In 1983, as an Orwellian 1984 loomed, the American composer, choreographer and dancer Meredith Monk found herself in Berlin. Nowhere was the Cold War more proximate than in this walled city, as Soviet missiles in East Berlin threatened West Berlin.
Monk had been asked to make a new work for the bold theater company Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer. Her response? “Let’s do a piece about the aesthetics of fascism,” she said at the Ford Theatre on Thursday night, when she introduced excerpts from “The Games” as part of her performance with Bang on a Can All-Stars.
In the science fiction opera she created with librettist Ping Chong, survivors from a nuclear holocaust on Earth, or global warming, have relocated somewhere in outer space. They attempt a ritual in which elders pass on Earth’s culture to the young. That is, what they can remember of it — and what members of different cultures who speak different languages can communally piece together. Memory plays tricks. Fascism plays tricks. History repeats itself, again and again in the work’s four sections. A Gamemaster, with rock star charisma, turns into a dictator.
“The Games” was brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall of 1984, but then was promptly forgotten. Monk does not include it on her website among the list of such classics as “Quarry” “Ellis Island” and 1981’s “Specimen Days: A Civil War Opera” that preceded it. Several great works, the opera “Atlas,” and “On Behalf of Nature” among them, have followed. Monk never recorded “The Games” completely, but a few songs from it are on several of her recordings, and a couple numbers have remained in her repertoire over the years or been done by other musicians. Her music has appealed to figures as varied as Björk, Caetano Veloso and the Dalai Lama.
Bang on a Can, the New York new music collective founded shortly after Monk staged “The Games” at BAM, has, however, come partially to the rescue. Three years ago, the stellar All-Stars, the collective’s ensemble, released the extraordinary Monk recording “Memory Game.” It includes new arrangements by the three BoaC founders — David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe — centered on several numbers from “The Games.” For the live performance at the Ford, Monk and three of her longtime singers joined the All-Stars to perform some of the recording.
It was a lovely night on Earth. The Ford happens to be the most enchanted of L.A.’s major outdoor venues and was beautifully lighted. The super blue moon of the night before retained enough lunar presence to remind us of what is at stake here on an Earth, and how we continually find new ways to jeopardize it. Monk felt startlingly prescient. She was of the moment in 1983. She is of the moment today.
And yet, Monk’s marvelment is her merriment. She is renowned for her pioneering role in the development of extended vocal techniques, although the extensions go far beyond the vocal cords anatomically and musically. Voice and body movement merge into a singular expression. Shouts, squeals, whoops, cries, wails and those voluble outbursts we have no name for but immediately recognize as primal emotions are elemental to her song vocabulary. Voice, mind, spirit and being are one.
The instrumental ensemble was slightly different from the recording. The bassist Robert Black, one of the founders of the ensemble and a noted figure in contemporary music, died in June and the concert was dedicated to his memory. Eleonore Oppenheim admirably filled his shoes. The other All-Stars included pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, cellist Arlen Hlusko, electric guitarist Mark Stewart and clarinetist Ken Thomson. Monk was joined by three of the collective’s longtime singers, Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin and Theo Bleckmann.
There was an extraordinary amount of modern American music memory, excellence and importance on the stage, along with those other memories from “The Games”: mushrooms, morning coffee, aspirin, saying grace, Shakespeare’s garden. All of this is delivered with Monk’s characteristic bounce. Melodies are simple and elegant, like those of Satie. Monk has a minimalist’s and a child’s joy in repetition. She is a folk singer but of a folk we’ve never before encountered. Geissinger, Sniffin and Bleckmann each added something new and elemental.
The new instrumental arrangements enhanced but changed little from the recordings. In “Memory Song,” for instance, Wolfe hauntingly colorized with silvery percussive accompaniment, marvelously melodic clarinet and cello lines and interruptions of chirping bird song, Monk’s singing of forgetting and football. When the recording first came out, I couldn’t get enough of that.
Along with the songs from “The Games,” Monk includes a handful of numbers from other wanderings. One is a hilariously goofy “Tokyo Cha Cha,” also from 1983. Lang’s arrangement of “Double Fiesta” ended the program as triumphant celebration, Monk happily ha-ha-ha-ing and ho-ho-ho-ing, the ensemble finding a groove that, in the best or worlds, would go on forever.
Preserve the joy, Monk reveals in “Memory Game,” and maybe, just maybe, we’ll remember to save the world.