On Being with Krista Tippett

Meredith Monk

Archaeologist of the Human Voice

Last Updated

June 27, 2013

Original Air Date

February 16, 2012

A kind of archeologist of the human voice, singer and composer Meredith Monk says that “the voice could be like the body” — flexible and fluid with practice. Through music as through meditation, the longtime Buddhist practitioner pushes the boundaries of what we can do without words.

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Image of Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk is a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, and founder of the Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble. She's also artistic director of The House Foundation.


June 27, 2013

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: S. James Gates is a physicist, a theorist on the exotically named frontiers of superstrings and supersymmetry. These are fields where science is trying to reconcile its own most baffling contradictions. And whether you can fully comprehend string theory or not, its basic assumptions stretch our imagination about the nature of the universe we inhabit. James Gates brings this home with ideas and questions we can all chew on and be enriched by. He lets us in to the playful, creative, even spiritual, act of naming in science. He’s working to evolve the cosmic language of mathematics, much as poetry evolved alongside prose, to tell the whole story of what we’re made of and where we came from. And he sees codes embedded in reality, something like the codes embedded in computer programs.

DR. S. JAMES GATES JR.: I remember watching the movies, The Matrix, and so the thought occurred to me, suppose there were physicists in this movie. How would they figure out that they lived in the matrix? One way they might do that is to look for evidence of codes in the laws of their physics. But you see that’s what had happened to me already.

MS. TIPPETT: “Uncovering the Codes for Reality.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.

Sylvester James Gates Jr. is a professor and director of the Center for String and Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, where he’s a Regents Professor. He’s also a member of the National Academy of Sciences. I interviewed him in 2012; I also spoke with him once before, years ago, for a program on Einstein’s ethics.

We talked then about the inspiration James Gates drew from Einstein’s little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his own childhood attending segregated schools, but he went on to become the first African-American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major U.S. research university. And his work on supersymmetry — a feature of the universe that might help illustrate string theory — is part of the greatest controversy in physics since Einstein.

How to explain the fact that the universe seems to follow different rules at its highest levels and its smallest levels? String theorists suggests that deeper than atoms, deeper than electrons, behind quarks, filaments or strings of vibrating energies animate all the richness and diversity of the cosmos. James Gates’ own early interest in science was sparked by books about rocket ships by a writer named Willy Ley, and a movie called Space Waves.

MS. TIPPETT: Isn’t it interesting that space is the word we use? It doesn’t even begin to convey what you know about [laugh] what we call space now.

DR. GATES: I like to tell people that, from reading the books by Willy Ley, I had my own personal big bang between my ears because, around age eight or so, you know, I had an idea about how large the universe must be and it didn’t come from any great deep insight. The point was that, as an eight-year-old child, I saw these tiny dots of light in the sky and when I realized that they were places, the question was, well, gee, how far could they be if they were that small? So I just had a sense of the enormity of the size of the universe, not by any scientific or mathematical skill, but just sort of in a personal relationship sort of way. That’s when I kind of knew where I was in the universe. You know, it’s a very strange thing for an eight-year-old kid to come upon, but that’s what happened to me.

MS. TIPPETT: And you also, I understand, were reading science fiction. You had a big science life and a big fantasy life and, in fact, both of those things worked well with going into physics [laugh].

DR. GATES: Absolutely. That drive to learn to read actually caused an intersection with another very famous name of science fiction, namely Isaac Asimov.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, right, right.

DR. GATES: Isaac Asimov had another pseudonym called Paul French, and he wrote a series of children’s books of adventures on Mars.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I didn’t know that.

DR. GATES: Yes. And the character’s name was Lucky Starr, with two R’s. And my mother died from cancer in 1963, and one of the ways that I avoided having to deal with that horribly painful situation was to escape into the world of science fiction and fantasy. So that was a very powerful force impelling me to exercise my imagination. Then on top of that, we have kind of what I call a math bug in our family. My grandfather could neither read nor write, but he could do simple arithmetic. And my dad never finished high school, but he was clearly interested in mathematics. I remember watching him studying trigonometry and even some calculus as he was a soldier, particularly when he was working with artillery in the U.S. Army.

MS. TIPPETT: So I wonder, when you — is it right that you wrote the first-ever doctoral dissertation at MIT on supersymmetry?

DR. GATES: That is absolutely true. I can’t say it’s the first in the world because it probably wasn’t. There’s no kind of official registry of these things.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. But it was pretty new when you were writing about it.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Meredith Monk makes music and theater that feel edgy and ancient at the very same time.

[Excerpt from “Gotham Lullaby” from Dolmen Music]

She creates sweeping productions — joining music and movement, light and sound — on stages around the world. At the same time, as one New Yorker writer put it, “She conveys a fundamental humanity and humility that are rare in new-music circles.”

