“I like to leave room for play and growth,” said Meredith Monk recently, talking about how the music she composes never really reaches a definitive, finished state – and there was plenty of play in this, her first appearance in concert in the UK in almost a decade. Monk turns 80 this year and her bird-like, mischievous magnetism seems all the more subversive given that she is at least a generation older than those who share the stage with her. Monk is sometimes bracketed with her male contemporaries on the US minimalist scene, but would any of them end a concert with a solo encore that was a vocal and physical portrait of a mosquito?
Presented as part of the Southbank’s SoundState festival, the main programme was a slightly reordered re-creation of Memory Game, the album Monk and the other three members of her Vocal Ensemble recorded in 2020 with Bang on a Can All-Stars. It presents nine numbers from throughout Monk’s career in arrangements that expand their instrumental aspects.
The first five are a sequence from Monk’s 1983 sci-fi opera The Games, starting with the mesmeric looping clarinet lines of Spaceship and moving on to Memory Game, with Monk and the other three vocalists intoning, speaking and singing seemingly random words that together form an outline of a memory, ending with a high-soprano imitation of birdsong. Gamemaster’s Song was a sinister turn from Theo Bleckmann, his voice all long swoops and insistent persuasion against a constant, Pac-Man-like electric keyboard pulse.
The other four included Waltz in 5s, sung by Katie Geissinger and accompanied by bowed psaltery, a kite-shaped instrument sounding like memories of a tin violin. Monk, Geissinger and Bleckmann had a lot of fun with Tokyo Cha Cha, which was as much about the choreography as the infectious rhythms. And Monk herself was the solo vocalist in Double Fiesta, which sounded as if she had chopped a tape of the Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus into a thousand pieces, thrown them into the air and reassembled them from where they landed: precise playfulness from a composer and performer taking herself just seriously enough.