Monday, March 21, 2005
Meredith Monk: Atlas.
Women's History Month at HurdAudio continues with an ear tilted at the ECM 1993 release of Meredith Monk's opera Atlas, which premiered in Houston in 1991.
Opening with " Overture (Out of Body 1)" Monk establishes the instrumentation and sound of this epic work where wordless vocals occupy the focal point of the sonic texture. The chamber orchestra supplies a cyclical tapestry of sound that supports the voices. Pitches are hit cleanly and there is a minimum of vibrato. Which is a refreshing sound for opera.
Much of the narrative content is lost in the absence of a live performance. The linear notes give some idea of a quest. Part one focuses on the internal environment of the future explorer who dreams of making a journey. Part two is the physical journey. Part three is the point of transcendence where the quest takes on spiritual dimension. The visual component of this piece must have been something, if for no other reason than to see these vocalists at work on stage.
"Future Quest (The Call)" features a wonderful melodic line with plenty of variation and extended technique. The texture bubbles with warmth and energy as singing lines overlap and occasionally break apart into unaccompanied parts. The harmonic modulations used here are particularly lyrical.
There's a soft, introspective quality to this work. Free from the bombast and drama associated with 19th century European opera this piece paints a mesmerizing mural where voice carries a share of abstraction by draining so much text from the experience. This sound depicts, and even conjures, a dream-like state. Atlas conveys a story-telling quality of dreaming.
The reverb is entirely too thick throughout this recording. Which seems to be a common problem with much of the ECM catalogue. It gives this performance the feeling of being in an unnatural space. Much of the cross-vocal interactions, screams, whispers and course textured extended techniques would be better served with a dry signal.
"Desert Tango" is the highlight of this listening experience for me. The voices add shades to what is essentially an instrumental work with light doses of percussion and tango accordion. It follows the startling "Forest Questions" where the spoken questions splash a dose of concrete verbage into the texture. This tango settles thing back into the comfort of abstraction before "I see darkness, I see empty rooms" crosses the lips of Meredith Monk as pseudo answers. Then layers of wordless utterances build over the propelling tango rhythm to create a shimmering wall of sonic beauty.
"Other Worlds Revealed" is a brief episode in the "transcendent" Part III: Invisible Light. The sonic texture is all voices in an aggressive, intoxicating texture. It is interesting to note that the instrumental parts seem to drop away as the narrative moves toward spiritual realms.