[Excerpt from “Gotham Lullaby” from Dolmen Music]

Meredith Monk is a kind of archeologist of the human voice and body. And the woman we meet is also an archeologist of the mind and spirit, with a longtime Buddhist practice. Through music as through meditation, she pushes the boundaries of what we can do without words — reaching to places in human experience where words can get in the way.

[Excerpt from “Gotham Lullaby” from Dolmen Music]

MEREDITH MONK: The human voice is the original instrument so you’re going back to the very beginnings of utterance. In a way, it’s like the memory of being a human being.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.

[Excerpt from “Woman At The Door” from Mercy]

Meredith Monk has received innumerable honors across her career — from Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships to an honorary doctorate at Juilliard. Early on, she had some classical training. But she often speaks of a moment of revelation she had after first moving to New York City in the 1960s — a revelation that “the voice could be like the body”; it could have a kind of articulation and flexibility and fluidity that the body, the spine, have.

And that she could find her own vocabulary as a singer — with choreography, movement, as her way in. This was, in fact, a connection Meredith Monk had known intimately in her childhood. She’d learned a musical method — called Dalcroze Eurhythmics — to correct early problems with bodily coordination. And her own family was full of musicians. Her great-grandfather was a cantor in Russia; her mother was best known as a singer of jingles and ads for radio.

[Excerpt from “Maybe 2” from Impermanence]

MS. TIPPETT: So you are, I read, a fourth-generation singer and I did find that so interesting that your mother sang for radio because what it reminded me of is that, when I was growing up in a very small town, I imagined that when I heard a song coming out of the radio there was a person singing at my small-town radio station. I used to think how exhausted they got that they had to go around touring [laugh]. But your mother actually was somebody who did that.

MS. MONK: She was there every day because, in those days, there wasn’t tape. So she did a soap commercial. It was called “Duz does everything” and she did it for a soap opera. So she was at 1:00 every day for The Road of Life, which was ongoing for years. So it was a live situation every day.

MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that — so, obviously, music was in you from the beginning. It seems to me that there’s such an organic link between your art and what we call spirituality. And I just wonder if that was there in your childhood. Was that connection there, whether it was expressed or not?

MS. MONK: I’m not sure whether I was aware of it as a little child, but I was very much in love with music and I remember that I used to sing myself to sleep when I was a child. I mean, it was a very natural — singing was a natural kind of language for me. My mother told me that I would sing things back right away even before I started talking. I read music before I read words, actually.

MS. TIPPETT: So it’s interesting if you look at your stories. You never really left that behind. That is something that really became very clear to me as I just kind of immersed in your music. One thing we definitely put together in Western music, when the voice is involved, is words and music, right?

MS. MONK: Mm-hmm. Yes, exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: I almost felt some kind of resistance in myself, right? Like it needed words to be a song.

MS. MONK: Mm-hmm, Mm-hmm. That’s really interesting. See, for me, well, there are the wonderful songsmiths and wonderful people that do put words and music together in such a beautiful way. You know, it is very enlightening to hear that music, but for me, the words get in the way, actually, of the heart-to-heart kind of expression that allows for each person to hear it and hook into their minds and hook into their hearts and hook into their memory.

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, I’m saying this was kind of an initial resistance, which goes away. It didn’t really contradict, you know, the beauty that I was experiencing. I just think it was an expectation that had to be suspended.

MS. MONK: Yeah, Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: And what you’re saying, though, maybe there’s also a layer of kind of emotional surprise because, as you say, then things are being communicated that do bypass words.

MS. MONK: Yeah, because I think emotion or feeling, you know, we have so many more shades of feelings that we can’t label. And I guess ultimately as an artist I’m so interested in uncovering the invisible and uncovering, you know, the mysterious and uncovering, what would I say, the inexplicable. So the things that we actually can’t label, that’s the kind of mentality.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Words are always approximate for mystery.

MS. MONK: Mm-hmm, Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: So when people say that you’re a pioneer of extended vocal techniques, you know, how would you explain that and what the origin of that is and what that means to you?

MS. MONK: I think it’s just that, when I had that revelation, I realized that the voice could be used like an instrument. So it was really more knowing that anything was possible with the human voice. And I think that that’s what people are now calling extended vocal technique. I mean, I’ve always been loath to categorize anything and, you know, to even call it like a category like that, you know. I guess, again, it’s a way that people can identify something. But I was just thinking more in terms of the voice as the messenger of my soul, and I was just trying to follow it to the best of my ability and to listen to what it needed to do and say. So that’s more the way that I was working.

MS. TIPPETT: So something like Dolmen Music is — also becomes kind of a vocal orchestra.

MS. MONK: Mm-hmm. Yes, exactly.

