Hold on! Is Ms. Monk being unfaithful to her label? It’s the first time in 40 years that she has released an album on a label other than ECM. It’s a collaboration with the New York chamber ensemble Bang on a Can, which has its own label.
Memory Game is an opportunity for the singer and composer, and also dancer, choreographer, director and installation designer (it’s not for nothing that she’s been dubbed the high priestess of the avant-garde) to revisit some of her works, particularly pieces from a science-fiction opera called The Games, which has never been recorded. These, the first five tracks, are followed by four more from two ballets.
The Games is set on an imaginary planet where survivors of Earth’s apocalypse engage in Olympic-inspired ritual games, in a desperate attempt to maintain Earth’s traditions. An example, from “Memory Song”: “Trees, trees, trees. Trees, birds, coffee, coffee. Do you remember?” Get the picture? At times like this, the whole thing takes on a strange resonance. The piece ends with songs that strikingly imitate bird cries, which I thought I recognized but could not identify.
It’s always been a deliberate choice of Monk’s to keep the musical arrangements simple and transparent, in order to highlight the complexity of the vocal material, so the new BOAC pieces add a new dimension to her music, while retaining its spirit. This one is more flowing and doesn’t have the same colour, it seems. We find the same type of repetitive motifs, common to the works of Monk’s contemporary colleagues Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and David Lang, but in her own way, with voices that overlap, hover, chirp, hoot, split into a canon… sometimes accompanied by primitive electronic keyboards.
Although they come from three different works, these nine pieces, two of which are instrumental, constitute by their order a very lovely cycle, like the cycle of life.