The Random House Dictionary defines volcano as “a vent in the earth’s crust through which lava, steam, ashes, etc., are expelled, either continuously or at irregular intervals.” In spite of human fears, the volcano is vital to the earth’s formation, sculpting the very landscapes we inhabit. For Meredith Monk, it would seem more importantly a source of fertility, and it is from this fertility that she opens herself to the generative spirit that infuses the world as a living organism. In this sense, she vocalizes a point of continuity between herself and listener, between the illusions of recorded sound and the illusions of physical bodies.
Like their referent, Monk’s Volcano Songs (1993-94) reveal the earth’s hidden forces, at once violent and graceful, as they are embodied in the human form. Fissures in the great cosmic wheel release their breath in chant, foregoing the detriment of words in search of untinctured expression. Therein lies the great irony of this music, and of the earthly condition that engenders its existence: namely, that in order to express detachment one must hold steadfastly to the ephemeral utterance as a point of departure. Hence the uncanny splitting of the self we find between Monk and Katie Geissinger in the duet portions of the Volcano cycle (for indeed, were I unaware of the album’s personnel, I might have thought that Monk was overdubbing herself).
Compared to Monk’s six previous ECM New Series efforts, Volcano Songs is perhaps the most intimately recorded. Microphones seem fully embedded in these voices, subtly processed for reverberant effect. Ultimately, I feel that one gets out of this music only what one is willing to lay at its feet. It is both the beauty and the tragedy of the human voice: in pulling at the threads of our emotions, we must undo one thing to communicate another, so that by the end we have forgotten where we started, inhaling an idea that may very well outlive us. And just as a volcano spews forth its scalding breath into the atmosphere, so too must we eventually exhale, licking the fragile layer that separates our survival ever so delicately from the blank space beyond. The magic of Monk’s music is that it offers a glimpse of that other side, in terms that we can relate to. (ECM Reviews)