[Excerpt from “Do You Be” from Dolmen Music]

MS. MONK: It’s funny when you hear it. It’s kind of hard to realize that there’s only six singers. It sounds like there might be 12 or 20 or something [laugh]. It also is very much about keeping the flexibility of not only the voice, but also the mind and the spirit. I mean, the people that were singing with me in Dolmen Music, I met them when they were very young, and so they didn’t have the expectations and having to drop what they had learned. The language of the voice and the way that I was working with it was something that became second nature to them

[Excerpt from “Do You Be” from Dolmen Music]

MS. MONK: You know, I think that singing together is very, very intimate, and I always say that the music or the images or anything are just a kind of armature for revealing the radiance of these performers. You know, I realized that when I was making Atlas. It was a three-act work, it had a wall that moved and, you know, an orchestra. I was like, “Oh!” You know, I mean, it was everything but the kitchen sink in there. I mean, not in terms of the form, but I mean, you know, there was an other opera going on backstage because the costumes were flying and everything back there. So it was a big, big production, and I realized at a certain point that, you know, all of that is very beautiful, but really what was happening there was just an armature to allow for or a structure or a form to allow for these amazing performers, these generous, radiant performers for that to come across. And I think that performing is you’re so in tune with each other. You know, it’s such an amazing template of the possibility of human behavior, of generosity and being there for the other person and, you know, being so sensitive to the environment and to the other people.

[Excerpt from “Braid 1 and Leaping Song” from Mercy]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, with composer, singer, director, and choreographer Meredith Monk.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you have a Buddhist practice, right? A meditation practice? I wondered as I was kind of, you know, reading you and watching you, you’ve talked about singing — like the focus, the meditation focus, is also when you’re singing, the presence, and I wondered if you think that gives you a different relationship to the audience.

MS. MONK: Mm-hmm. Hmm. You know, in a way, I always say that, as a young artist, I think I knew some of these, uh, what I would now call fundamental Buddhist principles, but I feel like I knew them intuitively as a young artist and a performer. Then at a certain point, I was asked to teach at Naropa Institute and then I, you know, through the art, you know, not through the Buddhist practice, but really through the art that I learned about Buddhism and then I realized all these things that I had had as principles — as aesthetic principles — really were fundamental Buddhist principles. So that was really interesting.

And one of them is something that you’re talking about which is — I always think of the relationship between the audience and the performer as a kind of infinity sign or a figure eight of energy that goes from the performer to the audience and then back from the audience back to the performer, and it’s just this constant flow of energy between these two bodies of people. But the beauty of a live performance is that we’re all in the same space at the same time, and I don’t think we have that many situations in the world like that.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve even talked about the audience as a congregation, which is interesting.

MS. MONK: Yeah. I mean, I feel like a dinosaur holding out: “A live performance, live performance. Not the screen, live performance,” because I think that there is something about it that’s so unique and it’s so necessary to remember again.

MS. TIPPETT: I always see you also insisting that music is about waking up. I mean, I don’t know if those two things have to be in tension, but I sense that, if you had to choose between transcendence and waking up and being right there in that moment, you would choose the latter. Just saying, I mean, live performance is as direct and awake and experience one hopes as anything we do.

MS. MONK: That’s also, again, so interesting because actually I don’t see those two things as opposites. I actually think that, when you are that present and you are that awake and the audience actually experiences themselves, you know, the deepest part of themselves, then the whole situation becomes transcendent because we’re not — the way we live our lives is not necessarily with that level of presence.


MS. MONK: And also certainly in this society, we’re taught to actually be distracted and diverted all the time from feeling, in a sense, you could say the pain — the good pain, you know, the pain as in openheartedness and rawness of the moment, the pain as well as the pleasure, everything in one in that moment.

MS. TIPPETT: One of the words that has been an artistic subject for you is mercy, thinking about a spiritual notion or religious notion, certainly a Buddhist notion. The reason that came to me, you know, after what you just said is that I was talking not too long ago with a great scholar of the Old Testament prophets [laugh]. Here’s a different connection for you, OK? He reminded me that the Hebrew word for mercy has connotations of the womb as does, in fact, the Arabic word.


MS. TIPPETT: And, but you know what? That sounds so kind of pretty, kind of lovely, right [laugh]? I said to him, “You know, isn’t that wonderful because the connection of the mother to the child is kind of the absolute image we have for seeing someone else’s well-being as connected to our own?” I’m finally getting to the connection here. He said, “Yes, because it’s so uncomfortable.”

MS. MONK: Oh, that’s so interesting, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Actually, you just echoed this. But when I was looking at something you wrote about mercy: You used words like pain, joy, perseverance, continuance, that whole complex. Anyway, I just offer that up to you as something I heard.

