Some time in late 1965, as I was vocalising in my studio, I suddenly had a revelation that the voice could have the same flexibility and range of movement as a spine or a foot, and that one could find and build a personal vocabulary for the voice just as one makes movement based on a particular body. I realized then that within the voice are myriad characters, landscapes, colors and textures. From that time on, I began working with my own instrument—trying to discover the voices within it. I explored different ways of producing sound, various resonances, ways of using the breath, lips, cheeks and diaphragm. I also worked with the extremes of my range and quick changes from one vocal quality to another so that my voice could be a flexible conduit for the energy and impulses that began to emerge.
I composed a number of a cappella songs during the next few years (including “Porch”, “Change” and “Dungeon”), and then felt that I wanted to work with a keyboard instrument as a ground base under my voice. I had studied piano as a child and teenager. In high school I had written a few short piano pieces and had learned guitar to accompany myself as a folksinger. From my folk singing days, I remembered the pleasure of an instrument being a kind of carpet for the voice to either blend with or leap from. I chose an electric organ rather than a piano because I liked the sustained tones, the particular timbres created by the various stops, and the inherent sense of space and scale within its sound.
I began singing with the organ and composed “Understreet”, “What does it mean?” and “Fat Stream.” In all of the music that I wrote during that period, I was trying for a visceral, kinetic song form that had the abstract qualities of a painting or a dance. In April 1970, I presented an evening of music entitled “A Raw Recital” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The concert included all the songs on Key with the exception of “Do You Be?” which I composed later that spring. In July 1970 I began working, with the help of Collin Walcott, on the recording of Key.
In Key I wanted to create a constantly shifting ambience. Each song dealt with a different vocal character, landscape, technical concern or emotional quality. I was trying for a visceral, kinetic song form that had the abstract qualities of a painting or a dance. I knew that I didn’t want to set music to a text; for me, the voice itself was a language which seemed to speak more eloquently than words. I chose certain phonemes for their particular sound qualities. In a sense, each song became a world in itself with its own timbre, texture and impulse. I was trying for a primordial musical utterance which would uncover shards of memory and feelings that we don’t have words for.
I asked two members of my company, Lanny Harrison and Mark Berger, to create monologues based on dreams which would evoke visual images in the listener. I liked contrasting that experience with the more primal qualities of the music. As I worked on Key, I started thinking of how all the material would go together. I tried to make a syntax and continuity that utilized the particular qualities of the recording medium. I wasn’t interested in the album just being a collection of songs but rather a complete musical experience. I thought of it as “invisible theater” because the music seemed to come out of and go into darkness and silence—the voice transforming from one “character” to another, going from one space to another, travelling from one level of intensity to another. I hoped that the listener would have the chance to experience the shifting energy and various layers in one sitting. I am gratified that 25 years after its original release, there is a recording medium that allows Key to be heard as originally conceived.
Meredith Monk: travelling voice, electric organ, jews harp
Daniel Ira Sverdlik, Dick Higgins: companion voices
Collin Walcott: companion voice and mrdingam
Lanny Harrison and Mark Berger: vision monologues
All music composed by Meredith Monk from 1967—1970.
Recorded live from July 1970 - January 1971 at Gary Weis' loft, Santa Monica, California; The Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, California; The House, New York City. “Change” overdubbed at The Farm, Los Angeles, California.
Produced by Collin Walcott
Engineers: Peter Pilafian, John Horton, Tom Clack, Daniel Nagrin.
Mix: John Horton
Technical Consultant: Gary Harris
Digital editing and re-mastering: Allan Tucker, Foothill Digital Productions, New York City.
Cover Photo: Peter Moore
Interior Photo: Dona Ann McAdams
Art Direction: By Design
This edition of KEY is dedicated to the memory of Collin Walcott.
Compositions (c) 1967—1970 by Meredith Monk (ASCAP).
(c) (P) 1977, 1995 Lovely Music, Ltd.
All compositions published by Meredith Monk Music (ASCAP).
All rights reserved.
The reissue of this recording is made possible, in part, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts Music Recording Program.