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Jack Anderson

Ascending Images and Meredith Monk

2009 Next Wave Festival
"Songs of Ascension": Meredith Monk and Ann Hamilton
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn
October 21-25, 2009
Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. (closed)
Information: (718) 636-4100 or www.BAM.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson. October 26, 2009

As composer, choreographer, and performer, Meredith Monk, that category-defying multimedia artist, has been responsible for many theatrical marvels since the 1960s. "Songs of Ascension," which she created with the artist Ann Hamilton, is the latest. It is also a successful realization of a rarely attainable artistic ideal. Monk's music may not sound like Wagner's (which is fine with me, since I'm not much of a Wagnerite), yet this production, like several previous ones by Monk, makes a Wagnerian theoretical concept a reality. It is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art that fuses music, text, drama, scenery, and dance into an indissoluble whole. "Songs of Ascension" is also a spiritual vision.

Yet Monk, born Jewish and a student of Buddhism since the 1970s, avoids any doctrinal orthodoxy. So, too, she avoids showing anyone or anything literally ascending to heaven. She lets her music ascend, as interpreted by Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, the Todd Reynolds String Quartet, and members of the Stonewall Chorale. All these participants are musicians, but they do more than make music. Monk has them move, and because they do not merely strike poses, what they do could be called dancing or, at least, implicitly dramatic action.

Circles, which can symbolize wholeness, completion, or eternity in many sacred traditions, dominate the production, which gets underway with a suspended lamp swinging in circles through the air while a woman below it turns in circles around the stage. Video images of what appear to be branches sway on the back wall. Musical sounds emanate from various parts of the theater and performers enter to form a circle, some approaching the stage by descending the steps of the theater's steep aisles. Serenity prevails, and vocal harmonies range from the bell-like to the ethereal. A high soprano yodels from some unseen Alp. Other singers' lower tones focus attention earthward, as do the sounds of miniature harmoniums performers occasionally carry. Because those musical instruments resemble small suitcases, their shapes suggest that everyone is on a journey. In a bit of whimsy, a fiddler seems to announce a hoedown, to which Monk responds with vocal enthusiasm. Other people form a circle.

There are repeated cascades of vocal sounds. As is frequently the case in Monk's creations, many are wordless, while others do seem to have words (or, at least, distinct syllables), but in a language unknown to us yet meaningful to the cast.

In one scene, while the string quartet is playing, light patterns flash across the stage floor. Light patterns also crawl across the stage and auditorium walls. Many to me looked like mere smudges or blurs, and I cannot decide if this indistinctness was intended by Monk and Hamilton or whether it resulted from deficiencies in the theater's technical equipment or the physical decay of the walls. Yet shapes did form, for I think I saw shadowy people go by. And was that a horse?

I know I saw mysterious video images of a corridor receding into an upstage infinity. But I'm not quite sure how to interpret something else I thought I saw. It appeared to be a craggy hillside projected on the back wall. Moments later, though, I could see no specific landscape, only lights and shadows on the wall's rough, pock-marked surface. Was that hill an optical illusion? I can't say.

What is definitely not illusory is the work's increasing musical radiance. Although performers keep exiting, voices echo and resound throughout the theater. People return to the stage, some descending the steps of the aisles like angels on a ladder. Singers stationed high at the sides of the balcony might well be blessing everyone with a benediction, and this image implying a union of things above and below can bring to mind an old Christian prayer that rejoices in how it is the divine will "to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace," and goes on to implore, "Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows," bringing "peace among nations, peace in our city, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts."

Gradually, after walking in peaceful circles, people sink to the floor, some making a few faint last vocal or instrumental sounds as they do so. Perhaps they have died and now are at one with the earth. Or they sleep, awaiting resurrection. Interpretative possibilities abound that can be drawn from many faiths. But, beyond all doubt, here is a Gesamtkunstwerk to send thoughts singing and ascending.

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