Once a student of both voice and dance at Sarah Lawrence College, Meredith Monk has cultivated her career as a dancer and composer outside of the classical mainstream since the mid-'60s, systematically exploring the various colors, characters and textures of the human voice. One of the criticisms commonly leveled at Monk is that her music does better on stage than it does in the recorded realm -- indeed, the high point of her career was Houston Grand Opera's commissioning of her opera "Atlas," based on the Alexandra David Neal novel "Magic and Mystery in Tibet." Although it's certainly true that some of Monk's music is a tough listen, this is not always the case, as proven by a string of wonderful ECM releases recorded in the 1980s, notably "Dolmen Music" (1981), "Do You Be" (1987) and "The Book of Days" (1990).
Following in the manner of those releases, Monk's latest recording, "Volcano Songs," is very accessible. The album contains a lot of shorter works, a wise decision given that the music is not always easy. With punchy, good tunes, "Volcano Songs" resurrects a more primal element of Monk's earlier music, but does so within a well-defined framework. "New York Requiem," with Monk and Harry Huff at the piano, is wonderful, as is the "St. Petersburg Waltz" performed by and written for long-time Monk collaborator Nurit Tilles. Inspired by Monk's visit to Asia, it's a haunting piece that evokes the desolation of Eastern Europe. This piece, as well as Monk's setting of the Tennessee Read poem "Three Heavens and Hells," are high points of the album.
As with everything else Monk puts her hand to, this recording is
brilliantly executed -- the question is only whether Monk's kinetic
vocal style is your bag. With the possible exception of "Dolmen
Music," this is one of Monk's strongest releases, and newcomers
to her music and longtime devotees alike will find this album a
wonderful cross-section of her inimitable style.