MS. MONK: That’s so interesting. Well, these last years and maybe Mercy was the first time I was very aware of it, I mean, I think for many years, I’ve been trying to think how do I really keep on affirming that my Buddhist practice or meditation practice and my art practice are actually one? There’s no difference at all. There was a certain point — it was the early ’90s — that I did a piece called Facing North, which was very inspired by being up at Banff, Canada, and the silence in the snow and, you know, just this incredible environment. And I was very aware that I was making a very meditative piece and that it was like making a piece about sacred space. So that was, you know, what I was aware of at that point.

But when I started working on Mercy and I was collaborating with a wonderful visual artist, Ann Hamilton, we did a lot of talking about this, I started becoming aware of the fact that actually I wanted to spend the rest of my life working on pieces that I — it was basically making pieces about something you can’t make pieces about. So there was never going to be like a definitive statement about anything, but it was much more that the act of making artwork was also the act of contemplating something. So Mercy was the first, second one was Impermanence, and then the latest piece that I’ve been working on with this way of thinking about things is called Songs of Ascension.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Those are the three I wanted to talk to you about.

MS. MONK: So, you know, I don’t think my practice of making art is so much different from, you know, the way that it always was, but it’s much more just being aware of how do we spend time on this planet, how do you do work that’s of benefit? Ann Hamilton and I talked a lot about Mercy being — you know the basic theme of Mercy was help and harm, you know, the aspects of help and harm.

MS. TIPPETT: Say some more.

MS. MONK: Well, you know, I mean, the piece was quite abstract. It was not really, you know, wasn’t situations particularly. And one thing that I think pushed us over to really wanting to make a piece that would be called Mercy was that when I was in Ohio the first time talking with her and working with her, we happened to see on television there was a news broadcast of — it was the time of the Intifada and there was a young father …

MS. TIPPETT: … in Israel.

MS. MONK: Yes. And there was a young father and his son and they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and both of the soldiers from both sides shot them, even though they were asking for mercy basically.

[Excerpt from “Masks” from Mercy]

MS. MONK: They were just coming home from school and they were in a situation and these soldiers could not let them go by.


MS. MONK: So that was — I found that pretty shocking because it wasn’t that it was a situation that was any kind of danger or, you know, when the adrenalin goes up or anything. There were decisions that were made there, so that was something to think about. That was harm.

MS. TIPPETT: They were kind of caught in a situation where mercy didn’t seem …

MS. MONK: … couldn’t apply or something in that situation.

[Excerpt from “Liquid Air” from Mercy]

MS. MONK: So I think we started thinking about, for example, that the hand can hold a trigger, you know, can hold a gun or the hand can actually touch someone, you know, in the society where there’s not a lot of touch. The mouth can scream, you know, the voice can scream or the mouth can sing a lullaby, so there were a lot of images of hands and mouths in the piece.

[Excerpt from “Liquid Air” from Mercy]

MS. TIPPETT: The Songs of Ascension, I mean, ascension is also a religious image or it’s a very common religious image that you find in different traditions.

MS. MONK: Mm-hmm. Well, I was interested with that in why does worship always go up [laugh]? Or in a lot of traditions, there’s this idea of heaven or going up and how about going down like, you know, the earth say in Native American culture. So I was thinking about that. But the genesis of Songs of Ascension came from having dinner with a wonderful friend of mine, Norman Fischer, who is a very fine poet.

MS. TIPPETT: A Zen abbot, right?

MS. MONK: Yes, he’s a former Zen abbot and a wonderful poet and we’re good friends. I was just asking him what was he working on, and he was saying that he was working on translating the Psalms into contemporary language that also took into account his Zen practice. We both come from a Jewish background, so we’re both Jew-Bus, so we have that in common. He’s been going back to actually teaching meditation for Jewish practitioners, you know, people who come from the Jewish tradition. He’s teaching Jewish meditation, which is pretty great.


MS. MONK: So he was also talking about Paul Celan, who I was not familiar with, the poet who was a survivor of World War II who talked about the Psalms that were called Song of Ascents. They were sometimes called Songs of Ascent and sometimes they were called Song of Ascents. Basically, what they are are songs that are always about climbing up the mountain to the temple. On the top of the mountain, there were 15 stairs that went to the temple, so people would take a step and then sing a psalm and then take the next step and sing a psalm. So to me, that was so fascinating and also there were instruments as well. So this idea of procession or walking, walking and making music as a form of worship, these things were just going through my mind and, you know, music and space and music as worship.

[Excerpt from “Respite” from Songs of Ascension]

MS. TIPPETT: Meredith Monk eventually performed Songs of Ascension in an unusual space, itself a work of art — a 78-foot tower that the visual artist Ann Hamilton helped create at a ranch in Northern California. It looks like a medieval concrete turret sunken into the Sonoma County hills. Inside, there’s a spiraling staircase infused with light but no view of the landscape — only a circular opening to the sky.

[Excerpt of “Respite” from Songs of Ascension]

MS. MONK: The tower is eight stories high, but it’s not very big in terms of how far away you are from each other and it’s got double-helix staircases that go up to the top.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I watched a video of this.

