Meredith Jane Monk (born November 20, 1942) is an American composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer. Since the 1960s, Monk has created multi-disciplinary works which combine music, theatre, and dance, recording extensively for ECM Records.
Meredith Monk was born to businessman Theodore Glenn Monk and singer Audrey Lois (Zellman) Monk, in Lima, Peru, where her mother happened to be on tour. Her mother, a professional singer of popular and classical music known under the stage name of Audrey Marsh, was herself the daughter of professional musicians – the Russian Jewish bass-baritone Joseph B. Zellman, and Rose (Kornicker) Zellman, a concert pianist of German Jewish background from Philadelphia. Meredith Monk jokingly described herself, with her birthplace in mind, as “Inca Jewish”. Meredith has a brother, Tracy (born 1948).
Meredith Monk is primarily known for her vocal innovations, including a wide range of extended techniques, which she first developed in her solo performances prior to forming her own ensemble. In December 1961, she appeared at the Actor’s Playhouse in Greenwich Village (NYC) as a solo dancer in an Off Broadway children’s musical theater adaptation of Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol“, entitled “Scrooge” (music and lyrics by Norman Curtis; directed and choreographed by Patricia Taylor Curtis). In 1964, Monk graduated from Sarah Lawrence College after studying with Beverly Schmidt Blossom, and in 1968 she founded The House, a company dedicated to an interdisciplinary approach to performance.
Monk’s performances have influenced many artists, including Bruce Nauman, whom she met in San Francisco in 1968. In 1978 Monk formed Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble (modelled after similar ensembles of musical colleagues, such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass), to explore new and wider vocal textures and forms, which often were contrasted with minimal instrumental textures. Monk began a long-standing relationship with the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis, which continues to showcase her work to this day. Pieces from this time include Dolmen Music (1979), which also was recorded for her first album released at Manfred Eicher‘s record label ECM in 1981.
In the 1980s, Monk wrote and directed two films, Ellis Island (1981), and Book of Days (1988), which developed from a single idea; “One day during summer of 1984, as I was sweeping the floor of my house in the country, the image of a young girl (in black and white) and a medieval street in the Jewish community (also in black and white) came to me.” Monk tells this account in the liner notes of the ECM-recording. Apart from the film, different versions exist of this piece. Two are for the concert hall, and an album, produced by Meredith Monk and Manfred Eicher, is “a film for the ears.”
In the early 1990s, Monk composed an opera called Atlas, which premiered in Houston, Texas, in 1991. She has also written pieces for instrumental ensembles and symphony orchestras. Her first symphonic work was Possible Sky (2003). It was followed by Stringsongs (2004) for string quartet, which was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. In 2005, events were held all over the world in celebration of the 40th anniversary of her career, including a concert in Carnegie Hall featuring Björk, Terry Riley, DJ Spooky (who sampled Monk on his album Drums of Death), Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker, John Zorn, and the new music ensembles Alarm Will Sound and Bang on a Can All-Stars, along with the Pacific Mozart Ensemble.
In a recent interview, Monk said that her favourite music includes Brazilian music, especially Caetano Veloso‘s recordings, the music by Mildred Bailey (“the great jazz singer from the ‘30s and ‘40s”), and Bartók‘s cycle for piano Mikrokosmos.