Review: Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble are naturally enrapturing

Bohdan Hilash, left, Ellen Fisher, Meredith Monk, John Hollenbeck, Katie Geissinger, Bruce Rameker, Sidney Chen and Allison Sniffin perform in Monk's newly created musical-theater work, "On Behalf of Nature," at the Freud Playhouse on the UCLA campus in Westwood on Jan. 17, 2013.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Meredith Monk — composer, pioneering vocalist, choreographer, dancer, theater maker, filmmaker, mythmaker — has long been an art-world force of nature. Now Monk, 71 and with a rapturous new work, is Mother Nature. If you don’t find that formidable, then perhaps I could interest you in a fixer-upper on the New Jersey shore

The title is “On Behalf of Nature,” and the first performance was Friday night at the Freud Playhouse on behalf of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, which commissioned it. Every one of its enrapturing 73 minutes was a minute well spent.

The cast is credited as Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, which is slightly misleading. All nine members do sing, and Monk has become increasingly celebrated for her music. She’s recently made big pieces for the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the San Francisco Symphony. Throw in her splendid string quartet for Kronos, and you might furthermore conclude that the West Coast has become a particularly fruitful musical stomping ground.


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But when working with her ensemble in “On Behalf of Nature,” which Friday was an octet of singers and instrumentalists, Monk remains true to her own nature. For her, the body of the performer is integral to music, and her new piece will remind old Monkians of many of her earlier works in which performers function as a musical community by interacting through movement and gesture. Music becomes a new kind of almost spoken language. You don’t know what the words are — there aren’t words, just sounds — but the meaning and emotions are evident in performance that is just this side of storytelling.

What, though, is it that an artist can do on behalf of nature? Monk says she began by wondering how she could create an ecological art that doesn’t contribute to the world’s waste. That led her to Gary Snyder for reassurance. The Northern California poet instructs artists to be spokespersons for the nonhuman realm, to use their work as compassionate advocacy on Nature’s behalf.

Beyond that, Monk did her best to conserve. Her designer, Yoshio Yabara, made costumes out of each performer’s old clothes, not that you would know it. They all seem of an elegant piece, whether the frilly black numbers early on or the more casual light linen look later. There is a video backdrop of faint oscillating graphics that sometimes seems sea-like or biological. The lighting by Elaine Buckholtz, also elegant, gives sparkle to the performers, who are exceptional.

There are contradictions, however. A multimedia artist of international rank typically bestows a high carbon footprint. A lot of flying is usually required. Electricity is consumed for video and sound (Monk uses careful amplification) and all that it takes to run a theater and a theater operation. You may want to participate in nature in L.A., but if at the Freud or on a mountain trail, you must drive to get there. That is why UCLA can get away soaking its audiences with $11 for parking.

That too is the point of “On Behalf of Nature.” Monk doesn’t tell us any of this, of course. She instead presents work that inspires us to figure it out for ourselves as she and her five other marvelous singers — Sidney Chen, Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Bruce Rameker and Allison Sniffin — proceed through a series of abstract vignettes. Some scenes resemble dance, others are more like conversation — friendly, heated, querulous, seductive or contemplative.


Most of all, Monk’s music inspires a state of wonder ideal for divining nature. Starting with easily grasped elementary melodic figures, she adds layer upon layer of expression by coloring tones with strange vocal sounds and creating strange interactions through quirky counterpoint.

Her instrumentalists amaze. On Monk’s — and Mother Nature’s — behalf, John Hollenbeck, a noted jazz musician, operates all sorts of entrancing percussion. Bohdan Hilash has a menagerie of winds at his disposal. More than a vocalist, Sniffin contributes keyboard and violin backgrounds and a smooth French horn.

The result is some of the finest music Monk has yet written. Each short number is a surprising sonic ecology. Voices and instruments can be tightly woven together or individual. In an arresting solo semi-mad scene, Monk threw a momentous hissy fit. During it, she cycled through a whole range of consequential emotion that included the irresistibly beguiling. Don’t mess with Mother Nature.

Sounds could also explode into grand cascades. Monk ends the evening with a communal ringing of bells that is at once jubilant and somber, an exemplification of the proper wonder and awe nature demands. This is mature and magnificent Monk.


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