NOAH ADAMS, Host:
From New York, Lara Pellegrinelli has a report.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: From its somber beginning, anchored by two simple chords, Meredith Monk's "Impermanence" explores the flux of life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST SONG")
ADAMS: (Singing) Last, last chance...
PELLEGRINELLI: Like Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking," Monk's composition captures the pangs of loss that come with the passage of time and the passing of beloved companions. "Impermanence" was triggered by the unexpected death of her partner, Mieke van Hoek, in 2002.
ADAMS: I was in so much shock that it was really like evaluating my entire life and what it was to be an artist, and even wondering whether that was so important. And seeing that what you really have done in your life is how kind you've been and, you know, whether you've been there for other people and the kind of love that you've been able to show.
PELLEGRINELLI: Still picking up the pieces, Monk received an e-mail three months later, out of the blue, from a hospice group in England called Rosetta Life. They invited her to work with their patients, and she found her inspiration in something Mieke had left behind.
ADAMS: I had actually found a tape of her improvising.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
ADAMS: I ended up transcribing the little songs, and I chose this one which I thought was very singable. And the hospice patients had said, we love to sing. And so I sent them the music, and I went to London and worked on it with them. And then they taped themselves singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
ADAMS: I think there were two people that had already died before we did the first performance. And I remember that their families were so happy, and the people themselves, they were just thrilled, you know, that their faces were on the screen and that they were also part of it. I mean, that was their immortality.
PELLEGRINELLI: "Mieke's Melody" became the final tune on "Impermanence."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIEKE'S MELODY #5")
PELLEGRINELLI: Beyond her personal loss, Monk's newfound concern for posterity seems appropriate at this point in her career.
ADAMS: I think you get to a certain age and you start thinking about, what am I going to leave behind? You know, you devote yourself to something for your whole life and then - it's not so much like a legacy or, you know - it's really more, what can I give and leave behind that other people can enjoy or can fulfill in their own ways?
PELLEGRINELLI: Because the 64-year-old doesn't fit comfortably within the conventions of the music world, the future of her compositions is a serious question. Monk's wide-ranging vocal techniques don't readily lend themselves to the page. While she's written for Kronos Quartet and the New World Symphony, among others, she's always been the primary performer of own work. And she develops her pieces orally in workshops with her own ensemble.
ADAMS: It is a folk tradition at its very core, which has ended up living in the world of classical music.
PELLEGRINELLI: Violinist and composer Todd Reynolds recently played in a series dedicated to Monk's compositions at New York's Symphony Space.
ADAMS: People on the air going (unintelligible) like air.
PELLEGRINELLI: Reynolds and the other performers took the opportunity to rehearse with Monk.
ADAMS: Empty, empty the air all the way out. There you go. That's why you have to sigh on the exhalation. That's why I said - the whole thing of the whole piece is the exhalations are a sigh.
PELLEGRINELLI: Backstage, Sidney Chen, who's a member of the vocal ensemble M6, said they needed the composer's input.
ADAMS: All of the pieces that we're doing have a certain amount of give in them. And part of the process is finding out what's actually essentially in the piece because it's not notated to begin with, because she's not starting from the page, she's starting from sound. It's a reverse from what some of us normally do, which is start with the page and then try to bring the music off of it.
PELLEGRINELLI: Monk, however, says her music isn't completely malleable.
ADAMS: It is not a free-for-all.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
PELLEGRINELLI: Adaptations for different instruments, like Todd Reynolds' version of "Double Fiesta for Violin," allow more musicians to perform Monk's pieces.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PELLEGRINELLI: The survival of her music ultimately depends on others continuing to sing and play it. As for her own performances, in particular her latest recording, "Impermanence," it's only a snapshot, the residue of a living, breathing form.
ADAMS: How do you convey a sense of change? How do you convey that everything in our lives, everything is constantly changing, and that one cannot hold on to anything? You know, and certainly the impulse was coming from the sense of the preciousness of life and that every moment is only - is the only moment that we have.
PELLEGRINELLI: For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.
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