Premiere of First Orchestral Work by Meredith Monk

By Lawrence Budmen

For three decades Meredith Monk has been a path breaking force in contemporary music. As a composer and performing artist, her scores cross the boundaries of World Music, avant garde classical, and folk music. Native American Indian and trance like Hindu mysticism have been strong influences on her vocal works. Several non-traditional music theater scores ("Atlas" and "The Games") have pointed toward mainstream classical composition. On April 4, 2003 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Ms. Monk's first symphonic work "Possible Sky" received its premiere by the New World Symphony. A trendy South Beach audience of contemporary art connoisseurs was on hand for the event.

"Possible Sky" is strongly influenced by such diverse American composers as John Adams, Phillip Glass, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland;yet for all its virtual history of American symphonic composition, the music is not derivative. Monk synthesizes these diverse styles into a personal voice. Just as diverse cultural influences inform her vocal works, the American symphonic canon provides a backdrop for "Possible Sky."

The score begins with two oboes on opposite sides of the stage playing dense harmonics that veer briefly into atonality. Fierce rhythms in the strings give the work a driving, propulsive momentum. Three times the music is interrupted by vocal interjections by Ms. Monk and her associate Theo Bleckmann. These tribal incantations and prayers, often accompanied by strings, are mesmerizing. A big band trumpet improvisation (dazzlingly played by Billy Hunter) signals a rousing brass and percussion feast before the music ends with a Coplandeque chorale in the winds. At the conclusion the strings pluck their instruments softly as the music fades away into infinity.

The score's orchestration by Ms. Monk, Kirk Nurock, and Allison Sniffin treats the orchestra as a series of separate choirs. The extremes of the instruments' range and timbres are explored. There are many prominent solo passages for the first chair players. Although the work seemed episodic at first hearing, Ms. Monk's enthusiasm and instrumental inventiveness were infectious. She indicated that the score is a prayer for peace and healing. As a first effort and a work in progress, "Possible Sky" is both moving and impressive. 

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony gave the work a brilliant performance. Tilson Thomas (who commissioned the work) reveled in the multi-layered instrumental coloration. The musicians of this training ensemble played the music with precision and enthusiasm. There was an almost poetic intensity in the vocal solos of Ms. Monk and Mr. Bleckmann. Ms. Monk certainly could not have wished for a more dedicated performance.

One of Tilson Thomas's goals in forming the New World Symphony fifteen years ago was to explore new types of musical composition and interaction. With its crossing of musical genres and ethnic influences, "Possible Sky" was a vital attempt at reinventing contemporary classical composition. One hopes that Ms. Monk will continue to explore new avenues (both traditional and non-traditional) for her future ventures. She is one of America's most arresting and original creative voices.

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