For the past sixty years, Meredith Monk has been expanding the possibilities of the human voice. A pioneer of extended vocal technique and interdisciplinary performance, she has created collaborative performance pieces that stretch the limits of music, inspiring figures from Björk to Merce Cunningham. Her most recent work, Indra’s Net, draws from her decades of Buddhist practice and explores themes of impermanence and interdependence against the backdrop of our ecological crisis.
In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg sat down with Monk to discuss the relationship between her art and her meditation practice, the importance of listening fearlessly, and art as a bodhisattva activity.
James Shaheen (JS): So Meredith, you’re celebrating your 80th birthday this year, and you’ve been performing since you were a child. Over the course of your career, you’ve composed and performed for figures ranging from your own teacher, Pema Chödrön, to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. How did you first come to music?
Meredith Monk (MM): My mother was a singer on the radio in the 1930s. She did solo performances on music shows like the Prudential Family Hour, and then she became a jingle singer and recorded commercials. My grandfather was a bass-baritone who came from Russia and had a concert career in New York, and my great-grandfather was a cantor in Russia. I’m a fourth-generation singer, so music was just like breathing for me. I was singing at a very young age, reading music before I could read words. But I had to find my own way. I could have followed the same path as a singer, but I knew that I liked making things, and I wanted to make my own work.
Sharon Salzberg (SS): You’ve compared making art to jumping from the edge of a cliff, and you say that being an artist is learning to tolerate the fear of the unknown. Can you say more about the relationship between your art and this space of not knowing? How do you work with mystery and uncertainty?
MM: I’m terrified every time. There are two different ways of thinking about making art. Some people have a more product-oriented approach, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But my way has always been to try to start from zero and to try to learn to tolerate the unknown. It’s hard every time. After sixty years of making work, I still feel incredible fear, and then I say to myself, “Be playful, Meredith,” and I just start. From there, it’s a bit like being a detective. A little clue will come up, and then I get interested in that. Little by little, the curiosity takes over, and the fear is less present. At a certain point, the piece makes itself known, and there’s this magic birth of an entity. Then it just becomes so miraculous. I’m so grateful to be doing something that affirms mystery and magic in this world. To remember that you can’t see everything or hear everything or label everything is a wonderful thing.
JS: In an interview with Tricycle several years ago, you spoke about fearless listening, or listening with all of your being. What have you learned from listening fearlessly?
MM: I’ve always thought that art requires being open to listening, and my art always has a lot of space and quiet and stillness. Each piece is another world, and you are trying to say to it, “Make yourself known,” and it’s coming through you. This is similar to the meditation process of just letting things come without expectations.
I think listening fearlessly applies both to making a work and to performing. I believe performing is a prototype of the possibility of human behavior because we’re so in tune with each other. If one person is having a hard night, you can tell by the first note that comes out of their mouth. [As performers] we know each other so well. Live performance is really such a generous and vulnerable act because anything could happen. We could fall on our faces!
SS: You’ve written that the experience of creating is as close to meditation as anything you can think of, particularly the combination of focused attention and relaxation that both require. Can you say more about the connection between your meditative practice and your creative practice?
MM: The processes are so similar, and it’s just a matter of how much time each process takes. The creative practice takes longer. Your consciousness is not as heightened as it is in meditation. But in performing, it really is. In your lifetime, there are a handful of performances where you are truly one with your material. There’s no you. You’re absolutely pinpoint-focused, and at the same time, you’re relaxed and open to what’s going on in the moment. That’s the beautiful thing about performing. It’s so present. You’re in nowness. In those performances, the judge or observer in your mind that’s going “You’re flat” or “You’re slow” is not there. All that voice is saying is “Wow,” in the best sense of the word. It’s kind of a miracle.
“I believe that art can be an affirmation not only of the artist but of all of us as human beings.”
I wrote a piece called “Hocket,” which is a duet. In a hocket, the performers throw notes back and forth, and the notes make a melody. It’s like a moving meditation. If even one thought comes into your mind, you’re off. That’s an example of how now you have to be. You’re just in your body. You’re one with your body and the material.
SS: You describe making art as a bodhisattva activity, where the inner transformation that results from dharma practice flows into the work, and the work in turn becomes an offering. Can you tell us about that transformative process?
MM: In these late years of my life, I’m more aware of how much my practice has gone into my work. As a young artist, I didn’t think of the two in such an integrated way—I felt that I had my art practice over here and my dharma practice over there. Little by little, I’ve come to see how the dharma practice is a kind of ground or a foundation that underlies every piece I work on. In the time I have left on earth, I want to make art that has a healing aspect to it.
Once, at a retreat, a woman said, “I’m a painter, and I’m afraid that if I meditate, then my art won’t be good anymore because it comes from my pain and my neuroses.” But I’ve found that my practice has made my art grow more. I think it’s a myth that we have in the Western European tradition that you have to cut off your ear and suffer for your art and that neurosis is what feeds the artwork, and I really don’t believe that.
Of course, there will always be dark aspects of my work too. I feel that it’s very important that art has sadness as well as joy, and that it reflects this world that we’re living in rather than saying that everything is great. I don’t think that that is good art. A work of good art has the richness of the different centers of our being and a full range of emotion. I believe that art can be an affirmation not only of the artist but of all of us as human beings. Hopefully, it’s a prototype for our possibilities and the richness of our experience.
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