Songs of Ascension

Meredith Monk

“Songs of Ascension” is a major new recording from composer Meredith Monk and her vocal ensemble. Written in 2008, it is conceived as a continuous composition, a departure from Monk’s earlier collaged or episodic extended works. In recent years Meredith Monk’s been expanding into the worlds of orchestra and string quartet. On “Songs of Ascension” she teams up with a string quartet of New York players well versed in new music. With winds, percussion and two vocal groups added to her already extraordinary singers, this is one of Monk’s most musically ambitious ventures. Voices and instruments are paired and balanced against each other to an extent rare in her music. Inspirations for the work included the Song of Ascents, a group of psalms said to have been sung during pilgrimages, and a timely invitation to perform at an 8-story tower designed by visual artist Ann Hamilton. “Songs of Ascension” finds Monk playing with the musical, sonic, metaphysical and literal connotations of upward movement.

“If Monk is seeking a place in the classical firmament, classical music has much to learn from her.”
– Alex Ross, The New Yorker

Featured Artists Recorded

November 2009, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York

  • 1clusters 1
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 2strand (gathering)
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 3winter variation
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 4cloud code
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 5shift
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 6mapping
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 7summer variation
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 8vow
    (Meredith Monk, Mieke van Hoek)
  • 9clusters 2
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 10falling
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 11burn
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 12strand (inner psalm)
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 13autumn variation
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 14ledge dance
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 15traces
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 16respite
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 17mapping continued
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 18clusters 3
    (Bohdan Hilash)
  • 19spring variation
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 20fathom
    (Meredith Monk)
  • 21ascent
    (Meredith Monk)
Die amerikanische Komponistin, Sängerin und Performance-Künstlerin hat den Rachenraum als Wunderkammer entdeckt, wo eine Vielzahl von außergewöhnlichen Lauten und vokalen Geräuschen schlummern. Monk nutzt diese gesanglichen Bausteine, um Kompositionen nach dem minimalistischen Prinzip von Repetition und Variation zu formen. Klarheit und Einfachheit dienen als Leitgedanken. Die Musik besitzt in ihrer Reinheit eine fast sakrale Aura. Der Streicherklang des Todd Reynolds Quartet sorgt für Abwechslung, wie auch der vielstimmige Chor, der die dramatische Steigerung im Schluss-Crescendo unterstützt. Keine Note ist hier nebensächlich. Mit größter Sorgfalt wird jeder einzelne Ton intoniert, als wäre in ihm der Klang des ganzen Universums aufgehoben.
Neue Zürcher Zeitung
It’s an innovative, provocative but enjoyable work, exploring the relations between voices and instruments: in “Falling”, strings and voices ape each others swooping glissandi; in “Burn”, repetitive staccato string stabs cycle while the vocals resolve into close microtonal harmonic clusters. Tremendous stuff.
Andy Gill, The Independent
Komponiert 2008, aufgenommen im November des folgenden Jahres in der New Yorker Academy Of Arts And Letters, vereint die Sängerin, Choreographin, Komponistin und Performance-Künstlerin diesmal viele einzelne Impulse zu einer fortschreitenden Klangerzählung, einer Form von akustischem Pilgerweg entlang der Möglichkeiten stimmlichen und kammermusikalischen Ausdrucks. […] Heraus kam eine bewegende Stimmen-Suite, die das Collagen- und Episodenhafte früherer Projekte zu einem großen Stück verknüpfte. Das weist in die Zukunft, greift aber auch auf Meredith Monks Erfahrungen aus bald einem halben Jahrhundert Bühnenpräsenz zurück.
Freunde der Künste
“Songs of Ascension” is a major Monk work. The music is glorious.
Zorn, Exystence
Sie beherrscht die Choreografie der Stille. Ihre Stimmen tanzen. Es ist ein langsamer Tanz, der sich über das einzelne musikalische Werk hinaus auf Zeit und Raum erstreckt. Meredith Monk ist eine ungewöhnliche Künstlerin, die vokale Abstraktion mit instrumentaler Trance zu verbinden weiß. Doch so entrückt ihre Werke zunächst erscheinen, so sehr sind sie doch spirituell im Irdischen verhaftet. […] Vielleicht ist sie Avantgarde, womöglich hat sie alles Avantgardistische aber längst überwunden. Es sei denn, Atem und Zeit wären ausschließliche Kategorien der Avantgarde.
Wolf Kampmann, Jüdische Allgemeine
Language falls silent at Meredith Monk’s music. “Song of Ascension”, her radiant new work, now released as a CD, picks up where language leaves off. Space is essential to this work, which explores the idea of ascending as a nearly ubiquitous metaphor for spirituality: Spiritual things, in almost every culture, are thought to go up, to heaven, or wisdom, or enlightenment.
Anne Midgette, Washington Post
“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 (…).”