Fifteen students in wonderfully white outfits are strewn about the courtyard next to Freud Playhouse. Each one embodies a character of his or her own choosing. One woman’s hand is lightly pounding on a door she leans on. A few stragglers crouch just outside the entrance. Sounds erupt sporadically, sometimes simultaneously. It’s Tuesday evening, and the group is holding its third and final rehearsal for a pre-performance installation before the premiere of Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble’s On Behalf of Nature, this weekend as part of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA) season.
Despite the 47-degree temperature, Monk and vocal ensemble member Ellen Fisher walk around slowly, offering individuals notes on movement and sound. Monk appears to be floating in her colorful, quilted, floor-length coat with images of clouds around her shoulders.
“Keep your ears open,” says Monk. “That’s the fun of it. Knowing what’s going on around you and seeing where you can fit in.”
Monk — singer, dancer, composer, choreographer, theater director, filmmaker, and installation artist — has won a MacArthur grant, two Guggenheim fellowships and three Obie awards. She was named 2012 composer of the year by Musical America and one of NPR’s “50 Great Voices.”
She first began piecing together On Behalf of Nature in April 2012 during a week-long CAP UCLA residency. Meryl Friedman, director of education and community programs, took part in those workshops. The installation performance marks her return, as she stands shoulder to shoulder in a circle and singing (drawing on Monk’s “extended vocal technique”) with the other participants. About three-quarters of the students in April, now more familiar with Monk’s teaching philosophies, wander purposely around the courtyard. It’s hard to know how the weekend’s spectators will react to the performers. If they hang in the courtyard until the final moments, they’ll catch the characters clustering under a tree; their voices ringing like angels.
“I’ve loved being at UCLA,” says Monk. “We did understand right from the beginning that so many of my friends are teachers here in theater and dance and the World Arts and Cultures department, so we understood that there was definitely going to be an educational component. We enjoyed working with the students very much in April.”
In the program notes, Monk explains that On Behalf of Nature is a meditation on our intimate connection to nature, its inner structures, the fragility of its ecology and our interdependence. With sad eyes, she speaks of how human beings ignorantly destroy the beauty of what we have. “As a person who works in music, in nonverbal artwork, I couldn’t do a political tract about it. It was very challenging to find out how can I work with this without making a message piece. I knew it’s not my way. I wish I could do it that way. I feel like the more messages, the better in terms of people being more aware of what’s going on. But I just can’t work that way. I make music.”
Monk’s first question to herself was “How would one make a piece of artwork with an ecological awareness that didn’t make more waste in the world?” She gravitated to the ideas of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and his notion of bricolage — the idea that in societies working with the earth and not against it, people will take an object and use it in 10 different ways.
“Use your imagination to work with what you have rather than always grabbing for something else,” says Monk.
Monk began her “reusing, rediscovering, re-imagining, re-purposing” journey with costume designer Yoshio Yabara. Instead of buying new costumes that would eventually end up in a packing case, they asked the ensemble members to bring in their own clothing according to the color schemes in the performance. Yabara took them apart and put them together into costume collages. “Within each costume, the personal history of that person is in there,” says Monk, beaming with pride.
The music in On Behalf of Nature is new, “except I allowed myself to scan old music notebooks,” says Monk. “There might be a phrase from 1966 that I started playing with, and I would say, that would be fantastic in On Behalf of Nature. Things that were there for years that I could never figure out what they were. Then I literally made a new piece.”
During 2012, Monk was working on the music for On Behalf of Nature at the same time as Realm Variations, which was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony. “I knew some part of Realm Variations would be part of On Behalf of Nature. I had to let go of what I felt was the perfect form of Realm Variations. I knew I had to re-orchestrate and know it was a different entity. The two of them went hand-in-hand in the creative process.”
After Monk’s April CAP UCLA residency, the ensemble spent two weeks in France performing and polishing On Behalf of Nature, followed by one week in October at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, a two-week residency at Duke University and another two weeks at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn.
“Our process is very much like going to different places and having very intensive rehearsal periods,” says Monk, “because it’s very hard to maintain in New York, financially for the whole company, this constant rehearsal, which I would prefer. Like six months in rehearsal. But we haven’t been able to do this. So we have these very concentrated, intensive rehearsal periods and then a break in between. Sometimes I don’t mind it because I write more music and figure out more things, so there’s something very positive about that. There are pretty wide spaces between our sessions, but we are incredibly productive when we’re working.”
At the age of 70, Monk feels strongly about working with young students. “I do like the educational component,” she says. “It’s wonderful to try to pass on what we’ve learned. It’s a language. It’s a philosophy of thinking about the world. The way that we think about things and how do we pass that on. For me now at my age, I’m happy to pass on a lineage of a way of thinking about things.”
She also encourages dreamers. As a struggling artist (by her own admission), she has never lost sight of the beauty of being an artist, of building up the internal integrity and strength that is needed to be an artist. “Nothing will change for the better in this world if people don’t follow their dreams. I feel like they should be encouraged to follow that dream and find a way. What’s interesting now with our financial problems, we have to be scrappier, and we have to use our imagination and use what we have. It’s frustrating on some levels but on another level, it’s a way that we have to learn to be more flexible. Young people already have that flexibility. Why take that away from them at this point in their lives? Encourage them to do what they want in their lives. Because our lives are very short. What a sad thing.”
On Behalf of Nature, Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, northeast corner of the UCLA campus, near Hilgard and Sunset, Westwood 90024. Opens tonight. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Tickets: $30-$45. www. cap.ucla.edu. 310-825-2101.
***All On Behalf of Nature photos by Spencer Davis