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Meredith Monk's "Cellular Songs" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

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(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

A new work by Meredith Monk is always a cause for celebration. Her performances, which always feature a magical combination of singing, dancing, and visuals, never fail to provoke the mind, even as they entertain. Always more interested in the textures of the voice as instrument, rather than simply a conveyance to sing a song, Monk has long been one of the most extraordinary vocalists of the last 50 years.

Monk's new work, Cellular Songs, is playing at the Harvey Theater at BAM through this weekend. Cellular Songs is sparer than the last work Monk presented at BAM: the brilliant On Behalf of Nature, which played three seasons ago. That work was a rich whirlwind of colors in the sets and in the costumes, and was brimming with Monk's trademark chant-like singing.  

In Cellular Songs, Monk sings with less force than she has in the past, but even in her mid-70s now, she can still entice your ears in a way only she can. If you've only heard her on recordings or in videos, you've missed the special experience it is to hear her sing in person.

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The singing in a Monk show is less about words than about music. Or, more precisely: it is about Sounds. But here, she sings one song as a straight-ahead solo, "A Happy Woman," that begins in overlapping riffs then circles back in on itself, repeating different qualities that she is as a woman, many of them conflicting with each other.

At the opening of the performance and during a later interlude, films made by Monk are projected on the back wall and on the floor, mostly featuring hands opening and grasping, clenching and relaxing. An odd, inferno-like scene boldly breaks with the generally austere black-and-white motif of the performance by flooding the back wall and floor with flames. In the last scene, where three groups of women lay in pools of light, clutching each other, the five members of the Vocal Ensemble are joined by young female members of the Young People's Chorus of New York City.

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Members of Monk's longtime Vocal Ensemble--Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, Ellen Fisher, and Jo Stewart--are featured together and alone throughout the performance. Unlike some of her earlier productions, Monk plays more of a bit part in this new work, letting her ensemble members perform front and center. If you didn't know she was the leader, you would never guess it by how she keeps herself in the background. Still, when it comes time for Monk to shine, she does.

Complementing the spare music, the costumes in Cellular Songs are mostly white or beige. And for the most part, the lighting is mostly bright white.

For tickets to remaining performances, click here.

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More photos can be found here.

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