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One of the first and best "performance artists," Meredith Monk's work is some of the least contrived and most convincing in that amorphously defined genre. Though largely and perhaps primarily a musician, Monk combines sound with choreography, image, and object, creating an art that defies category. Her unconventional treatment of the voice as a musical instrument unto itself is arguably her greatest innovation; no other Western artist has done more to extend the art of the wordless vocal. Born in Peru of American parents, Monk was raised in New York and Connecticut. She studied eurhythmics, an educational method that related music to movement, in her youth. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York's Westchester County, receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1964. Monk also studied voice with Vicki Starr, John Devers, and Jeanette Lovetri; composition with Ruth Lloyd, Richard Averee, and Glenn Mack; and piano with Gershon Konikow. In 1968, she formed her first group, the House, as a vehicle for exploring her concepts of interdisciplinary performance, combining extended vocal techniques with dance, theater, film, and other elements. Her debut album, Key, appeared on the independent Increase label, and was later reissued on Lovely Music. Monk received the first of two Guggenheim fellowships in 1972 (the other a decade later). She formed Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble in 1978, and recorded a number of highly acclaimed albums. Her first widely celebrated and performed work was Songs from the Hill/Tablet, issued on Wergo in 1979. Shortly thereafter she signed to ECM.
Her debut for Manfred Eicher's iconic label was Dolmen Music in 1981; it won the German Critic's Prize. It was followed by Turtle Dreams in 1983, which brought her work to wider attention in North America. That same year she was the subject of director Peter Greenaway's film in the Four American Composers series. In 1986, Wergo reissued her second album, Our Lady of Late: The Vanguard Tapes, which also won that year's German Critic's Prize. She was also the recipient of National Music Theatre Award in the United States.
When Monk released Do You Be for ECM in 1987, her work was universally acclaimed for the accessible manner in which it presented the various tonal and elastic possibilities of the human voice. Monk directed her first film in 1988. Book of Days, which opened at the New York Film Festival, and was later adapted for television. It was followed by an official soundtrack the following year. Facing North appeared in 1992. It was a collection of smaller pieces, with Monk and Robert Een singing. Both also played pitch pipe, while the composer employed piano and organ. This spare recording was a precursor to Atlas: An Opera in 3 Parts, which featured more than 30 vocalists and a small chamber orchestra, and had been premiered by the Houston Grand Opera a year earlier.
Monk was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1995, which was followed by the release of Volcano Songs, a suite for four voices and two pianos issued in 1997. In July 2000, New York's Lincoln Center Festival honored Monk with a three-concert retrospective of her music, entitled Voice Travel.
After a five-year recording break which she spent composing, performing, and traveling, she emerged with Mercy in 2002, the first of her recordings to feature the voices of Theo Bleckman and John Hollenbeck. Impermanence, released in 2008, documents a small vocal and instrumental ensemble engaged in deliberately minimalist pieces.
In 2009, John Zorn's Tzadik label released the compilation Beginnings, which featured works from 1966 through 1980 with full participation from the composer. She wrote all but one piece on the set "Candy Bullets and Moon," which was co-composed with Don Preston — who also played organ and percussion on it. Songs of Ascension, another large ensemble work, was issued in 2011, followed by Piano Songs in 2014. Played by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, the recording features pieces written for two pianos that date between 1971 and 2006. ~ Chris Kelsey & Thom Jurek, Rovi