Vienna Boys Choir at Chicago's Symphony Hall
Tyshawn Sorey Trio at Roulette

Meredith Monk's "On Behalf of Nature" at BAM

by Steven Pisano

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Photo by Steven Pisano

On Behalf of Nature by Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble is having its New York premiere this week at BAM’s Harvey Theatre (through Sunday). An evening-long performance of vocalizations, choreographed movements, and staged tableaus ostensibly about the urgent need to protect and preserve nature, it comes across more clearly as an impassioned paean to the persistence of the fragile, sacred, and unconquerable human spirit. 

With her tightly plaited hair and bright, pixieish smiles, Monk, at age 72, retains the arty, hippie-like looks she had as an avant-garde artist in the late 1970s and early '80s. Back then, you were more likely to experience Monk’s unique and other-worldly folk-based spiritual music in a theater or gallery than in a concert hall. 

On Behalf of Nature, though clearly theatrical, has no discernible narrative. Rather, it feels more like slides in a magic lantern show. The music is ethereal, nonspecific, head-trippy, meditative, peaceful, rhythmic, relaxing, optimistic, droning, ambient, and mood-inducing. And that’s just for starters.

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Photo by Steven Pisano

The performance begins with the ensemble standing in pools of light, rotating their arms overhead while clarion bells sound in the air. Dressed colorfully like the peasants in a Marc Chagall painting, the performers lean forward, then backward as if deciding what to do, ultimately going nowhere, accompanied by clanging percussion that sounds like a comic, mechanical contraption. The intended urge to act but resulting lack of action brought to mind Vladimir’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” from Waiting for Godot, or the Little Tramp as he worked on the conveyor belt.

In a solo turn, Monk paces the front of the stage, miming a mix of anger and pleading tenderness, as a rubbed violin makes simian sounds in the background. She tries to tell us something, but the choked utterances are more like the strangulated attempts of a mute person’s attempt to speak. She makes fists in anger. She seems to be saying that something needs to be done. Won’t we help?

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Photo by Steven Pisano

The colorful costumes by Yoshio Yabara repurposed old clothes from each performer, so even in the costuming there is an environmental theme of recycling and reuse, of honoring history while heading toward the future.

At the end of the night, the performers, cloaked in linen tunics, stand on stage amid filaments hung from above with shining glass ornaments at the end. The music is space-like and the ensemble chants lowly like the denizens of a monastery. (That her name is Monk has always seemed like an appropriate twist, given spare productions and rich, spiritual singing.) As the chanting subsides to silence, the ornaments are sent swinging and spinning through space, like celestial bodies in a music of the spheres.

Monk is the focus of a number of celebratory concerts this season, marking fifty years of performances, at venues ranging from Le Poisson Rouge to Carnegie Hall, where she holds the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer's Chair, so there will be many more occasions to experience her unique music from now through next May. (Video selections from "On Behalf of Nature" and other Monk works can be found here.)

As we head now into the traditional holiday season, cold December evenings will soon fill with the festive sounds of sacred music. But Monk’s On Behalf of Nature is also sacred music of a sort, as if she had tapped into the ancient harmonies of snow-capped mountains, thundering rivers, and deep primeval forests, not linked to saviors or all-powerful deities, but attuned to the compass of the human soul and its place at the nexus of the physical and spiritual world we live in.

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Photo by Steven Pisano

  More photos here.