Thursday, May 15, 2008

Meeting Meredith Monk - by Karissa Krenz

Meeting Meredith Monk by Karissa Krenz

In the early 1990s I was a sophomore at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, singing, composing, and majoring in music history. I had discovered the joy of what I considered to be the "whacked-out" nature of experimental music, and spent time blending an interest in medieval sounds with the groundbreaking adventures of John Cage and his followers. Since I was still fresh, young, and idealistic, I had jumped into my studies headfirst.

At some point during the year, the music and theater departments co-sponsored a weeklong workshop with singer/composer/dancer/performer Meredith Monk. I remember looking at the imposing, closely cropped headshot with my co-conspirator Jimmy Smith, discussing whether or not to sign up. We thought she looked like a hard-ass ("she must be about six-feet tall!"), and worried that we would be in for a week of pain and humiliation if we participated. But we had heard about and seen videos of her work (such as Ellis Island, Book of Days, and Dolmen Music), so we knew how creative and successful she was. We put our names on the list.

We walked into the first night of the workshop, and it turned out that Meredith was teeny tiny, generous, and friendly. There were at least twenty participants, and she got to know each and every one of us by name. I think everyone in the room wanted to be her new best friend.

As the week progressed we each had one-on-one moments with her, some were creative, some personal. One in particular stands out for me, not for its poignancy, but rather its subsequent youthful embarrassment, which sears it into my memory.

During one of the pre-break cool-downs, in which we all stood in a circle holding hands and singing, Meredith had been next to me. She approached me during the break to apologize for her cold hands, to which I responded, "Oh you know, cold hands, warm heart!" She walked away, as sweet as ever, but I was immediately mortified for being such an incredibly huge dork.

Nonetheless, at the end of the workshop I had opened up creatively, inspired by the experience and encouragement Meredith shared with us. I also realized, perhaps most importantly, that artists can be completely normal people (even if their art seems, to the regular Joe, a bit off the wall). I had never before met someone that successful in the arts, and as I aspired to be in that world, meeting and working with Meredith turned out to be one of my most important and informative educational experiences. She's brilliant by definition-the winner of a MacArthur genius grant, among many other awards-yet she speaks like a regular person. She remembers everyone, always asks about you and your friends, and seems to be incredibly down to earth.

Towards the end of that week she spent with us, Meredith told me I should send her a tape of my compositions, which I did a few months later. I received her postcard response while in the midst of another transformational adventure: studying in London. Meredith was so positive, thoughtful, and kind. For the first time in my life, I realized that I wasn't nuts-I actually had talent: someone who wasn't family or a teacher had said so. Following my creative impulses made sense, and my life path was the right one.
c) Karissa Kenz 2008
Karissa Krenz is an arts writer and editor based in New York City


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