beginning of the piece.
So then in the spring of 2017 we did a work-in-progress version. I liked the structure very much, but there were two places where I wanted to make new material. Mukherjee had written another book called “The Gene,” and one section was inspired by that. And then last February I made the films for the piece during a residency at a wonderful new art center called Grace Farms in Connecticut. So it has just been a wonderful process. I love working slowly.
Q: About 18 months ago, you told me you had discovered a resonance where you can go on for a long time without tiring your voice.
A: Yes. You’ll hear that near the end of “Cellular Songs.” One of the things that is really interesting to me is that the different musical pieces are almost like sound sculpture. The forms rotate, and the songs are very intricate. They are so woven that sometimes you cannot tell who is singing what. This idea that you can make music that has a sense of rotating is very exciting to me. I am not actually able to see in three dimensions, so to me this is very new.
Q: Will the elements of dance and film and the young people’s chorus that you had at the Brooklyn premiere be included in your performances at the Walker?
A: Absolutely. And I do want to say that the Walker is the ideal space for the piece. I made it to be seen from above, and we will project on the floor as well as on the back wall.
Q: In your notes for the premiere, you listed cooperation, independence and kindness as some of the work’s themes. Is it coincidence or purposefully appropriate that you are using all female voices?
A: I really thought about it. I love the men in my ensemble, but I really felt it was right to do a piece with women right now. There is a wave of patriarchy — wave is not quite the right word. But these values of competitiveness, greed, egotism keep coming up that I feel are so painful.
So I just wanted to work with an all-female cast again, to counterbalance the ways we are being pancaked into Barbie dolls. So, instead of competition, cooperation. Instead of greed and cruelty — and pride in that cruelty! — kindness and hard work together.
I have been trying to work on art as a kind of antidote. I am interested in bringing people back to themselves, in being present and embodied as human beings.
Q: Your work usually has elements of humor and accessibility. Reviews from the “Cellular Songs” premiere note that those things exist in the film and song parts.
A: Comedy has always been a real inspiration. As a child, Imogene Coca, Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball and Buster Keaton were all inspirations. There are definitely some lighthearted and buoyant parts in there.
I think what we are missing in our world now is a sense of wonder. I hope that is what people get out of this. I think what is distinctive about “Cellular Songs” is that it is very pure and primordial. It is very fine, but it is earthy at the same time. There really is a lot of a cappella music. There is some piano and some violin, but instrumentally it is pretty simple.
Q: That’s why you were excited about “Cellular Songs” the last time we spoke. In your 20s you had wondered what someone in their 80s would sound like, and you were loving the idea of exploring your lower register now that aging had dropped your voice there more comfortably.
A: Yeah, I still sing all the high parts to the piece, but there is one [lower] part especially where I hear myself on videotape and go, whoa. It is like a voice coming out of a bottle. But that’s exciting. To be able to sing this material, which is extremely challenging, we had to roll up our sleeves and put our hands in the dirt. The workmanlike — or workperson-like — quality is implicit in the form. And that was wonderful to discover.
Q: You seem to be in a really happy phase of your life right now.
A: I sense some of it comes when one is feeling their mortality more. In some ways it is a real gift, because I feel so grateful for the moments I have. And it is a combination of me coming here to New Mexico, which heals me so much, and being very happy to be coming to Minneapolis to do “Cellular Songs.”
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis freelance writer who frequently covers music and sports.