Meredith Monk: Inner Voice
Dutch Filmmaker Babeth VanLoo’s compelling tribute to sixty-seven-year-old choreographer-musician-teacher-composer-artist Meredith Monk does many things. In addition to introducing us to this enigmatic Jane of many trades, it showcases the artist’s creative processes and worldview. Along the way, it looks at the ways Buddhism has infused Monk’s work. “Silence is her source,” VanLoo explains.
The engrossing eighty-two-minute film includes footage of Monk performing, writing, and living in both upstate New York and New Mexico. The 2002 death of her life-partner, Mika, is mentioned, but this is not a film about grieving. Instead, the life force that propels Monk—she has been awarded numerous honorary degrees as well as a MacArthur “Genius” award—is both celebrated and explored.
Monk’s thought processes—and the questions that keep her up at night—are shared. "How do you practice fear?" she wonders. “So much of what we do is fear based. We’re afraid of the fear, of walking through it.” That realization led Monk to begin writing a piece of music that eventually became "Scared Song." Like everything she does, the final product was developed collaboratively. Her process is fascinating, since the massive ego of most composers is wholly absent in Monk. Instead, her colleagues describe her welcoming attitude, and site her willingness to accommodate suggestions and contributions by the musicians and actors she performs with.
Philip Bither, Senior Curator at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, calls her “one of the seminal people of our time. She resists categorization and has created great work in five, six areas of art. That’s really rare. We tend to categorize people as actors, singers, dancers.” Similarly, choreographer Phoebe Neville marvels at Monk’s ability to avoid what she calls “the trap of success. She has always maintained her integrity and has been able to say ‘no,’” Neville says. This, she continues, has fired Monk‘s creativity for forty-plus years, and has helped her avoid burnout and exhaustion.
In the end, it’s a question of balance—and Monk is the poster woman for this value. Whether working alone or with others, she acknowledges the need to take periodic timeouts. This has allowed her to continually recharge, think, and observe. “As a soloist,” Monk says, “I can be very precise and rigorous, but at the same time I am open and fluid to what is happening in the moment. That’s why I like to work without words. It throws the mind into a very different state.”
Indeed, listening to Monk’s vocalizations—her range is enormous—is virtually guaranteed to take listeners on a journey. Since the words are essentially nonsense—made up of sounds that have no literal meaning—you can infuse the music with significance or can simply let your mind wander and experience what you’re hearing. It’s a sensual, exciting, and unusual encounter—and VanLoo captures it brilliantly.
While the film could have used a bit more background about Monk’s early life—it does mention that a childhood eye infirmity led her to listen closely to music and notes that both her mother and maternal grandfather were successful performers—and might have included footage of Monk discussing the ways aging has impacted her efforts, it is nonetheless lovely. In the end, this short introduction to Monk’s life’s work—and the way she integrates spirituality into her artistic process—is inspiring. Van Loo’s love of Monk shines through, but the fact that she avoids fawning makes Meredith Monk: Inner Voice an insightful look at one of the most innovative and fearless artists of our time.