In her liner notes to On Behalf of Nature (ECM), Meredith Monk cites poet Gary Snyder’s essay “Writers and the War Against Nature,” in which he stresses the importance of the artist’s ability to “bear witness” to the natural environment and create artwork that draws from its “wildness.” Snyder advocates for environmental preservation not only for humanity’s survival, but also for the continued evolution of stories and cultural activities the wilderness has inspired across millennia.
In On Behalf of Nature, Monk turns Snyder’s “mirror of truth” upon the rich ecosystem of her own career as a composer, vocalist, dancer, and choreographer. She composed the evening-length work using fragments salvaged from her old notebooks, premiering the staged version in 2012. “It was gratifying to see that the time that had elapsed between the original impulses and the present served to shed light upon and enrich the original ideas,” she reflects. Indeed, the music in On Behalf of Nature is classic Monk: plainly-sung but powerful vocal textures (using syllables for articulation and timbre instead of text), declamatory instrumental accompaniment, and sound production dependent on instinct and bodily resonance. There is a return to the playful and assertive repetition in Mercy (2002), departing from the rich but somber world of Songs of Ascension (2011).
As in Songs of Ascension, several interwoven cycles of material comprise the album, their material returning with completely different affect. Dark/Light 1 opens the album with Bohdan Hilash’s Burmese piccolo, joined by a bass clarinet and marimba to provide a rich bed for Monk’s husky, low-register chants. In Dark/Light 2, a mellow keyboard brings back the staid chord progression to contrast a fluid ascent in violin and clarinet against the choir of voices. High Realm’s folkish fiddling by violinist Allison Sniffin and John Hollenbeck’s tinkling mallet instruments speed up in High Realm Reprise, this time accompanied by raucous hi-hat and a thicker, more strident chorus.
In her liner notes, Monk mentions French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ notion of “bricolage,” assembling something using what is already at hand. But the kind of bricolage that drives the material in On Behalf of Nature also brings to mind Lévi-Strauss’ “mytheme” – an essential kernel of human truth shared in myths and folktales across cultures. In Monk’s music, the vocal call-and-response between groups of men and women, the modal wandering of string and wind instruments, and the noisy percussion forming rhythmic backbones are all bundles of musical mythemes, a kind of ur-folk music that belongs to every culture and no culture at the same time. Often the listener is anthropologist to these mysterious musical rituals. In “Harvest,” Monk is a cantor, her repeated invocation answered in antiphony by her congregation. In “Pavement Steps,” the vocal ensemble’s clipped, unison “da” alternates with a rattling prepared marimba and urgent, staccato clarinet to create a stomping sacrificial dance.
“I have always been interested in primordial utterance, non-verbal vocal sound that lies beneath language and delineates energies for which we have no words,” Monk writes. This impulse is laid most bare in Envrions 1, 2, and 3, for the vocal ensemble alone. From the unstable warbling in low pitches that recall an amphibian night chorus, to aspirated syllables which rasp like cicadas (echoing Mercy’s “Masques”), to a dense forest of rising “whoops,” the voices create imitations of wild ecosystems. Like Gary Snyder’s ecological poetry, these a capella miniatures explore humans’ most raw experiences of the natural environment.
There are few other musicians working today that can claim to speak “on behalf of nature” in the spirit of Gary Snyder, using their “heart of compassion” to reveal truths in wilderness that are difficult to articulate in any language. Meredith Monk and her ensemble are expressing–on behalf of nature and in defense of compassion–a timeless catharsis in a turbulent era.