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STRIVER: Meredith Monk's new piece explores the varieties of ritual.

Uphill Battle

Monk and Hamilton's 'Songs of Ascension' is lovely to listen to but hard to decipher

By Ben Marks

BACK IN THE DAY, I used to attend a fair amount of performance art. I saw Laurie Anderson play her electronic violin under the stars, watched Johanna Went cover herself in fake blood on a stage cluttered with dismembered stuffed animals and wished that Jack Bruce of Cream would break into "White Room" during a hyperactive Rinde Eckert spectacle. So it was not without at least some perspective that I headed over to Stanford's Memorial Auditorium last Saturday night to attend the world premiere of Songs of Ascension by singer/composer/choreographer Meredith Monk and visual artist Ann Hamilton, both of whom, the good folks at Stanford Lively Arts, who commissioned the piece, are happy to remind us, are winners of the MacArthur "Genius" Award. Composed by Monk, with gorgeous string accompaniment by the Todd Reynolds Quartet, the songs in Songs of Ascension are intended to evoke prayers, those most ancient of all toe tappers that were designed to help us ascend closer to God. Monk is not the first to mine this theme: John Coltrane's "Ascension" from 1965 comes to mind. But unlike Coltrane's piece, which is fevered, intense and runs for 40 full minutes, Monk's Songs are mostly short and ethereal, adhering rather closely to traditional expressions of reverence. Even the costumes reinforced the sense of devotion, as most of the singers and performers in Monk's company wore simple garb in pumpkin-colored tones that we associate with the robes of Buddhist monks.

In general, the visual components of the Songs were the weakest aspects of the brief, 70-minute performance. One performer, dressed in white, made inexplicable and pretentious semaphorelike movements with a pair of unmarked flags, which she eventually ditched to do the same with her hands. At other times, the plodding, overly mannered movements of the other performers were meant to mirror ritual processions around Buddhist stupas, Moses climbing Mt. Sinai and the circumambulation of the Kaaba in Mecca. It was movement for duty's sake, hardly the sort of thing to elevate the heart or soul. Hamilton's art-shtick black-and-white video loops of a figure on a horse, a bird in flight, a whole bunch of legs and a silhouetted sailing ship, which were projected on the wall behind the stage as well as the walls in the auditorium itself, were little help. Her visual contributions, as well as Monk's choreography, felt contrived and random.

The music, however, was glorious, especially when the Monk ensemble's haunting, birdlike, repeated vowel and consonant vocalizations merged with the sounds coming out of the instruments, creating chords that must be the auditory equivalents of interspecies breeding. Adding to the magic of the sound was the placement of the members of the Pacific Mozart Ensemble chorus throughout the house, so that at times the joyful noises were coming from all directions. I can't say I ascended anywhere in particular, but at times I definitely felt transported.

Of the musicians, cellist Ha-Yang Kim deserves special mention, and not just because she hiked about the stage on cue along with her colleagues without missing a step or a beat, even though her instrument weighs a good deal more than those little violins and violas. More than her physical endurance, which was impressive enough, I was often stunned by the sounds she managed to summon from her instrument. At times, her lows were jolting and emphatic, but never in a bullying or showy way. As for her highs, there were moments when it seemed like she must have been playing to the dogs because the notes were so high that no sound appeared to be emitting from her instrument at all. During such moments, her intention was enough, and it is intention, or so I've been told, that the beings who live in places that can only be ascended to care about most.

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