michael j. morris

Impermanence: “Monster Partitur,” Meredith Monk, “About” and “Passage”

I have been both thrilled and overwhelmed at the response to my last post. it amazes me how quickly anything on the web can go viral in so few hours. Thank you all for reading (if you are continuing to read); I hope my reflections offered you insight into this experience and provoked contemplations of your own.

I have further contemplations/connections to reflect upon emanating from this experience working on the constructions and tracings for “Monster Partitur.” For days now, despite the sound scape that has been present in our work space (that has ranged from Madonna, to BT, to Jay Brannan, to Cirque du Soleil, to the Cranberries, etc.), the sounds that are constantly occurring to me come from Meredith Monk’s album impermanence. Released last year, it was a composition triggered in response to the unexpected death of Monk’s partner, Mieke van Hoek, in 2002. It has been discussed as a meditation on death, loss, and the fragility of human life. You can read an article about the piece and Monk’s thoughts of music for posterity, and listen to a few of the tracks (I highly recommend “Last Song” as one of the most profound pieces of music I have ever experienced) from NPR here

I assume the connections between this work and the work with which I have been participating are fairly evident. Both are responses to or expressions of loss and grief, both contain a meditative quality on the transitory nature of life, of all things. Both raise issues concerning that which is left behind, the translation of an impermanent experience into a lasting trace, be that trace in musical composition, or graphite drawings on plywood panels. 

Monk offers these words in the liner notes of impermanence:

“How does one create a work about impermanence? One can only brush upon aspects of it; conjure up the sensation that everything is in flux, everything constantly changes, we can’t hold onto anything. What we have in common as human beings is that we will all die and we don’t know when or how. We will lose our loves ones, our own health and finally our bodies. Keeping this in mind leads to a deep appreciation of the moments we have, to not take anything for granted.

“In a way, making a piece ‘about’ impermanence is an impossible task. I could only imply it, offer glimpses, create music that would be evocative but would also leave space for each listener to have his or her responses. Generally, the music for impermanence is more chromatic and dissonant than what I usually write. My music tends to be modal while in this piece I explored other harmonic possibilities. The themes to the piece seemed to suggest the musical language that I found.

“In the past I composed primarily for the voice and deliberately kept my instrumental writing simple and transparent to leave space for the voice to fly. now after composing my first orchestral work and string quartet, I have begun to open up to the rich qualities of instruments. From the beginning, I wrote the voice as an instrument; now I am allowing myself to think of the instruments as voices . . . ” 
-Meredith Monk

Themes that this short passage bring to mind are the elusiveness of the impermanent, or perhaps even our condition at large; ending as more accurately changing, shifting, becoming; the inevitability of ‘endings;’ allowing space for the personal experience, the subjective, and the awareness that reality itself is objectively inaccessible, but perhaps apprehend-able as a conjunction of subjective experiences. 

How does one directly address that which is fleeting, constantly shifting, or gone? More elusively, how does one go beyond addressing a thing that is impermanent, and address the condition of impermanence? I’m not sure I would know how, and yet I find that both Monk and Forsythe have found solutions to this inquiry. As Monk states, she does so by implication, brushing the service of a thing, a state of being, that refuses to stay, to still. In my experience of this work with “Monster Partitur,” I find impermanence is addressed by facilitating an experience in which the relationship between that which is impermanent and the record of that thing is brought to the fore-front. I am not sure how that will translate into a solo performance, nor how it will reside in a gallery exhibition. Nor am I certain that a meditation on impermanence is the goal of “Monster Partitur;” yet that quality and subject have been essential to my experience of this project. I will be unable to view the “product” of this work without the connotation of loss, of creating and recording and destroying, of marking that which will shortly no longer remain, and how all of this pertains to the human condition.

Without a major segue into a discussion of my most recent work “About,” I did want to relate that piece to this discussion. First, there is the reality that it is “over,” that this process and performance with this cast, with this piece in this form, is now passed. I am experiencing the familiar “postpartum” grief of a lengthy process coming to a close. I am grieving that loss in a sense. Which certainly relates to the subject at hand. I am wondering the ways in which the piece now lasts, in body and cognitive memory, but also as concept or information, as a “choreographic object” (to allude further to Forsythe’s research), and how that choreographic information might find expression or realization in another form. A professor of mine speculated today whether this piece might become a sort of “life work,” continuing to be questioned, carrying its concerns throughout my life, with new dancers, new spatial situations, new configurations of the concept. What if the cast was larger? What if it evolved into an evening length work? What if it was seen from above, and the full complexity of the spatial patterns could be appreciated (perhaps is a space like the Guggenheim, where, remarkably, Monk just presented a performance of her “Ascension Variations” this month).


photo by Stephanie Berger for The New York Times


The question concerning “About” has become how might it live on in this field of constant flux and change? How might it’s “ending” contribute to a future “beginning”? 