MS. MONK: Also, the idea of DNA seemed so interesting to me and how would you make a musical structure that had that double-spiral kind of form? I’m not sure I successfully did that, but I mean, it was very inspiring to work with it.

[Excerpt of “Falling” from Songs of Ascension]

MS. MONK: DNA has that core, but then it has all these little offshoots. And how would you work with that musically and visually and, you know, with the body?

MS. TIPPETT: You also had — the musicians were all over the place in the tower, right?

MS. MONK: Yes, and the way that the double helix works is that the audience is on one strand and then the performers are on the other strand, but if you looked at it, you actually wouldn’t know how it worked exactly because you never could reach where the audience is except to go over the top and back around, but you’re really close to the audience. So in a way, the audience and the performers are woven together. It’s such a beautiful situation.

MS. TIPPETT: You’re like on parallel staircases.

MS. MONK: We’re on parallel staircases, but we can never reach each other [laugh].

MS. TIPPETT: But you know what? What struck me also though is that it’s Songs of Ascension, but when I watched this, it’s the circular — I mean, there’s the moment where everything goes up and down again, right? It was actually circular. It wasn’t just up.

MS. MONK: That’s right. Maybe I should have called it “Songs of Going Up and Down” [laugh].

MS. TIPPETT: Well, no, but maybe ascension has going down in it or something, you know.

MS. MONK: I think it does. You know, I think there are two parts of the — you know, we have the heaven principle, the earth principle and the human principle. You weave them together and that’s how they’re unified. So it had both aspects. But also the acoustical situation in that tower was so unique and, you know, to be able to even hear each other was so interesting. So I was just trying to work with that very extreme, like sometimes something would come from way down at the bottom and the rest of the performers would be way up at the top and one performer would be way down at the bottom. The audience couldn’t see the entire thing, but you could hear the whole thing.

[Excerpt of “Mapping Continued” from Songs of Ascension]

MS. TIPPETT: This is true of your art, but it’s also true of your Buddhism. I want to say this. You know, it’s always a cliché to imagine that Buddhism is just about, you know, sitting down, following the breath or making your mind empty, that’s the simplistic cliché. But I really see you kind of living and working with also this narrative, playful kind of melodrama that’s there in Buddhist tradition, right? Stories about Milarepa and the cave and the demons coming in [laugh] and inviting them to tea. There’s a playfulness in your art and in the way you bring your spiritual sensibility into that. Do you know what I’m talking about?

MS. MONK: Yes, I do. I mean, I think it’s something — play — play is something to really think about, you know, because I say that to myself. Right now, I’m working on a commission for the San Francisco Symphony, and I just keep on saying, “Remember playfulness, Meredith?” at the piano, just like “How am I going to do this?’ But I mean, I think that sense of playfulness is the sense of being alive; that’s another aspect of being awake and the fluidity. It’s really about fluidity, about being so in the moment that you are in pinpoint focus, but at the same time, you’re completely open to what the moment has to give you or to tell you. And I think that has to do with the playfulness and people can feel that. You know, I think that that’s what you’re giving an audience is that spirit of the give and take that playfulness implies.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. It’s awake and it’s responsive.

MS. MONK: Mm-hmm, exactly. And light. I think there’s something which is also about Buddhism, you know, the wonderful practice and certainly you hear that a lot in the Zen practice with Suzuki Roshi and all these masters that are just saying, “Lighten up.” I think that’s the beauty of Buddhism is that the Buddha, you know, always said, “Don’t believe what I say. Find out for yourself.”

[Excerpt of “Summer Variation” from Songs of Ascension]

MS. TIPPETT: Watch video of Meredith Monk performing Songs of Ascension in Ann Hamilton’s tower. Find links at onbeing.org.

[Excerpt of “Summer Variation” from Songs of Ascension]

Coming up, Meredith Monk on aging, loss, and impermanence. Also, her thoughts on curiosity as an antidote to fear. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.


[Excerpt of “Summer Variation” from Songs of Ascension]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with Meredith Monk. She’s an archeologist of the human voice as the original musical instrument. She creates performance pieces that join music, movement, light, and image. In recent years, an eclectic array of other artists have begun to perform her unusual songs and make them their own. Gabriel Prokofiev, Björk, and DJ Spooky are among them. Here’s his interpretation of Meredith Monk’s “Dawn” for a new CD, Monk Mix.

[Excerpt of DJ Spooky’s remix of “Dawn” from Monk Mix]

Meredith Monk has been talking about how her life in music and her Buddhist practice have shaped her personal wisdom on life and humanity. She often takes up spiritually and religiously evocative themes, such as ascension, mercy, and, impermanence.

MS. TIPPETT: So I would love to talk about Impermanence and that project. I know that that has also been connected with life for you.

