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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Opera Review: Anniversaries in Eden

Meredith Monk unveils On Behalf of Nature at BAM.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Meredith Monk performing On Behalf of Nature.
Photo from
A soft keening rose in the darkness. This tone developed softly, swelling in volume as other voices added themselves to its song. This was the subtle, aurally seductive opening of composer Meredith Monk's On Behalf of Nature, which premiered Wednesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater.

Meredith Monk arrived in New York in 1972, and found herself at the forefront of the downtown avant-garde aesthetic that swept the city in that hectic decade. Her vast catalogue and discography of work rests squarely outside the mainstream. A fierce commitment to rhythm, melody and the breaking of new musical barriers have been the hallmarks of her long career  With her trademark braids flying and the unique sound of her voice, she is an  indispensable figure at the forefront of modern American music.

This performance, featuring Ms. Monk and her vocal ensemble with three of its members doubling on instruments to stage left, was a commemoration of that fierce creative spirit and five decades' history of her music. It was also a multimedia, multisectioned opera with a wordless, melismatic libretto, combining ritualistic dance and movement in a celebration of the wonders of the natural world, and an underlying ecological message in this troubling new century.

Ms. Monk's music puts the voice first, and the center of On Behalf was the contribution of her eight-person Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble. Changing costumes throughout the night (from a ragtag look assembled from recycled old clothes to white uniform-like outfits), these singers combined and separated, using the human voice to create an astonishing range of sounds and vocal effects.

The score itself featured repeated figures for tuned percussion (marimbas and vibraphone.) The low end was anchored by contrabass and bass clarinet, their rumbles and groans supporting the voice. Wooden flutes gave an air of environmentally friendly exoticism to the piece, and soaring solos on the violin moved the whole proceeding closer to familiar musical territory.

Ms. Monk and her team moved across the darkened stage in a stylized choreography, their movements sometimes mimicking the capering of primates or the flight of birds. The hypniotic swelling of the music, minimal in its execution but hefty in its psychic impact, pulled the listener deep into the sound-world of the piece. The composer and her squad of singers chirped, barked and vocalised, alternating chitters and squawks with melodic songlines that mirrored the sounds of the accompanists.

From their small workstation on the left side of the stage, the three musicians switched between violin, keyboard and tuned percussion, playing repetitive figures that haunted the mind and soothed the ears. Occasionally, projections would appear behind the little troupe of dancers, the music swelling, falling and again, rising in conjunction with the black-and-white films. At its culmination, the music simply ceased to sound, its echos continued in the imaginations of the enraptured listners.

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