It would be unfair to label Meredith Monk and Anne Waldman’s shared evening on Friday at the Institute of Contemporary Art a concert, for music was not its central focus. Neither was it a reading of poetry, or a piece of theater, or performance art, though elements of all these were present. The way Waldman declaimed in the deliberate, drawn-out style of a street preacher, the way two singers tenderly guided Monk upstage, and the way the two women finally inhabited the space made it clear that we were witnessing the ritual of a deep connection. The audience became their congregation, all of us witnesses to an intimate ceremony celebrating the syncretism of their creative paths, their similarities, their differences, and their friendship, which has lasted decades.
Waldman performed three of her poems alone first, crouching and creeping across the stage with a leonine gait as she read in a powerful, guttural voice from a binder in her hand. Accompanied by the music of her son Ambrose Bye, and illuminated by images of Pat Steir’s brightly colored dripped and splashed “waterfall” paintings projected on the wall behind her, Waldman’s poems swerved through the personal, political, and universal, referencing Standing Rock, Derrida, borders, and dancing. Her words were sometimes hard to understand, especially in the first selection, when chiming constellations of harpsichord overpowered her. (Projected subtitles would have been welcome.) Her third piece was the tightest, her voice running along the contour of a pulsing electronic chord progression instead of clashing with it.
Monk emerged onstage accompanied by two members of her vocal ensemble, which she trains herself and teaches via oral tradition. The three women spun out Monk’s complex harmonic weaves built from simple repeating or slowly changing melodies, the sounds playing with the possibilities of the English language and the human instrument itself. In “Cellular Songs,” an a cappella trio work in progress evoking echoes of Balinese music and medieval polyphony, Monk’s versatile voice spanned from stratospheric heights to more than an octave below middle C, and “The Tale” had her dancing while laughing and hooting like a monkey.
The most luminous moments came when Waldman and Monk both took the stage, their expressive selves entangling like vines. The birdcall-like exclamations and insect hums of Monk’s 1979 “Wa-lie-oh” interlocked with the litany of animals in Waldman’s “[Endangered] Living Thread.” Movement, and the embodiment of the two voices in movement, flowed through each piece. A genius bit of choreography set the performers on opposite sides of the stage while their shadows clawed at each other, stood back to back, and danced on the blank back wall during “Hungry Ghost/Sleeping With the Hungry Ghost,” as Monk wailed, yelped, and hissed Waldman’s words. Their voices at last joined as one at the end of “Chenrezig Walks Among Us,” as arm in arm they approached the audience. “Push, push, push, against the darkness,” they chanted over and over, fading into a whisper. As the lights came up, they bowed first to the audience, and then, more deeply, to each other.
MEREDITH MONK AND ANNE WALDMAN
At Institute of Contemporary Art, Feb. 24.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.