MS. MONK: Very much so.

MS. TIPPETT: So would you tell that story?

MS. MONK: Well, I lost my partner of 22 years, so that was a very — in a sense, that was the biggest wake-up call that I ever had in my life up to that point and probably from that point on because I think that, when you have that kind of loss, nothing can ever be the same. It was a blessing. I also saw the blessing, not the blessing of the loss, but the blessing of being part of life and the blessing of being aware of the billions of people that go through loss all the time.


MS. MONK: So in a way, I feel like you can be compassionate of other peoples’ pain, but if you really haven’t experienced it, it’s really hard to know what that really does to the way that you think about life and death. So it was very profound. I really tried to not separate myself from the grieving process or not try to defend myself from the grieving process, but to really go right into it and right through it. I knew that there was never going to be an end. You know, it’s really a folly to say to someone, “Well, have you gotten over it?” or, you know, “Has there been closure?” I mean, there really never is.

And that, again, is the beauty of knowing that we will be here and gone. You know, the light goes on and the little light bulb goes off, but you leave love behind. I mean, really when it comes down to it, you just leave love behind. That’s what it comes down to. The Beatles had it right: All you need is love [laugh]. I mean, it’s really true. So it was such a feeling of being part of the sea of life, the sea of humanity, and the raw hardness of life that makes you appreciate so much the moments that you have.

So what happened that was really interesting was that, about two months after she died, I got an email from a group in England. They called themselves Rosetta Life. What they do is they go into the different hospices in England and they work with the people that have had the diagnosis of terminal illness and they say, “Well, is there any kind of artwork that you would like to do? You know, would you like to write a poem about your process or about anything? Would you like to make some music?” Then they’ll get an artist to go in and help them. So if somebody wants to make a painting, but they’ve never painted in their lives, but they feel that that’s the way they’re going to express this process, somebody comes in and helps them. A painter comes in and helps them to make a work.

So they said, “Well, we’re going to have a festival of these hospice patients’ work and we’d like you to make some music.” I think it was for a play or it might have been a play of some of the stories of these people that were in this process. “Would you do that?” I said, “Well, I actually don’t work that way, you know, with stories and narrative that much, but I would really actually like to make a total piece, and I’m thinking of nothing but impermanence, so I think I’ll call it the Impermanence project. You know, I’d like to make the whole piece.”

[Excerpt of “Slow Dissolve” from Impermanence]

MS. MONK: And then, of course, after I started working on it a few months later, I said, “What was I thinking?” Again, it was this how do you make a piece about impermanence? It’s impossible. You know, it’s like an oxymoron to make a form about impermanence.

MS. TIPPETT: A project [laugh].

MS. MONK: Yeah, a project about impermanence. On a long retreat that I did up at Gampo Abbey, which is up in Canada, in Nova Scotia, of course, I was supposed to label a thinking immediately when I got the idea, but I did keep it in my mind, I have to admit. But I got this image [laugh]

MS. TIPPETT: [Laugh] OK. You’re going to be in meditation.

MS. MONK: So I got the image of a crystal, like holding a crystal in your hand, and that you look at these different facets or faces of a crystal and that, if I started working that way, in other words, we’re glimpsing at this one facet of impermanence and then we turn it over and maybe the next facet has nothing to do with the first facet, but we’re seeing another side of it, that that would actually be a beautiful structure.

So the first part of Impermanence is that each of the sections, we actually say the name of the section. So if I’m singing “Last Song,” I just say, “Last Song.” And then I sing it. Or we have another section called “Particular Dance” or “Seeds,” or there are different titles of the sections, or “Disequilibrium” is another section. So it’s very honest, and I thought that was a good way of trying to work with it.

And then the other part of it was that they had asked me if I could do something with the hospice patients. So we had this wonderful workshop. I came to London and mostly we were just doing a lot of talking. People were laughing a lot and a lot of it was about pain management and just about their experiences. So I sang “The Tale,” which is a very funny piece where it’s about this old woman who is talking about “I still have my hands, ha-ha-ha.” It’s one of my songs that actually really has text, but it’s more like a sort of litany, so they loved that because it was really funny and they’d say, “We want to hear this bit again; we loved that.”

Then I sang “Last Song” for them because I had started working on it. Some of them said that it was actually almost too much, that it was too close to the process that they were going through, and then — but then they said the more they heard it, they could have heard it all night. So it became this kind of also something really intimate for them.

[Excerpt from “Last Song” from Impermanence]

MS. TIPPETT: Why do you decide to add words. How do you know that? Because that’s pretty rare for you, isn’t it?

MS. MONK: Yeah. Well, if I do use words, they’re really used more abstractly. It’s not like if you hear the words, a story is being told. It’s actually more almost like a chant is the way that I think about it. Like both “The Tale” and “Last Song” have this sense of the word as litany. And I think in “Last Song,” what I was going for was the idea of saying a word, but then little by little, the word dissolves into pure sound.

