MEREDITH MONK: Piano Songs [TrackList follows] – Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, pianos – ECM New Series 2374 4810712 (Distr. Universal) ****½:
After all these years, I find Meredith Monk’s compositions still challenging. Listening to a previous work, mercy (2001), I realized she can be haunting and beautiful as often as she can be aimless and annoying. She’s been primarily known for her vocal innovations, which traverse the territory of mellifluous and tonal over to sharp and shocking, aided by yelps, cries, hisses, and other sonic disruptions. In my opinion, her short works are more successful than the long ones. She is best when she states an inventive idea, flashes it at us briefly, and then withdraws. This is certainly the case for about half of the pieces on mercy.
This volume of piano songs (1971-2006) is different. Its quality is of a higher level, perhaps because of more careful and consistent artistry. Why didn’t they tell us she’s been writing for piano all along? Lacking the on-again off-again essence of her vocal innovations, these short pieces show Monk freely exploring the dramatic and terpsichorean potential of the piano. It works well, mostly. Pianists Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, who feature both modernist and minimalist works in their repertoire, perform splendidly together on eight these twelve works, and equally well on the remaining four solo pieces. “Obsolete Objects” opens raucously, diving into its central theme and never flagging in energy and drive. “Ellis Island” is a classic minimalist piece with ostinato effects that effectively interweave two voices. It goes on a little too long. Clocking at three minutes, “Folk Dance” starts as a highly rhythmic dance figure accompanied by clapping and shouts of “Hey!” After a minute and a half, the mildly intrusive clapping and shouting dissipates, mercifully never reappearing. “Urban march (shadow),” unlike “urban march (light),” its vocally-inflected cousin on mercy, seems to meander listlessly for a minute, then takes on an intriguing intensity that builds until the abrupt end two minutes later. “Paris” with its winsome themes, reminds me of the composer Eric Satie. Then suddenly Monk does something quite, well, Monk-like. She has the pianist impulsively pound the piano like an obstreperous child for one bar, in an effort to show – oh, who knows? Spontaneity? I particularly like the longish “Parlour Games” with the consistency of its early 20th-century technique and layered complexity. Its experimental keyboard wanderings work just perfectly, rhythmically speaking. Again, we hear the ghost of Satie, but here he is a mere wisp of ectoplasm. The last two pieces, “totentanz” (the only work written after the death of her partner Mieke van Hoek) and “Phantom Waltz” contain streaks of Bartók and early Debussy respectively, but forge unique identities that leave the listener mildly dazed, perhaps wondering why Monk hasn’t composed for other solo instruments. I’m thinking, maybe she should try bassoon?
TrackList:1. Obsolete Objects 2. Ellis Island 3. Folkdance 4. Urban March 5. Tower 6. Paris 7. Railroad 8. Parlour Games 9. St. Petersburg Waltz 10. Window in 7 s 11. Totentanz 12. Phantom Waltz