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Meredith Monk
Memory Game Eve Willis , April 10th, 2020 08:03

Composer Meredith Monk teams up with the Bang on a Can All-Stars for a set of re-orchestrated versions of pieces from throughout her career

Not to sound petulant, but it seems unfair that Meredith Monk is 77 (77!) and still so outrageously, prodigiously productive. I am 25 and when I swing my legs out of bed my joints creak in reprimand, a dawn chorus of dying cells.

I would never suggest that Monk would put her arm down the back of the sofa and pull together a sort of Greatest Hits swansong, and I don’t think you can accuse a woman who has been pushing primordial howling (sorry, ‘extended vocal technique’) as her primary instrument for the past five decades of half-arsing it. Working with New York chamber group Bang on a Can All-Stars, Monk has re-orchestrated nine pieces from across her extraordinary career, a sort of re-woven retrospective, with many tracks plucked from The Games: a Science Fiction Opera, which, yes, is as pleasingly mad as it sounds. Picking, pruning, and reworking in this way has nonetheless resulted in an album that still has a brilliant unity. She has graciously delegated the bulk of this vocals on the album to her trusted Vocal Ensemble, something I’m slightly sullen about because - great as Vocal Ensemble might be - they are not, you know, Meh-meh-meh-meh-Meredith, with her glorious, chirruping, bellowing vocals. Accept no imitations!

What breaks the album up and gives it a variety and texture is the back-and-forth between the ethereally gorgeous and the clankingly weird. 'Spaceship', for instance, is a serene, sublime intro track that moves into 'Gamemaster’s Song', one of two tracks that- for shame! - drove me wild with misplaced rage at its male vocalist, Theo Bleckmann. This is not his fault. If anything, it’s because the album does the job too well. The fragmentary qualities on some of the tracks - specifically 'Gamemaster’s Song', and 'Memory Song', do a clean job of replicating the interwoven, arbitrary way we remember. The rush of smell or sound that yanks back a forgotten moment eight years ago, that sort of thing. When Memory Song sees Bleckmann linger, “I remember mushrooms, I remember candlelight, I remember early morning coffee, I remember fish…” before lapsing into German, I remember a time when I too enjoyed mushrooms, candlelight, not being in bloody COVID quarantine. As as for auf Deutsch sprechen, as if I needed a reminder of the fact that this time last month I was in Berlin, decidedly not practicing social distancing, and eating kebabs in the cold winter sun. Now I leap in horror when I see an OAP through my window - why aren’t they in their house, sanitising their hands? At times, it all gets a bit Gertrude Stein. Languishing in my house, hearing Blackman drawl “where is that, where is that, where is that, here is that, here is that, coOOOooOOOOOOoome” for what felt like the millionth time made me want to throttle him. We get it mate, you’ve got amazing lung capacity, and you can still go outside.

But there is still so much on this album that is straight-forwardly beautiful, spooky, frightening in places. 'Waltz in 5s' is the triumph, a haunting piece of music that really does have it all: whining strings, solemn piano, a wordless, pitch-perfect aria, over the moan of the sax and some light chanting. Honestly, music to go right ahead and get ritually sacrificed to. I’m only half-joking, really – it has the spooky, otherworldly quality that has makes those of us who like Monk really like Monk: the sense that she has been flung here from someone else, has a range and language that us mere mortals (with our creaking knees) can’t really get at. She’s spoken of her love of the “honesty, directness and poignancy of folk music”, and there is something of the primal or ritualistic in some of her music; track three, Migration, talks through an alien race, “their languages numbered in the thousand… some of them bear similarities to our own language”, overset with a witches chorus: “I want to tell you where I am, I want to tell you where I am”, floating above a high-pitched chorus of shrieks (eye-eeh, eye-eeh, eye-eeeeh!)

Alien races, football, champagne, champagne, champagne - and, of course, plenty of staccatoed yelping. This is a janglingly strange album from the High Priestess of the avant-garde. I hope she lives to 100 so we get many more.