ATLAS an opera in three parts by MEREDITH MONK

With this, Meredith Monk's latest record and one of her most substantial pieces, a number of questions have to be raised and satisfactorily answered. Atlas is a self-declared opera, yet is an opera virtually without words. It has a narrative, yet the narrative would be imperceptible to the CD listener unless it was relayed in an accompanying note which, by definition, is separate to the musical entity called Atlas. Judging by the booklet-note by Max Loppert and the accompanying photographs of the 1991 Houston premiere, these problems would not attend an actual staging of this work where the music has a clear and narrative-based context throughout.
So, how are we to approach this work in its CD form? A parallel which comes to mind is listening to a conventional opera sung in a tongue which one doesn't understand, and for which one has neither libretto nor synopsis. Or, perhaps even more aptly, a ballet where one is similarly strapped for a story-line and unable to see the dancers. Several layers of meaning are left unilluminated but we are left with the music itself.
What is encouraging about Monk's work here is that, as opposed to some of her drier exercises from the past, it does have a feeling of continuity and of succession: each section grows from the previous one, and there is a sense of thematic and motivic growth (albeit not along formal lines) which marks it out from the more militant miniaturist compositions. Monk is also interested in creating music which is pleasant to listen to and which paints pictures, even to the listener with no idea of the story-line. There is a large cast of singers, but it is rare for more than four characters to be singing simultaneously, and more often Monk uses voices in quick succession, each working with different musical material, to build up her overall picture.
The accompaniment is supplied by just ten instruments, five of these being strings. It is very sensitively attuned to the vocalisation, and also contributes some purely musical interludes of great charm. The performance level is very high, the dedication is evident at every turn: as a substitute for being there, this set will do nicely. But I'd love to see a production mounted in this country; or perhaps ECM could release a video version?' (kshadwick / Gramophone)

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