Cell Tones

Sasha Frere-Jones on Meredith Monk at Le Poisson Rouge

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, Cellular Songs. Performance view, Diaghilev Festival, Perm, Russia, 2018. Meredith Monk. Photo: Nikita Chuntomov.

IN OCTOBER, AT LE POISSON ROUGE, Meredith Monk and her five-woman ensemble presented what she called the “essence” of Cellular Songs, a new ninety-minute work that she presented at BAM this past March but has yet to record. In its full iteration, Cellular Songs interleaves song and positioned bodies and slide projections. In the nightclub setting, Monk had to abandon the staging design for an overhead view and present a distilled night of music and movement. But one video element from the longer version was retained and played right before the performance started: five pairs of hands, pointed inwards and flexing in unison. The hands didn’t move quickly, like spirit fingers—the effect was more like a starfish, but with human breathing. The accompanying audio, low and throughout the club, was the sound of women exhaling and sighing.

That physical and emotional fusion runs through Cellular Songs, one of the most focused and satisfying projects Monk has done in her fifty-year career. Developed over the last two years, Cellular was inspired, in part, by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 book, Emperor of All Maladies, a study of how cancer spreads. Monk began with that conception of cells and moved out from there, collecting images for inspiration. One is of five Japanese pearl divers holding baskets; another was of eight unknown women, heads down, all with rolled updos; and another was a microscope’s view of mycelium, blown up and looking like whorls of hair or insulation—all of them strands that bind the world.

Two-thirds of the way through the show, between sets two and three, Monk—dressed, as she has done on and off since the seventies, in an all white tunic and skirt, black boots and long plaited pigtails—came to the front of the stage to explain why the piece has an all-female cast. “Dark times here, and the patriarchy rising,” she told the capacity crowd. After describing the Mukherjee book, she said, “I started thinking about cells and the way that nature works in such an interdependent way. I wanted to make a kind of alternative behavioral prototype.”

That prototype sounded at times like shattered plainchant, often presented in tandem with a kind of courtly dance for a new palace. One of the most affecting pieces in the first third of the show was a duet for new ensemble member Jo Stewart, and Monk veteran Ellen Fisher. Entering the stage arm in arm, the two traded off singing a slow figure that mapped a phrase of Monkese language onto several disjunct tonal leaps: “Don-kay-don-con-KAY,” and several elongations thereof. The two spread apart, trading the phrase and dancing at each other, fencing with singing and singing with moving. The effect was like an elegant bullfight scored by Hildegard Von Bingen.

Later, Allison Sniffin played piano, and Monk played a small keyboard blocked from view by the piano. Using brief phrases, the two executed a vaguely atonal, glimmering piece while Ellen Fisher danced on a stool. Astonishingly strong and now almost bald, Fisher became a swimmer and then a fish; next a plane and a bicycling refugee from an Esther Williams routine. It was a performance firmly in Monk’s comic beauty mode, where the human, the goofy, and the firmly delineated become one and the same.

The most piercing song was delivered by Katie Geissinger. Called “Lullaby for Lise,” Monk wrote it in memory of Lise Brunel, the French dance historian and critic, who died in 2011. Accompanied by Sniffin on piano, Geissinger moved through legato phrases, wordless, into sharp intakes of breath, back into high, long held notes. It sounded very much like a song of struggle, of ebb and flow, victory and retreat. As with the rest of Cellular Songs, it seemed deeply complex without doing very much in the way of harmony or counterpoint. Monk breathes and speaks and writes in this register—of the rooted human—here, repeatedly, a woman.

Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble performed Cellular Songs at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City from October 14 to October 16.