Meredith Monk’s all-female 'Cellular Songs' is an ode to life at its most complex and simple

Meredith Monk's 'Cellular Songs'

Meredith Monk's 'Cellular Songs' Julieta Cervantes

Meredith Monk’s latest opus began with a description of a cell.

“I was reading a book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, called The Emperor of All Maladies, which is a history of cancer,” the legendary composer, vocalist, and interdisciplinary performance artist says. She was transfixed by Mukherjee’s description of what a cell is.

“The cell, first of all, is a fundamental unit of life. Secondly, the cell has a kind of intelligence -- a basic intelligence,” she says. “It has to cooperate in order to function, so even within each cell, all the processes that are going on have to be lined up and harmonious. When you think about the billions of cells in our bodies that make our bodies do simple things, it’s amazing.”

As she was reading the book, Monk realized that the a cappella vocal pieces that she had been working on with a multitrack tape recorder had a similar quality. “It had a kind of intricacy and interweaving and rotational feeling that can be described in cellular behavior, and that’s how [Cellular Songs] started,” she says.

The piece features an all-women ensemble, which she says is in part a reaction to our current world. “It does seem like quite a dark period that we are going through right now on many levels,” she says. “I am not really a political artist in that kind of direct sense of being a political artist… but I still felt that it was very important to really consider how to make art that’s of benefit to sentient beings at this time.”

Cellular Songs also explores different sources of life, and has an appreciation of life. “I felt that the patriarchy has really risen as a system of thinking, and I just felt that it was very important to offer an alternative to that.”

The piece opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last March. This weekend, it comes to the Walker Art Center. A lot goes into tailoring the work for each venue. “I’ve been working with site-specific work for many years,” Monk says. “I was one of the early people working with that idea of an experiential performance in different spaces, and making the spaces come to life.”

For example, much like when the work was at BAM, the floor plays a key role in the Walker show. “The floor is a very big part of the piece, we even project on the floor,” she says. Later, when she takes the work to Los Angeles, she plans to project the video footage on the ceiling, as the audience won’t be able to see the floor at that venue.

“Part of my excitement in going to a space and seeing what that space is saying,” she says. “It’s like a dialogue. The Walker is one of my favorite spaces. I love that space so much. I think it will be beautiful there.”

Despite decades of experience as an artist, she’s still not sure exactly how she creates. “Each piece seems to be a world onto itself,” she says. “Sometimes I feel that I have a strange sensation that it exists in another dimension, or has existed in another dimension, and then it makes itself known at a certain point.”

In some ways, it’s like being a detective. “Even after 54 years of working, I might find one little piece of material that is really new that I’ve never done before, that I’ve never heard before, and that’s like the first clue,” she says. “And then I usually know that I’m on the right track. So it’s sort of like following the clues to find what the form of this piece is going to be.”

Monk believes that it’s her “anything is possible” philosophy that keeps her young and vibrant. “If you start doing the same thing over and over again, you really aren’t learning something, you’re not finding something,” she says. “Discovery is what keeps me going.”