This is another larger speculation that has recurred in my own work, but become more acute in this experience with “Monster Partitur,” the question of ending as something like an illusion. Perhaps nothing ends absolutely, but instead participates in a collective state of reorganization. This was the inspiration/subject of a piece I choreographed in 2007-2008 entitled “Passage.”


photo by Clara Underwood

It was a reflection of our human aversion to death and ending, the inevitability of loss, and an awareness that as any thing ends, it contributes to the formation of something new. I was thinking about decomposition as fertilization, or the conservation of matter/energy, how nothing truly ends absolutely, but instead in reconfigured, reorganized, to become something new. 
[You can see videos of “Passage” here or here.]

This speculation does shift me experience of the work on “Monster Partitur.” Yes, it is an exercise in perceiving impermanence, yes, there is a gravity in creating tracings of that which will cease to exist, and relating that experience to my personal experiences of loss and memory. But even in the loss, something new comes into being. It is not the thing itself, but it is the evolving expression of the thing. The trace, the translation, becomes the embodiment of that which no longer exists, and in that sense, it does continue to exist, reorganized into a new configuration, into new materials, new spatial and temporal situations, but born of the loss of what was.

This is perhaps all art. Nothing is truly created because all that exists always has and always will. The work that we do when we “create” is reconfiguration, reorganization, making and describing connections that perhaps had not been made before. The artistic/creative process is feeling like an eternal three-step-program, something like “the idea, the realization of the idea, the trace or record of the realization,” in which the tracings or that which remains from that which no longer exists becomes the basis of the next idea to be realized. In this sense, impermanence is a constant state of being more related to change than ending.

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this plays with issues i’ve been contemplating lately. one of the first pieces that kronos quartet played last wednesday had a title that translates to mean “fear of naming the thing.” and then your piece was titled “about,” but it is interesting to pose that most of the other works had clear rhetoric, source material and an overstated message. they were overtly “about” something other than the act itself (the act= all of the aesthetics and considerations: movement, arrangment, population, costumes, lights, sound, among other things and the dalliance among those elements).

so then having read the book about robert irwin over the weekend, i arrive at a number of thoughts- crystallized into a formation not unlike what you’ve written in your last two posts. here’s one that seems to connect.

it seems to me that as long as art attempts to re-present other experiences, to be ‘about’ a topic other than themselves, they will always be some type of secondary experiences. and not only that, but the way many such works become profound are through the telling of their stories- – – the information that tethers them to the influences that compelled us as artists to make them to begin with. The art object usually demands that we project ourselves into a type of logic that may not match up to how we uphold ourselves empirically at any other time. the work is meant to act as an access point to other ideas that are partially referred to within the work, but may only become fully fleshed out if (a) the perceiver divorces herself from any contexts outside of the work, allowing, at least temporarily and at least to a degree that her comparison between the conceptual reality within the work and the reference points within her “real” reality is abated. in so doing, the perceiver may discover the fullness of the ideas invested into the piece that may otherwise contradict the storage of ideas and the means by which we access them outside of art experiences. the other option (b) is to consider the artwork as a prompt, an abstract and bibliography in one, through which our prior understandings of philosophical and other paths of thought are activated and we can fill in the ideas, concepts, and topics that are suggested or invoked within the artwork itself.

if it doesn’t seem like there’s direct application of these thoughts to your blog entry, i wanted to offer some of my own attempts and dilemmas as i deal with impermanence, memory, absence, and the fragility of moments (and questions about how valid the contents those moments are to anything that happens after them).

Before and since my thesis work (only slightly within that work that was more about imagining an underworld in more clearly expressed detail), the scribble, the faint mark has been (at best) a mode and (at worst) a motif of these problems. In a very direct, physical way these marks ARE impermanent, using fugitive materials, powders, rubbed graphite, tissues, and fragrances that will disappear.

my problem is this though. and maybe it is unavoidable, because i agree that what we create is really a reconfiguration rather than a fiery point of creation. these attempts ask for someone to follow along with the description of their function to find the meaning. the fuller experience of… pretty much anything comes through the articulation of the experience. in some ways, what we recall, sense, appreciate happens more in the space of our considerations that were encouraged by the artwork.

i am hoping for an artwork that you are sensually experiencing, with maybe no workable language for the experience. that it defelcts association(s), and it is absolutely not a referent to a larger idea outside of itself.

in some way, i would want to share impermanence with the experiencers of my art by cuasing them to disappear. but if we can’t work magic, then perhaps we can orchestrate the perceptions of preexisting conditions are purely as possible, with as little decoration from personal aesthetics as possible.

i’m afraid i can’t leap to that place yet.

Comment by matt morris.

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