“Songs of Ascension” is a major new work from Meredith Monk. Written in 2008, and recorded in 2009 at New York’s Academy of Art and Letters, it is conceived as a continuous composition, a departure from Monk’s recent collaged or episodic works.
As Kyle Gann writes in the liner notes: “Meredith Monk’s been expanding into the worlds of orchestra and string quartet, which she likes to write for as though the instruments were, themselves, voices. ‘Songs of Ascension’ developed partly from her work with strings, and she teams up here with a string quartet of New York players who are well versed in new music. Add in winds, percussion and two vocal groups to her already extraordinary singers, and this becomes one of Monk’s most musically ambitious ventures. It is also one in which voices and instruments are paired and balanced against each other to an extent rare in her music.” Western and eastern instruments have a role to play, with Asian drone instrument the shruti box appearing in juxtaposition with string quartet at key points in the work’s development.
Inspiration for the piece included an encounter with poet and Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer, who mentioned to Monk that Paul Celan had written about the “Song of Ascents”, a title given to fifteen of the Psalms sung on pilgrimages going up to Jerusalem. "This idea of worship, walking up something and singing, even using instruments fascinated me.” Monk told the New Scotsman newspaper. “I thought, 'why is up sacred and down not sacred?'”
As Monk was pondering this theme and its musical and sonic implications she received a serendipitous call from visual artist Ann Hamilton (early Monk/Hamlton collaboration had included the “mercy” project, see ECM 1829), inviting her to perform in an eight-story tower designed for a site in Sonoma County, California: “The tower was created in the form of a double helix, two staircases each spiraling up the interior of the structure opposite each other, only intersecting at the top. Not only did the performance space ascend, but the double helix suggested the shape of DNA, the blueprint of life itself. The staircases placed limits on the type of instrumentation – there could be no keyboards or mallet percussion, only instruments that could be carried up the stairs – and thus ‘Songs of Ascension’ had a rather site-specific origin.”
Nonetheless the piece has toured, to exceptional reviews: “The music is glorious”, wrote Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times. “Monk’s most significant growth over the past decade or two has been as a composer. She is a great master of utterance (…) A listener feels somehow in communication with another, perhaps wiser, species.” In the New Yorker Alex Ross suggested that “If Monk is seeking a place in the classical firmament, classical music has much to learn from her. She conveys a fundamental humanity and humility that is rare in new-music circles. She is a brainy artist but never a cerebral one; she shapes her ideas to the grain of the voice and the contours of the body.” Donald Hutera, writing for The Times of London, visited the work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where “Songs of Ascension” received a Herald Angel Award: “No matter what category you put it in, or by what criteria you judge it, this is a special experience. I left it feeling unexpectedly moved, deeply grateful and with a sense of privilege for having been there (…).”
Meredith Monk is a composer, singer, director/choreographer and creator of new opera, music theatre works, films and installations. A pioneer in what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance,” Monk creates works that thrive at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound in an effort to discover and weave together new modes of perception. “I work in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where the theatre becomes cinema”, she once said.
Monk creates works that transcend the boundaries of the individual art forms and provoke new modes of perception. Her music has been heard in numerous films, including “Nouvelle Vague” and “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” by Jean-Luc Godard (soundtracks to both on ECM New Series) and “The Big Lebowski” by Joel and Ethan Coen, as well as her own “Ellis Island” and “Book of Days”. Performers of her compositions include the Chorus of the San Francisco Symphony, The Pacific Mozart Ensemble, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Bjørk, DJ Spooky and many others. Monk has been recording for ECM since 1981 (“Dolmen Music” won a Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik) with a label-discography now including ten releases. Detailed information on Meredith Monk, and the genesis of Songs of Ascension can be found at the website of the House Foundation: www.meredithmonk.org