Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC selection is an unusual one. Enjoy Meredith Monk’s “Travelling,” performed below by the composer.
About the Composer:
I first encountered the American composer Meredith Monk (b. 1942) in the very last class period of a music history course entitled “Music & Society: 1880-2001,” one of my favorite courses I’ve ever taken. The curriculum swept from Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss — composers of the early 20th century who pushed the boundaries of the preceding era’s musical conventions — all the way to John Adams and Steve Reich — members of the recent “Minimalist” movement of hypnotic, repetitive, and thought-provoking compositions — finally ending with a lecture called “Crossing Over,” about today’s fascinating community of interdisciplinary, genre-bending composer-artists. Meredith Monk is one such artist.
She’s a composer, but she’s also a singer, choreographer, and film director, among other fields. She trained in piano and eurhythmics — a type of musical pedagogy that transforms rhythm into body movement — at Sarah Lawrence College, graduating in 1964 and immediately launching into the world of performance art. Her career has been dynamic and applauded, with accolades including some five honorary doctorates and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. As a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she is for many a role model, pioneer, and icon.
Monk’s music is highly unique: Encyclopædia Britannica describes it as “both primordial and futuristic;” my professor aptly called it “folk music from the future.” She uses the human voice — particularly, her own voice — in unusual ways, incorporating sound effects such as whining and gasping and, more often than not, omitting any actual text or lyrics. Famously, Monk prefers for her composition process to unfold orally rather than on paper, explaining that her music exists “between the barlines” and wishing for it to evolve and be performed in a way that is intimate and entirely organic.
About the Piece:
“Travelling” is the second track on her 1981 album Dolmen Music, a collaborative collection of mystical-sounding works for various combinations of voices, strings, percussion, and piano. Though “Travelling” involves seemingly bare instrumentation — voice and piano alone, with periodic percussion interjections — the performance manages to conjure a plethora of colors and sensations.
A dolmen is a prehistoric stone tomb. Here’s one from Ireland:
And here’s a cool one from India:
Though the album draws its title from its final, eponymous track, each of the five works on Dolmen Music — including “Travelling” — has a certain intangible element of dolmen-ness to it: primitive, simple, timeless, angular, mysterious, reverent. “Travelling” evokes wanderlust and hysteria simultaneously. As the piano plunks out a cyclic groove, Monk chants and wails an improvised incantation, incorporating melodies and harmonies connotative of ambiguous world cultures and indigenous roots. It’s magical to listen to, mesmerizing and completely fun. Enjoy it on this lovely Sunday afternoon (:
If you enjoyed “Travelling,” you might also like:
- Meredith Monk: “Travel Dream Song”
- Osvaldo Golijov: “Nanni” from Ayre
- Caroline Shaw: “Passacaglia” from Partita for Eight Voices