Nowadays, it's not so unusual to be a singer/composer/dancer/choreographer/filmmaker/director, but in those days it was unheard of. Still, unique as her work was even then, Monk says she was only having "glimpses" of the startlingly original "extended vocal technique" she'd win fame for as an adult. The turning point came after graduation when she headed for New York.
"I did solos and duets, a little bit of vocal work," explains Monk by telephone from a Scottsdale hotel room. "One day I started doing vocal warm-ups at the keyboard. I realized that the voice could have the flexibility of the spine, a vocabulary of the voice like a vocabulary of the body in dance. There are different ways of producing sound, (influenced by) texture, timber, gender age.
"My life changed after that day."
Monk works with a "whole palette of sound we're not familiar with" in the Western vocal tradition. Westerners are sometimes exposed to it in performances of, say, Chinese opera, which Monk loves, a form whose song sounds are radically different from European opera.
This Friday night Meredith Monk and the Vocal Ensemble give Tucsonans a chance to hear these otherworldly sounds in a performance at Centennial Hall. Magic Frequencies, billed as a "science fiction chamber opera," is an evening-length work of musical theatre and dance.
"It's inspired by science fiction," Monk says, "but Twilight Zone rather than Star Wars, in the sense that it's about worlds between worlds, about ordinary things from a magical point of view...It's not one story but a mosaic of stories."
Earth scenes alternate with sky scenes, including such rarities as a "ballroom dance in the clouds, by souls that don't have a gender yet."
As in opera, most of the sounds are sung rather than spoken, and the dance movements are "primal" rather than technically polished, Monk says. The stage is drenched in rich visual imagery and in light. Monk is joined onthestage by other singer/dancers and two instrumentalists for the work, which is part of UApresents' Contemporary Performance series. The group is on a grueling national tour, arriving in Arizona this week after several stops in Texas. The Tucson show follows a double performance in Scottsdale on Wednesday.
The days intervening between shows are important for resting her voice, Monk says, and at least in Magic Frequencies, "I'm not singing from beginning to end," as she sometimes does in straight concerts.
Monk's pioneering work at the edges of the avant-garde has won her any number of awards, including the MacArthur genius award, two Guggenheims, three Obies, a Brandeis Creative Arts Award, a Bessie, and 16 ASCAP Awards for Musical Composition. This summer, she's been invited to stage a selective retrospective of her works from the late '60s to the present at Lincoln Center, and she plans on offering at least some samples from her 1991 full-length opera Atlas.
When she staged that opera at the Houston Grand Opera, she found that "people who came from the Western classical tradition" had some trouble adjusting to her vocal demands. She ended up auditioning no fewer than 400 singers for the parts.
Still, Monk's own background is in more conventional music.
"I come from musicians," she says. "I'm a fourth-generation singer."
Her mother was a commercial radio singer. Every day at 1 p.m., Monk recalls, her mother used to sing the DUZ soap ad live in the radio station, where her daughter delighted in getting sneak peeks at the soap opera stars. Monk's grandfather was a concert bass baritone and her grandmother a concert pianist; the pair ran a studio in Harlem. And Monk's great-grandfather was a cantor in Moscow.
"I always sang," she says. Her early movement training came about because of a visual perception problem. Her mother got the idea to compensate for her daughter's tracking difficulties by signing her up for Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a technique often used to improve musical conductors' coordination.
In the training, she says, "The voice and the body were one. I learned at an early age that music and dance were one."
Monk has no intention of dropping her work as her body ages.
"The beauty of it is that I'm making my own work. I'm hoping I'll be a 90-year-old singer. We need to hear the voices of little old ladies."
Digital artist John Horn gives a free pre-performance talk on performance art at 6:45 p.m. in Room 102 of the Center for English as a Second Language, 1100 E. North Campus Drive, just north of Centennial Hall.