The volcano traditionally symbolizes danger, the unpredictable power of elemental forces and nature's destructive potential. These meanings are all recognised by Meredith Monk in her new collection of pieces for voice(s) and/or piano, but, as ever, the composer-singer-choreographer-dancer - or "mosaicist", to use Monk's all-purpose term for her multiple activities - is rooting for deeper associations. "Volcanic activity was instrumental in the creation of this planet," she notes. "Volcanic land is some of the most fertile land on earth...So there's a tension between death and destruction on the one hand and rebirth and fertility on the other. These processes imply transformation, which is one of the underlying themes of Volcano Songs."
Comprised entirely of premiere recordings, Monk's seventh album for the New Series can perhaps be most closely related to Facing North and to the composer-singer's pre-ECM disc Songs from the Hill, both of which addressed nature's processes as manifested in specific landscapes. Though not in this instance bound to a particular time and place, the Volcano Songs (1993-4) also have affinities with the earlier compositions in their instrumentation. In contrast to the chamber opera Atlas (1991, recorded 1992), pieces on the present recording are laid bare, very much in line with Meredith's frequently stated goal of "trying to dig down to essential human utterance".
There are two sets of Volcano Songs on the new album, solos and duets. The duets feature Monk with Katie Geissinger, whose extended vocal techniques make an eerily close blend with the composer's: "Two voices are intertwined so that you can hardly tell two different people are singing. Katie and I have a very strong musical connection. In Hips Dance [the third of the duets] we push it even further, creating the illusion of more than two voices overlapping." Geissinger has been associated with Monk since 1990. Her many other performing credits range from the New York-based Ensemble for Early Music to the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass collaboration Einstein On The Beach.
Three Heavens and Hells (1992) is an intriguing diversion. Scored for the voices of Monk, Geissinger, Dina Emerson and Allison Easter, it is based upon a poem written by Tennessee Reed (daughter of novelist Ishmael Reed), when the author was just 11 years old. It marks the first time Monk has actually set words to music. "The text is only six lines long, about 30 words in the whole poem, but I found it so inspiring that I made a 20-minute piece out of it. It was so open I felt I could do anything with it."
Where Three Heavens and Hells is essentially lighthearted (in the composer's words, "funny and profound at the same time"), much darker colours are conveyed by the New York Requiem (1993). This is sung by Monk, with Harry Huff at the piano. The piece was originally written for Huff and frequent collaborator Thomas Bogdan, whose tenor voice had played an integral role in Atlas. "Tom is very active in the gay community in New York, and he asked if I would write a song for one of his cabaret performances. I went through my notebook to see if I had a theme for him, and I came to sixteen bars of melody I had begun in 1989. As I worked on the piece, I started realizing that this could be the requiem I had wanted to make for years...And then, every time I called Tom, I'd find out that he was taking a friend to the hospital, or going to another friend's funeral. As the piece developed, I felt this was an offering I could make. Now whenever I perform it, I tell the audience that it was inspired by the AIDS epidemic, but that it's really about all kinds of loss."
St Petersburg Waltz (1993) is a piece for solo piano performed by Nurit Tilles, a Monk associate since Do You Be (and also featured on all of Steve Reich's New Series albums). The Waltz was written after Monk returned from a long journey through Asia. "Oddly enough, being in Asia made me think more than ever about my blood roots - my parents' Russian/Polish Jewish background. This Eastern lineage is something I share with Nurit Tilles, whose parents were Polish Jews. I wrote this piece especially for Nurit. As I worked on it, I sensed my Russian grandfather in a very strong way. St Petersburg Waltz was inspired by the idea of a place rather than the place itself."
Two selections from Click Songs (1988) conclude the album. Brief essays in extended technique, they are "duets for solo voice." Without recourse to overdubbing they reveal "two things going on simultaneously, but within one voice." The results, at once "archaic" and "modern" underline a comment made in the Grove Dictionary of American Music, that Meredith Monk sounds "as if she might be singing ethnic music from a culture she invented herself."