Skip to content

Meredith Monk and the Bang on a Can All-Stars present an unforgettable evening at The Ford with MEMORY GAME

photo credit: Anuj Bhutani

On a perfectly mild LA night, the stage at the Ford is bathed in blue light and awaiting the entrance of the legendary Meredith Monk and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. The All-Stars enter and, without any pause, launch into the first song of MEMORY GAME, Meredith Monk’s 2020 album featuring her vocal ensemble as well as the All-Stars, with arrangements by Bang on a Can founders Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang, as well as veteran All-Star member Ken Thomson and Monk herself with Allison Sniffin (Monk Vocal Ensemble member). Like most of the pieces to follow, “Spaceship” (arrangement by Gordon) begins with gently repetitive ostinati by Thomson and pianist/keyboardist Vicky Chow. The way the ensemble blends and trades their ostinati is beautifully characteristic of Gordon’s orchestration style, and reminds this writer of his “Gene Takes a Drink” (also written for the All-Stars) at more than one moment.

As thunderous applause breaks out, Monk, dressed in all red, enters the stage with her vocal ensemble (Theo Bleckmann, Allison Sniffin, and Katie Geissinger). She introduces the next set of songs from her 1983 sci-fi opera “The Games,” which she wrote in West Berlin while hearing missiles firing overhead just before the Olympics. Monk explains the piece is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the survivors are either on a spaceship or possibly another planet, and have rituals to remember “Earth culture.” As the piece is about “the aesthetics of fascism”, this post-apocalyptic society also features a leader who seems like a rockstar but is actually a dictator (portrayed by Theo Bleckmann on stage).

This becomes perfectly clear during The Gamemaster’s Song, during which Bleckmann’s character slowly descends deeper into caricature through increasingly comic choreography over carnival-esque instrumentals. Bleckmann’s portrayal is so convincing it becomes easy to forget for a large portion of the piece that this character is a dictator, until three-quarters of the way through when Bleckmann slowly introduces a degree of audible menace into the otherwise cartoonish vocalizations meant to lure unsuspecting citizens of this surviving society.

“Migration” follows with a stark change of mood, introduced by the vocal ensemble and Chow in firmly minor territory and wordless “wahs,” before Arlen Hlusko renders a beautiful cello melody that makes the melancholy feeling complete. Eventually, Bleckmann speaks about pre-apocalyptic Earth and those who lived there, comparing those humans to these in a new society. As a testament to the inevitable displacement of peoples due to fascism/dictatorships, “Migration” is deeply effective and is both the most somber and the most moving piece on the program.

The rest of the Games set is no less stunningly executed by this group of legendary musicians in variable ensemble configurations, before Allison Sniffin and Vicky Chow deliver a sort of nonsense aria for voice and electric piano; this is “Waltz in 5s” from “The Politics of Quiet” (arr. Sniffin and Monk). “Waltz” is the second most somber piece next to Migration, and though wordless, Sniffin’s soaring and rich voice fills the air with nostalgia. Before “Tokyo Cha Cha” from Turtle Dreams Cabaret (arr. Sniffin), Monk explains this song was written after her first trip to Japan, during which she expected to be deeply inspired by
the ancient Japanese culture she always loved, but instead found herself fascinated by the techno-futuristic culture of Tokyo. The song slowly builds from just “s-s-s-ch-ch-ch-“ vocalizations by the vocal ensemble to unapologetically fun grooves carried by the entire ensemble, complete with shakers, relaxed guitar by veteran All-Star Mark Stewart, vocalists chanting “let’s cha-cha, you happy, let’s cha-cha, all happy…” and fittingly adorable choreography. At this point, it becomes hard to believe Monk is 80 years old, as she sings and moves with such passion and ease around the stage.

“Totentanz” from Impermanence (arr. Lang) is only the second piece that allows the vocalists to take a break, as the All-Stars delve into the rock groove-oriented and syncopated arrangement by Lang featuring Stewart playing a rock kick drum as well as guitar. The last official piece on the bill (and album) is “Double Fiesta” from Acts from Under and Above and immediately begins with an incredible show of vocal fireworks from Monk as she leaps from register to register with acrobatic precision on a myriad of syllables one could believe were improvised, if they weren’t also the same on album recording. By the end of the song, after Monk has told us a story about meeting “a very nice girl”, the band is rocking out while the entire vocal ensemble slowly enters the stage and starts dancing; it is near impossible to not have a smile plastered on your face (assuming you haven’t already audibly laughed multiple times).

As the first in a series of encores, Monk offers “Panda Chant” with the entire ensemble standing in a line, singing, stepping in rhythm, and clapping, which the audience absolutely goes wild for. She then proceeds to the hilarious “Education of the Girlchild” in which she very convincingly adopts an old crone voice to portray an old woman bargaining with death and boasting about still having her “pens, mind, money under the bed, telephone, allergies…” among other things. The final encore consisted of a true Monk solo called “Insect Descending”, which she wrote while in New Mexico during the 70s. As if the audience wasn’t astonished enough already by the seemingly inexhaustible catalog of vocal sounds Monk has access to, “Insect Descending” really does sound just like what it’s called, and proved to be a hilarious and succinct treat to this tight 75-minute program that left the audience uplifted and energetic; an experience we won’t soon forget.

MEMORY GAME is both a look back at a pivotal point in Meredith Monk’s storied career, and a richly layered portrait of how vocal music—under the guidance of an indefatigable master—can play with our expectations in poignant and compelling ways. For this journey, Monk and her ever-versatile vocal group join forces with Bang on a Can All-Stars, whose “lean, emphatic, and muscular execution suits the precision of Monk’s writing perfectly” (The Wire).

8:00pm. Thursday Aug 31, 2023 at The Ford LA (2580 Cahuenga Blvd E, Los Angeles, CA 90068)