“Even though you do not hear it, there is sound…Before you make it there is sound. Because there is sound, you can make it, and you can hear it.” – Shunryu Suzuki
Cellular Songs: An Incantation
Sometimes words are not necessary. Sometimes words are inadequate. They concretize feeling into fixed form. The capacity of sound to communicate directly with the body and the spirit can transcend words. Such is the case with Meredith Monk’s latest work Cellular Songs. Upon leaving the performance I had no need or desire to speak about it as I was still in it, feeling it on a cellular level, as if understanding its message did not require thinking about it. What comes to mind now are the Zen master Suzuki’s words, “When you are you, you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings.”
Thus writing about this work offers new challenges for behind the all-encompassing, joyous beauty of Monk’s music and imagery is a rigorous structure and conceptual foundation that made it possible to experience it on another level. Monk’s creative practice is deeply informed by, and integrated with her Buddhist spiritual practice, and it gives her a different perspective on the nature of existence and what we define as “reality”. It also provides her with a philosophical stance on what art can be, and how it can provide an alternative vision of another way of being in the world. Cellular Songs underlines the need for joy, beauty, and yes, grace in our lives while at the same time assimilating dissonance into its nature. The piece is built on theme and variation, repetition and multiplication, as it exists in all life forms from a single cell to its most complex combinations in a human being. The body is the primary instrument with the voice as its amplifier. The body speaks in song, not in a verbal language but in a syllabic and tonal one both particle and wave.
The performance takes place on a bare stage, no flats or screens, just a grand piano on one side and a few basic chairs — emptiness as a condition of becoming, emptiness as part of the process of communication.[i] Ironically, the title Cellular Songs refers not to cellular phones that have become our ubiquitous form of communication, but to biological cells as primary building blocks and replicating organisms, and the ways in which they signal each other.
A projection appears on the back wall. Fingers of multiple hands in a circular kaleidoscopic pattern come slowly to life. Beginning in silence with small movements, they gradually accelerate into changing patterns — fingers snapping like pincers, or beaks, curling into fists and reopening. The subtle sounds that emerge seem to be generated by the motion. A high-pitched breath comes and goes, whistling like wind. Images and sounds end when the singers come on stage.
Monk and her four woman vocal ensemble (Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, Jo Stewart) are all dressed in white, suggesting both the absence of color (emptiness), and the essence or presence of all colors combined, unity and wholeness. Monk sits in the center, flanked by two women in uniform shapeless jumpsuits, later to be shed to reveal varying layers of tops, skirts and pants. What follows are a series of “scenes” punctuated by silent pauses and changes in light and colors.
Single cells of vocal utterances form a melodic stream. They multiply into layers of syllabic groupings and harmonies. The women stand and walk, continuing to sing repeating patterns of short syllabic sounds that evolve and mutate into new variations, rhythmic beats. Then silence. Monk sings solo and the two women join her in canon, repeating phrases in “conversation.” Two more women join adding new layers of sound, then a choreography of silent movement — hands gesticulating, arms waving, heads bobbing in animated conversations. When the singing resumes it is in choruses of resonant chants.
After another pause Monk sings a song that is an incantation and a joyful declaration. Each short sentence is a snapshot of an aspect of her character. A violin punctuates her rich full lilting voice in bursts of dissonant exclamations.
I am a happy woman, a happy woman.
I am a hungry woman. I am a tender woman.
I am a thinking woman, a sassy woman, a patient woman
I am a shaky woman, a lucky woman, a needy woman, a greedy woman.
I am a quiet woman, an angry woman, an honest woman,
I am a lying woman, a dying woman, a tired woman,
I am a reckless woman, a scrappy woman.
I am a happy happy woman.
In the next section mouth clicks and hand claps become overlapping rhythmic beats. The singers move in new configurations as the singing evolves into a chant, a call of spirits. Each “instrument” in the ensemble defines itself, bodies responding to their own pulse in a movement of arms, torsos, heads. The women squat, stand, stamp, chant like a chorus of ravens. It is an organic primal language of instructions repeated, signals sent, a gathering of the flock.
