Orchestra Underground: Monk’s Sphere Composer Spotlight – Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk, 2014-2015 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair holder at Carnegie Hall, is a composer, singer, and creator of new opera and music-theater works. A pioneer in extended vocal technique, Monk has been called “at once fearless, unique, [and] uncompromising” by The Washington Post and “one of contemporary music’s great innovators” by The Classical Review. Monk kindly shared with us the creative process behind Night, a rare orchestral work which will be performed at ACO’s Orchestra Underground: Monk’s Sphere on November 21 at Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall.
Meredith Monk
American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for your original composition, Night, for ten voices, two keyboards, violin and French horn? Can you tell us about your creative process for this piece?

Meredith Monk: My daily practice is working at the piano. Sometimes I like to explore different scales. One day in the early ‘90s I started playing with one that turned out to be a Hungarian minor scale, and I began developing material inspired by the particular dissonance inherent in those sounds.

At that time, the former Yugoslavia was in the midst of a bloody war. I had been on tour there a few years before and was struck by the natural beauty of the region in contrast to what was now going on. At the same time I began thinking about suffering in the broader sense.

As with most of my work, I begin from an intuitive place and try to access something both timeless and contemporary. Night was one of those works that came to me as a full fabric. While I think of it as an elegy, it also evokes the sturdiness and resilience of life.

ACO: What prompted you to re-orchestrate Night for a larger ensemble? Can you talk about any of the specific choices you made in selecting the new instrumentation?

MM: I think of myself primarily as a vocal composer and have always thought of the voice as an instrument. As the years go on, I have become more and more interested in the idea of instruments as voices, and in combining voices and instruments to find new sounds. I recognized that for Night to have its full power, it needed the richer colors and textures of an orchestra. Using unusual instruments such as shakuhachi, bowed psaltry and harp played with a guitar pick allowed me to explore new timbres and to think of the group of instrumentalists as somewhere between an orchestra and a band.

ACO: What should the audience listen for during your piece? 

MM: I’m hopeful that people will engage with it on different levels. I try to create an open space for each member of the audience to experience the work in his or her own way, affirming the power and uniqueness of each person’s imagination.

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