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Cooperative, gentle, generous: The radical society of Meredith Monk in ‘Cellular Songs’

Cooperative, gentle, generous: The radical society of Meredith Monk in ‘Cellular Songs’
Meredith Monk brings "Cellular Songs" to UCLA on Saturday. (Brad Trent)

Meredith Monk is a woman who practices. Vocalization. Physical movement. Artistic creation. Buddhism. These practices have shaped her days and informed her creative output for decades.

An artist who rose out of the experimental downtown Manhattan creative scene in the 1960s and ’70s, Monk is in Los Angeles this week to perform “Cellular Songs,” her latest piece of interdisciplinary musical theater.

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Presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA on Saturday night at Royce Hall, “Cellular Songs” is an intimate, lovely work inspired by the complex biological processes of cells.

Monk says that what fascinates her about cells, apart from the fact that they are the fundamental unit of life, is that “for a cell to operate, everything cooperates.” All the molecules are working in harmony.

“To perform some of the pieces in ‘Cellular Songs’ is so challenging,” she says. “We all have to roll up our sleeves and dig our hands into the garden. So I wanted this piece to be a prototype of a new society, one that is cooperative rather than competitive, gentle instead of violent, generous instead of greedy.”

Meredith Monk with her performers in "Cellular Songs."
Meredith Monk with her performers in "Cellular Songs." (Julieta Cervantes)

I wanted this piece to be a prototype of a new society, one that is cooperative rather than competitive, gentle instead of violent.


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These concepts are embedded in the work’s DNA, presented abstractly rather than outlined concretely. Here, as in so much of her work, Monk explores ideas through non-verbal vocalizations linked to physical gestures. To observe “Cellular Songs” in its slowly unfolding entirety is to be drawn into Monk’s meditative practice. This is art as ritual and ceremony, art that invites intuitive, feeling responses rather than intellectual analysis.

Which is not to suggest that “Cellular Songs” lacks intellectual rigor. The idea for the piece came to Monk while she was reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies,” a lengthy medical history of cancer. As she read and learned about the ways cells replicate, communicate and react, she started to imagine these processes as musical and physical forms.

Around the same time, Monk had been working in New Mexico, laying down vocal tracks on tape and creating what she calls “very intimate, tiny little nuggets of pieces.”

“I started making the connection between those little vocal pieces and cellular activity,” she says. “Because the songs are very tiny and intricate, almost rotational like little musical sculptures, I started thinking that that had some relationship to the basic motor of life.”

Meredith Monk flanked by, from left, Allison Sniffin, Jo Stewart, Katie Geissinger and Ellen Fisher.
Meredith Monk flanked by, from left, Allison Sniffin, Jo Stewart, Katie Geissinger and Ellen Fisher. (Julieta Cervantes)

All women, because when I started this in 2014, it was before Trump, but I had an instinctive sense that the patriarchal impulse was rising.


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Monk says “Cellular Songs” is representative of the kind of work she has been purposefully generating in recent years.

“With these last pieces – ‘Mercy,’ ‘Impermanence,’ ‘Songs of Ascension,’ ‘On Behalf of Nature’ and now ‘Cellular Songs” –– I feel like I’ve very consciously made a decision that for the rest of my life what I’d like to do is make pieces about subjects that you can’t make a piece about. It sounds like an oxymoron. But the process of making this art involves deep contemplation. It’s been so magical, and it is a wonderful way to spend a life.

“As a Buddhist practitioner I’m always thinking in terms of relative reality and ultimate reality. This is a wonderful way of integrating my spiritual and artistic practices.”

“Cellular Songs” is performed by Monk, four women from her acclaimed Vocal Ensemble and 10 young women and girls from the National Children’s Chorus.

“All women,” Monk says, “because when I started this in 2014, it was before Trump, but I had an instinctive sense that the patriarchal impulse was rising. You could just feel it emerging.”

Monk has long been interested in the cyclical nature of human behavior. In the 1980s, her work “The Games” explored the repetitive rise and fall of fascism.

On Thursday afternoon, on her way down to Royce Hall’s basement rehearsal space, Monk reminisced about performing “The Games” and other works at the UCLA theater. “Boy, do I have some memories of this place,” she says with a smile.

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In conversation, Monk, 76, is vital, sharp, joyful. Her naturally brown hair, only tinged by gray, still falls long across her shoulders in two slick braids. She says she is aware of her mortality these days. She is concerned about passing on her artistic DNA – much of Monk’s music is not recorded on paper, but rather taught by rote instead – and she is happy to share her way of creating art with younger generations.

“I do feel this sense of longing in the young people now,” she says. “They get so much pressure to be business people and entrepreneurs instead of just focusing on art. So I feel like they are hungry to know how I do this.”

In rehearsal, Monk lights up, her eyes focused, her body electrified, her face smiling as she sings.

Only one of Monk’s “Cellular Songs” has lyrics.

“Whoa, I’m a happy woman, I’m a happy woman,” it begins. As the piece unfolds, Monk replaces “happy” with “hungry,” “tender,” “sassy,” “grieving,” “lucky,” “quiet,” “angry” and other descriptors. As she repeats the melody, the experiences of seven decades of a complex woman’s life flash across her expressive face.

Clichés suggest that practice leads to perfection, or perhaps to a spot onstage at Carnegie Hall. But Monk’s life and work suggest greater benefits: peace, creative freedom, confidence and youthfulness.

“I do believe very strongly in the power of art as spiritual practice and as healing,” she says. “And I feel like we really need that.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Meredith Monk’s ‘Cellular Songs’

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, L.A.

Tickets: $29-$59

Info: (310) 825-2101, cap.ucla.edu

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