MS. TIPPETT: See, that’s still different from singing a song.

MS. MONK: It’s still different from the way that, you know, singing a song where the song is actually giving you the content in a way.

MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.

MS. MONK: So what I ended up doing because they asked if I could do something where their experiences or they were actually in the piece, and that became difficult for me because it’s hard for me to work that way.

So what I ended up coming up with was that the piece began with hearing them sing a melody called “Mieke’s Melody #5,” which was a melody that my partner — she used to like to just improvise in the studio even though she was not a singer. And I happened to come upon a tape of some of these improvisations. So what I did was I notated one of them and then I actually changed it a little bit and, you know, made it more into a form and added some of my own phrases. So it was a little bit like a collaboration through time and space.


MS. MONK: So I wrote out the melody because they said, “Oh, we love to sing.” So I wrote the melody out for them and then they sang it, but they couldn’t really carry a tune that well. But each of them sang it, so the melody goes like [singing]. You know, that was the melody and then they’d be like [singing], so each of them had a different way of doing it. So when the audience came in, they heard their voices and then I had a film of just their faces just looking straight out at the camera very, very, very close.

And so when they came to see it, the ones that were still alive by the time we did Impermanence, it just meant so much to them and then also their families for the ones that had passed before we ended up doing the piece. It meant so much to them.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, they could experience that, right.

MS. MONK: So they were actually really present in the piece, so that was another aspect that was really beautiful.

[Excerpt from “Mieke’s Melody #5” from Impermanence]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, with composer and singer Meredith Monk.

MS. TIPPETT: So this whole notion of impermanence and the death of your partner, it’s clear also that it’s been for you — it’s also coincided with you thinking about aging. I’ve seen you out there talking with Bjork about that, about aging.

MS. MONK: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: And in Buddhist fashion, I mean, also talking about these things as teachers. I have to also say that there’s such a fluidity in your body, in your movements. I mean, I’m not sitting across from you, unfortunately, but watching you on video that kind of feels ageless and your braids are ageless also [laugh]. Is that something that you’re working with? How are you experiencing that? How do you think your art shapes the way you might be experiencing that?

MS. MONK: Well, I’ve been noticing that the older that I get, the simpler the work gets in a way. I mean, in a way it’s more refining it from something very complex to something very simple. One of the beauties of being an artist is that it is timeless. You know, the funny thing is, it doesn’t get any easier [laugh]. I mean, you would think that I’ve been working for so many years that, oh, I can make a piece so easily, but I think what I do is I put myself through the same process of going to zero every time and, you know, this kind of risky situation, so sometimes I think why do I do this and why isn’t it more easy now after all these years?

But I actually think that that’s what does keep you very young because you’re always questioning. You know, I think that making art is actually about questions and that you never take anything for granted and you’re in this slightly dangerous situation, which I think is really good. Then I always say that I’m scared to death and I think, you know, what we learn in Buddhist practices to tolerate the unknown, you know, because that’s reality. The reality is that we don’t know anything, and we really don’t know what’s going to happen in the next moment. So you learn to tolerate that discomfort of not knowing and fear. I mean, I really — I think, every time, I’m just terrified. I’m actually terrified. I realize this even now working on this piece.

MS. TIPPETT: Every time? When you’re creating something?

MS. MONK: Well, when I perform, I’m still nervous, which I think is a good sign because it means that you still have passion for what you’re doing. But every time I make something new, it’s never like, oh, this is going to be so easy. No, it’s always this terror and then I sit with that for a while and then I say to myself, “Step by step,” and then I just start working and it’s a step-by-step kind of process. And then, at a certain point, I realize I’m so interested in this. Then once that interest comes in or curiosity comes in, then the fear goes away. So it’s very interesting that curiosity is a great antidote to fear.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s a lovely thing to think about. I know some journalist was writing the one thing that happens when someone listens to you, when you hear this music come out of your voice and you want to see if you can do that with your voice. And I found that to be absolutely true, so I’ve been walking around and singing.

MS. MONK: You’ve been clicking [laugh]?

MS. TIPPETT: Clicking. I haven’t tried that. But, I mean, it’s interesting because — and I think maybe counterintuitive — because what comes out of your mouth is not like other songs that you’ve learned in your life, right? It’s recognizable as music, but it’s different and yet it feels familiar. It feels like something you take in and want to take in.

MS. MONK: Well, I think that actually all of us as human beings are part of the world vocal family. I like to think that all of us are part of that world vocal family. When you start exploring your voice, there are sounds that you find that do transcend a particular culture. You know, they’re used in different ways in the culture, but they are sounds that are part of the vocabulary of the human voice, and the human voice is the original instrument. So you’re going back to the very beginnings of utterance and I think that’s why, when you hear it, it brings up — in a way it’s like the memory of being a human being.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s kind of where I wanted to come with you. You know, how this way you’ve lived your life through these media of music and art and also your Buddhist practice. How has your idea of what it means to be human, how did these things shape that in a particular way? Where are you with that right now?