A long pause and the women regroup. Three notes on the piano become a plaintive call interwoven with a solo aria punctuated by harsh breaths, a wash of red light and a great deep wail, a breath exhaled into a piecing call. Then silence. The women stir, reaching out, pointing as if at signs from the sky. One woman falls to the ground. The others surround her. It is a moment of passage. She rises and moves away like a spirit released.
The piano returns along with a series of dances and ritual cleansings, Sound and motion form a unified “architectural” space as the voices intensify into a syntactical orchestra of repeating chords and non-verbal singing. Units of sounds coalesce like buzzing insects into an extended chant. Then a glorious swelling of birds calls. High notes build to a frenzy. The women form a cluster, a hive of calls and breaths. And then they all lie down like sleeping birds, resting, chanting. When they stand they regroup into different patterns in different parts of the space culminating in a shimmering chorus of chants and syllabic singing, a radiant celebration of the oneness of body and spirit.
Cellular Songs speaks in a universal communal language that needs no translation. Monk offers us an alternate way to perceive “reality.” It is a visceral model of a cooperative social order as a living organism, one that is a part of a larger universal whole. As a shared live event in which we are not simply witnesses but recipients, Cellular Songs exemplifies Monk’s spiritual belief in the possibility of art as a collective ceremonial healing. Passed body to body on a transcendent sonic wave, it re-enforces the importance of joy in the communal body and individual life.
Past Tense: An Elegy
“There are only a handful of stories in the world; the difference often lies in the telling… In our context, grace functions as a sustaining metaphor and an overarching conceptual frame… calling for new approaches to old questions.” – Carrie Mae Weems
At first glance Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs and Carrie Mae Weems’s collaborative performance Past Tense might appear to be polar opposites. But as incantation and elegy the two works occupy the same terrain. Weems, a celebrated African-American photographer whose narrative images and videos have explored history, race, sexism, and politics, and Monk, who is foremost a visionary composer and performer, have much in common despite the differences in appearances and cultural perspectives. In her earlier operas and films such as Quarry, The Games, Ellis Island, Education of a Girl Child, and Book of Days, Monk explored history, culture, gender and ritual among other themes. Both women have a feminist perspective in which art is a vehicle through which they can offer a model of possibility for the future. Monk and Weems seek the attainment of grace and its meaning through practice, and these two works are a call for spiritual enlightenment in the pursuit of communion and democracy.
Although the delivery may differ, the voice is a powerful instrument that resonates from the body be it in song or in word. Standing at a podium on a far side of the stage, Weems is a commanding presence that emanates character, compassion and authenticity. The musical tones and rhythms of her voice are soulful, and her words are rich with thoughtful inquiry and the wisdom of experience. She asks us to open our minds and hearts and listen, and to pay close attention to what we see and hear. She peers deeply into the soul of our divided nation as she confronts our shared history of racial violence. Weems questions the nature of power and what it means to be empowered in search of answers. Like Monk she employs a structure of simple refrains and patterns of repetition. Verbal phrases, rather than purely sonic ones, frame the narrative and punctuate it. But this is also an ensemble performance and her collaborators elaborate theme and variation in their own voices, like a jazz group.
Weems the narrator is accompanied by the poetry of Carl Hancock Rux, a powerful trio of singers Eisa Davis, Alicia Hall Moran and Imani Uzuri, a solo dance by Vinson Fraley, and a live jazz quintet in the orchestra pit, along with her own videos. The music throughout captures the depths of feeling in the text, from grief to hope in shades of blues, melancholy jazz, a plaintive chorus, a spiritual lament and a passionate aria.
Against a projection of clouds and sky Rux performs an excerpt from his own work The Exalted. It begins with “I remember my own death….” and follows the many lives of “my people slave and free” across centuries into the present moment. A woman responds in song, “How did I get here. Here I am again…. I can hardly breath. I am afraid for me. I need your healing.” A chorus of ah ahh ahahaa aaah calls out and a trombone wails.
