Songs of Ascension
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble, Todd Reynolds Quartet, The M6, Montclair State University Singers/Heather Buchanan, conductor
ECM New Series
(to be released 5/17)
Meredith Monk has been among my favorite composers since I first heard works like Tablet and Key in the 70’s. Her work since Dolmen Music has remained consistently good, and has built on her considerable work with extended vocal techniques.
Songs of Ascension in part refers to one concept for the work in which performers ascend a double helical, dual staircase, which meant that strings were in, as keyboards and mallet percussion would not be feasible since schlepping them up the stairs is difficult at best. The title also refers to the title “Song of Ascents” that alludes to the changing of psalms during pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which begs the question, why is going up considered sacred and going down, not so much?
This is the first piece for string quartet by Meredith Monk that I’m aware of, although she certainly has used isolated stringed instruments before (the cello solo of Dolmen Music immediately comes to mind). The string quartet, which includes the venerable Todd Reynolds, is also augmented at times by a shruti box, which creates a drone. There are other forces involved as well, including several vocal ensembles, winds and percussion.
But the music is quintessential Monk, with a clear evolution from the earlier works of the 70’s. The strings work very well, both by themselves and in concert with the other performers. Some sections worked better for me than others, particularly the last section titled Ascent, but that’s just my own personal preference. This is an extremely well performed album, and I can’t imagine it was easy to put together. The string writing is challenging, and the performance by The Todd Reynolds Quartet and Allison Sniffin on violin is impeccable. The various vocalists must perform extremely difficult parts, and they make it sound easy. The percussion and winds are also first-rate. It is always a good thing when performers come together to play new music; when they also clearly have an affinity for the music, that is especially uncommon. This is an album that any Monk devotee should have. But it is also an album for anyone interested in new music. And on May 17th, it becomes available.