MS. MONK: Well, I think what I’m so grateful for every day is just that I’ve been able to do what I love. Music and art, I mean, it’s something that how can you even articulate the scope of that? You know, that you are part of that, that you’ve been allowed to be part of that and that you’ve been allowed to share that with people all over the world, that we’ve traveled all over the world and have shared this, and then these amazing people, you know, in my life that have helped me so much. You know, it’s been a wonderful life. That’s the name of a movie [laugh], but it really has.

MS. TIPPETT: Is there anything else, any song or work that you’d like to talk about or something you’re working on now?

MS. MONK: Well, there’s one song that’s an unusual song for me that also does have a little bit of text in it. It’s a song that I wrote when I first started doing formal sitting practice, which was in the mid-80s. Most of my songs deal with emotion, you could say, between the cracks of emotion. You know, they’re not really dealing with a particular, you know, anger or something that you can point your finger at, but I usually think of them as the shades between the emotions, that the voice can dig those shades of emotion out.

But I got very inspired. My early practice was in the Shambhala training, which was created by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher. These teachings usually come out during times of hard times in the world. Shambhala was a mythical kingdom that was ruled by an enlightened king who asked the Buddha to not come with his monks, but to basically come and teach him how to have enlightened society. That’s the tradition.

And in many, many different Asian countries, Shambhala is like a mythic kingdom. It’s not only in the Tibetan tradition. So it’s very much about how do you become a citizen in this world, very simple, down to earth. Your practice is very simple, but it’s very much about how are you in the world? You know, how do you look at the person that’s counting change for you in the grocery store or how do you deal with a person that you don’t get along with well? How are you waking up all the time to see what the moment is? How are you on the subway? How are you when something really bad happens to you? You know, just how do you become a citizen in this world and perpetuate nonviolence and, you know, there are many, many aspects to it.

And one of them is about and fear and fearlessness. And it’s about acknowledging your fear rather than pushing it away because a part of the violence comes from not even acknowledging that you’re afraid. It’s actually that you’re afraid of the fear.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, but acting out.

MS. MONK: And then what happens, that gets pushed down and then that gets transformed into anger or violence. I mean, so much of the world that we’re living in now, you know, what’s going on and the way that people are manipulated or these wars or violent situations come from basic fear and terror, not in terms of terrorism, but terror, human terror. So I started thinking about that and then I’ve started working on a song that’s called “Scared Song.”

[Excerpt from “Scared Song” from Do You Be]

MS. MONK: I think that’s quite an unusual piece for me because it really is dealing with a very specific emotion.

MS. TIPPETT: I want to tell you something funny.

MS. MONK: Oh, please.

MS. TIPPETT: On the list, it’s misspelled. It’s called “Sacred Song.”

MS. MONK: I think that’s in iTunes. They have it as “Sacred Song.”

MS. TIPPETT: Somewhere I saw it.

MS. MONK: Yeah, me too.

MS. TIPPETT: But it’s an interesting mistake, I thought.

MS. MONK: Isn’t it? Yeah. I was thinking about that too. How interesting. Maybe the computer saw “Scared Song” and then changed it to “Sacred Song.” Because how could there be a song called “Scared Song”? That’s impossible [laugh]. So in that one also, I do have words, but again, they really kind of disintegrate into states of being.

[Excerpt from “Scared Song” from Do You Be]

MS. TIPPETT: Meredith Monk is the founder of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble. She’s also artistic director of The House Foundation, which oversees her vocal and interdisciplinary projects. Her performance works include Mercy, Impermanence, and Songs of Ascension.

[Excerpt of “Ascent” from Songs of Ascension]

Meredith Monk sent us a list of about a dozen songs she’s recorded over the decades — songs that are especially meaningful to her. You can listen to them and all the music from this hour on the show playlist. Find that at onbeing.org.

[Excerpt of “Ascent” from Songs of Ascension]

To download a free copy of this show or to listen to my unedited interview with Meredith Monk, go to our website at onbeing.org. And “like” us on our Facebook page — that’s facebook.com/onbeing. And follow us on Twitter; our handle: @Beingtweets.

[Excerpt of “Ascent” from Songs of Ascension]

This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer. Kate Moos is a consulting editor. Special thanks this week to Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.


MS. TIPPETT: Next time, “Desmond Tutu’s God of Surprises” — an intimate and joyous conversation with the South African archbishop emeritus on the history he’s shaped, and how his understanding of God and humanity has unfolded through it. Please join us.

This is APM, American Public Media.


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