The Accidental Icon

“I’ll get Neutron – she loves to watch TV,” Meredith Monk says, crossing the long hardwood floor of the cluttered TriBeCa loft she’s lived in since 1972. It’s two weeks before the Lincoln Center Festival gives the full retrospective treatment to Monk’s three-plus decades of inspired vocal compositions, performance pieces, and films. At the moment, Channel 13 is airing her short film Ellis Island, and she doesn’t want Neutron to miss it. She passes a prayer shrine – one of several situated around the loft – crowded with round stones; small, brightly colored figurines; and photos of the Dalai Lama. On one wall, an original Alex Katz print, a gift of the artist (a longtime admirer), hangs casually among personal snapshots.

She returns clutching a small tortoise that was given to her in 1978 by sometime collaborator Ping Chong and is not to be confused with Proton, the tortoise who portrayed the massive monster that marched through the city streets in Monk’s 1983 urban fable Turtle Dreams. She sets Neutron gently on the kitchen table, and he stares raptly at the thirteen-inch TV as Monk fiddles with the rabbit ears. Above us, a tangle of exposed, ancient wiring hangs from the ceiling. As if by divine intervention, the static-filled screen clears, revealing Ellis Island in a ruinous state. The 1981 film evokes the haunted history of what was, at the time, an all-but-forgotten American landmark and the perfect stomping ground for Monk, great-granddaughter of a cantor, granddaughter of a bass-baritone from Russia, daughter of a forties radio star who sang pop tunes and jingles for Muriel cigars.

She started out a folksinger at Sarah Lawrence, where she studied dance, theater, and music and sang “Be-Bop-a-Lula” and “Bye Bye Love” at school functions. In 1964, she moved to Manhattan, where she could have been any other dilettante dipping into la vie bohème on the way to a manor in Scarsdale, but she wasn’t. Monk thrived in the creative explosion going on in the Village at Café La Mama, Judson Memorial Church, and Caffé Cino. “If the previous generation took everything out,” Alex Katz observes, “she put everything in. She really brought content and meaning back – but in her own personal style.”

Monk developed a multicultural choreography built around her own nondancer’s body. At the same time, she says, “I realized that within the voice there could be limitless color and texture, genders and ages, even landscapes and characters, and that I could build a vocabulary on my own voice. It was also my way of going back to my family’s legacy.” She recorded albums, made films, flooded the Guggenheim’s spiral walkway with 85 red-clad performers in 1969’s Juice, won acclaim in Europe, spawned scores of imitators, and produced many of New York’s first site-specific performances. For Vessel, in 1971, she bused people down to the Performing Garage in SoHo and led them from there to a TriBeCa parking lot and then up six flights of stairs to the same loft we’re in today.

Especially in works like her opera Atlas and her film Book of Days, Monk has found harmony in the unlikeliest places. Next to her grand piano and the shelves of archival videotapes in the loft’s rehearsal space, copies of National Geographic teeter in sloppy piles next to fifties sci-fi, histories of the Holocaust, old silent films, and books about Cambodia and Vietnam’s Hmong people. There are records by early American jazz singers Mildred Bailey and “Whispering” Jack Smith, Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, and Egyptian songstress Om Khalsoum.

Monk has navigated these sprawling interests to create a graceful and surprisingly accessible body of work. “If you think about Asian theater forms – or what we know about ancient theater – music, dance, and storytelling are usually part of one thing,” she says, “and the same people can do all of these things. Western European art is the only tradition where these forms are separated.” She’s never had much sympathy for “that part of the Western European tradition that asks, ‘How complicated can you get?’ ” In “Gotham Lullaby,” for instance, a stark piece from 1974 that will be performed in the retrospective, repeated piano chords, ululating syllables, and piercing high-pitched vocals cohere not as musical gimmicks but as a mother’s plangent song.

“My work uses both sides of the brain,” says Monk. “The source is very intuitive and very emotional, but there’s always a balance between structure and flow. My style is more a language of the senses and direct perception.”

novelist rick moody, who calls monk “a great soul,” has played her Dolmen Music “till the grooves were worn flat.”

“I see Meredith as a mentor,” Moody says, “because she reminds me that I don’t have to get caught up in the careerist model of all this, despite what a dismal time it is for the arts.”

Dismal hardly overstates the case, even for one of Monk’s stature and 57 years: Her nonprofit House Foundation is always struggling to provide support for her new work. Last summer, Monk fulfilled a lifelong goal by performing Vocal Offering, a celebration service, before the Dalai Lama at the World Sacred Music festival. But she was forced to trim her company of seventeen down to just one – herself – because of the expense, and Barbara Dufty, managing director of the House Foundation, says the company will actually lose money on the retrospective.

“I don’t want to kvetch at this point,” says Monk, as Neutron scrabbles over the kitchen floor and she thumbs through pictures of the Dalai Lama grinning and clapping gleefully during her performance. “When we got into this, none of us expected to make money.” As others search for more easily marketable projects, Monk observes, “I’m still in the R&D department, not the production line.” Currently, she’s collaborating with artist Ann Hamilton and composing her first piece for full orchestra. “After 36 years of work, you carry the backpack of your history around with you, but you want that curiosity, that beginner’s mind.

“That’s how you get your energy. You risk it every time.”

The Accidental Icon