For six decades, vocalist-composer Meredith Monk has explored what she calls “primordial utterance,” or non-verbal vocal sound that lay beneath and beyond language, expressing “that for which we have no words.” This exploration has led her to create music that The New Yorker describes as simultaneously “visceral and ethereal, raw and rapt,” an art that “sings, dances and meditates on timeless forces.” With her latest, multivalent ECM New Series album, Monk aimed to address ecology and climate change, she says: “Believing that music speaks more directly than words, I worked to make a piece with a fluid, perceptual field that could expand awareness of what we are in danger of losing. On Behalf of Nature is a meditation on our intimate connection to nature, its inner structures, the fragility of its ecology and our interdependence.”
To that end, voices and instruments have equal weight across On Behalf of Nature: sometimes each is heard alone; sometimes they are blended to form a new, mysterious sound; sometimes they are combined to create intricate, layered, yet transparent sonic landscapes. The winds of Bohdan Hilash and violin of Allison Sniffin rustle and sing by turns, as the tuned percussion of John Hollenbeck plays a melodic as well as rhythmic role. The six singers (including Monk) offer melodious, harmonic and hocketing lines, murmurs, chants and keens as they communicate in a language beyond words. There is a sequence of pieces for voices alone (“Environs”), while the luminous minimalism of “Eon” is for instruments only. “Water/Sky Rant” is a feature for Monk’s solo voice, with rippling harp among the accompaniment. But most of the album’s 19 pieces meld singing and playing in a tapestry of sound.
Praising Monk’s 2011 ECM album Songs of Ascension, for voices and strings, the Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote: “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.”
Discussing her compositional process for On Behalf of Nature in her liner essay for the album, Monk says: “As I began working on the music for On Behalf of Nature, I asked myself the question: ‘How would one make an ecological art work, one that didn’t make more waste in the world?’ What came to mind was the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and his notion of bricolage: the process of assembling or making something from what is already at hand. In pre-industrial societies, one object could function in many different ways by an act of imagination. We now speak of this process as re-purposing. Part of my process as a composer includes creating music notebooks that function like journals. Within them, I write themes, fragments and phrases that are not ready to be made into complete forms. They are like seeds, filled with potential, waiting for the right moment to sprout. While I began by composing new pieces for On Behalf of Nature, at a certain point, I decided to play through fragments and phrases in a few of my notebooks to see if anything resonated with what I was now exploring. I then built new forms from that raw material. It was gratifying to see that the time that had elapsed between the original impulses and the present served to shed light upon and enrich the original ideas. The notion of spiraling around to the past to make something completely new is also a way of appreciating what is here in the present and working with what we have.
For Monk, On Behalf of Nature conjures “multiple realms including the celestial, human, microscopic, animal, plant and mineral, as well as the underlying processes and rhythms of nature,” she explains. “The overall structure is an arch with some of the themes from the beginning reoccurring near the end but in a varied or modified form. The last two pieces serve as an extended coda suggesting the continuity and resiliency of the natural world.”