Weem’s narrative unfolds as a series of contemplations, meditations, offerings to help us navigate these troubled times in which “traditions are dying, forces are colliding, demographics changing…” In which “ White men are disaffected and disenchanted, and black men are disaffected and dying,” and we all blame each other. She introduces the story of Antigone as a paradigm for contemporary times, and requests permission “to bury our dead with honor.” Antigone is denied this right “rightly or wrongly” for her brother and herself, punishment for transgressions against the State. A parallel is drawn with all the young black men and women who have been victims of police violence. A recitation ensues. Phrases form snapshots of incidents. A police officer asks for an ID. A gun is imagined. A shot fired. A young boy dies. She saw him stop. Raise his hands above his head. She saw him fall. The names and faces appear on a screen, images of unfulfilled possibilities, some well-known from the news, others forgotten. A memoriam: Kenda James, Trayvon Martin, Yvette Smith, Eric Garner, Jordan Baker. “For reasons unknown,” she repeats, asking us to imagine living under pressure, always stopped and charged, in a constant state of fear. “For reasons unknown.”
There is video of protests. Another Rux poem asks, “What is our proposition and remedy…” Phrases and images repeat and are re-contextualized. Music and song segue between the resonant ebb and flow of Weems’s recitations adding emotional textures. A beautiful young black man performs a riveting dance that captures the tensions expressed in Weems’s imagery. A simultaneous live feed video functions like a reflection demonstrating the difference between a real event and the image of an event. Violence, Weems, reminds us is not like in the movies. “Violence happens in slow motion.”
At the core of this work is the question of how we value a life? Our own life, the lives of others, and in so doing she questions the “values” of our society. Weems is both eloquent and heartfelt. The melodic tones and timbre of her voice are uplifting.
“As we move through our lives, I want you to ask yourselves: How do we measure a life? How do we measure a life — by what means and by what measure? Do you measure it inch by inch, foot by foot, step by step, yard by yardl? By the moments lost, the moments gained. How do you measure a life? […]
Do you measure it day by day or year by year? Do you measure it by yesterday or by today? Do you measure it by the miles walked or the mountains climbed or the valleys explored.
How do you measure your life?
By the dreams imagined or by the hopes dashed? By the wisdom of wise words spoken or by the sorrow of silence? By the wealth accumulated or by the amount spent? By success, or by failure? Or by the will to endure? By the monument built or by the walls scaled? By defeats and victories, large and small? Do you measure it by the forgotten or the remembered?… By race, by class, by beauty? By your lovers love or your haters hate?…
How do you measure your life?… By the suffering of friends and enemies alike? By the end or by the beginning? By those who walk with you to the very end of the precipice, by the friends gathered around you, by the support that you are offered? How do you measure the life? By the kindness and grace displayed in the process of your living.”
In the end Past Tense is a requiem for the future. Weems asks us to consider “what is and what will be,” to consider “fixing what is damaged and lost in ourselves and all around us.” Against the background video of herds of bison running over a cliff and plunging to their death, plus images of melting ice, she asks us to recognize the beauty of life, and to save ourselves and our magnificent planet. Carrie Mae Weems’s mission is one of transformation and healing, and like Meredith Monk, she offers us a path to finding grace.
“Despite the variety of my explorations, throughout it all it has been my contention that my responsibility as an artist is to work, to sing for my supper, to make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless; to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm the barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment.” – Carrie Mae Weems
Meredith Monk, Cellular Songs.
March 2, 2019
Royce Hall, CAP/UCLA, Los Angeles
Carrie Mae Weems, Past Tense
March 8, 2019
The Theater at Ace Hotel, CAP/UCLA, Los Angeles
COVER PHOTO: JULIETA CERVANTES
[i] Hara, Kenya. White. Lars Muller Publishers 2015