Meredith Monk’s ‘Quarry’ May 3, 1976

When I went to Meredith Monk’s new work, ‘Quarry,’ I happened to be with a friend who had never seen any of her work before. I warned him that he might have difficulty interpreting the imagery, and that he might find Monk’s extraordinary singing style hard to appreciate at first. But I also felt quite confident in assuring him that there would be no flaws in pacing, no banal moments, and no unexpected audience responses. I have found that Monk just doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes anymore.

After the performance we found that we had widely different interpretations of the mother-father-child triangle, the autobiographical significance of the piece, the meaning of the strange silent film in the middle of the production, and the political implications of the six ‘dictators.’ But we agreed that most of the ambiguity had been carefully laid out, and that Monk was completely in control of what she was doing, and, in short, that she had made no mistakes.

Technically I suppose ‘Quarry’ has to be classified as ‘experimental,’ but there is nothing truly experimental about it. Monk has been working in this basic style for nearly 15 years, after all, and she handles the elements of her unique art as easily as other artists handle arabesques or dominant seventh chords. In fact, it seems to me that her control has become even greater during the past few years, as her musical technique has become more and more facile.

Sometimes Monk’s works can seem like bizarre collections of processions, dances, songs, and pantomimes. But ‘Quarry’ comes together as a single form throughout, and I think its cohesiveness has much to do with Monk’s evolution as a composer. The nostalgic, repetitious organ music, which dominates the lengthy work, somehow pulls together the Victorian furnishings, the sick little child, the clouds, and the Old Testament couple, and makes all these elements seem as if they really do belong on the same stage. On a less obvious level, recapitulations of musical segments occasionally set up specific relationships, and characters are sometimes defined by musical information. Most of what we know about the little girl, played by Monk herself, is conveyed vocally. And the ‘Requiem’ at the end would not seem like a requiem at all except for the somber modal melody the chorus sings.

Admittedly Monk’s training as a musician is limited, and admittedly this sometimes shows. Her melodies and harmonies are not the kinds that one would come up with from reading harmony books, studying Stravinsky scores, or exploring ancient modes. And her rhythms don’t have the kind of technical sophistication one finds in composers who have studied Indian talas, jazz drumming, medieval isorhythm, and African polyrhythms. She writes, or rather works out, musical patterns that almost any of us might stumble across on a keyboard or in our voices, provided that we knew exactly the effects we were looking for, and had the necessary discipline, courage, and judgment.

Monk, of course, has all of these things, and she applies them to her music as rigorously as to her theatrics. That is particularly true of the unique vocal technique which she has discovered and perfected, and which I have attempted to describe in other reviews. But it is also true of her keyboard and choral works. There is not a lot of musical variety in ‘Quarry,’ but she does make quite a few sensitive distinctions in mood within her narrow range. As I hear it, the main ingredients are always eeriness, nostalgia, and rhythmic vitality, but she carefully mixes these elements in different proportions depending on the context.

There are other subtleties. I doubt that most people were aware of it, but the music associated with the bedside radio always came from a small loudspeaker on stage, rather than the central sound system, so it had a particular kind of presence and directionality. Also effective were the occasional rings of a bicycle bell, which invariably turned out to be exactly in tune with whatever music was going on at the moment. By now Monk is listening to everything in her work, just as she has always looked at everything.