ECM New Series
Inspired by the “Songs Of Ascents” which, according to Kyle Gann’s liners, were “fifteen of the Psalms that are said to have been sung by people ascending during pilgrimages”, Songs Of Ascension was conceived as a site-specific work after Meredith Monk was invited to perform in a tower created by visual artist Ann Hamilton in Sonoma County, California. The building is characterized by two staircases (which spiral upward in double helix fashion and come together at the top) and the music was devised exclusively for instruments that could be easily carried up them – no mallets, no keyboards. The performers – besides Monk’s Vocal Ensemble – include Todd Reynolds and his (String) Quartet and two complementary choirs: M6 and the Montclair State University Singers conducted by Heather J. Buchanan.
The echo of Buddhism is an important presence in Monk’s recent output. Like Eliane Radigue, Buddhist teachings have helped her – through work – to come to terms with a shattering personal loss (of her long-time partner, Dutch choreographer Mieke Van Hoek), the mixture of feelings following such an event informing a sound that combines the attempt to rationalize disappearance while vaguely contouring an inexplicable aim beyond materiality. In strictly stylistic terms, the influence of Steve Reich on some of the instrumental sections is not disguised (“Shift”, “Summer Variation” and especially “Burn”), whereas the voiced constructions range from the reciprocal calls – with percussion – of “Mapping” to the imposing finale “Ascent”, played on interlocking contrapuntal accumulations. Also impressive are the elusive choral shadows of “Clusters 2”. The lone childish complaint from this admiring veteran: Monk’s voice is more absent than usual, only rarely at the forefront. When that happens – “Fathom”, or the truly extraordinary “Respite” – I’m brought back to the heartrending emotion of Do You Be or Mercy. The same spirit that animated those masterpieces is clearly at work in Songs Of Ascension.