The “Last Live”: Reflections on Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs

When was the last time you saw a live performance? Until recently, this was a simple question, but in this COVID era it calls to mind wistful memories of sitting beside friends and strangers in a dark space full of collective concentration.

In my recent conversations with UNC faculty and students, many responded to this question with a distant look followed by a pause or a sigh, signaling nostalgia and loss. Others became animated, enthusiastically recalling the energy in the performance hall or a late-night post-show debate over dinner.

Two women stand outside on UNC's quad holding puppets on long strings as they rehearse for an opera.
Students in Marc Callahan’s class rehearse for Atlas, Monk’s opera.

For both me and professor Marc Callahan in the Department of Music, the answer to this question was Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs, the last live performance that took place at Carolina Performing Arts in March 2020. The performance, which Callahan and his opera students attended, struck both of us as immediately singular, even before our current extraordinary circumstances. A pioneer of interdisciplinary experimental performance, Monk uses “the voice as an instrument, as an eloquent language in and of itself, expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.”

In Cellular Songs, Monk and her all-female ensemble embodied and vocally expressed a profound connectedness that resonated beyond the Memorial Hall stage and into the audience, where Callahan, his students, and I sat in disbelief. Afterward, student Imani Oluoch described this performance as “primal and primordial.” Her fellow student performer, Hannah Lawrence, recalled “the sense of community as each woman laid their head on each other’s shoulders before the lights faded out.”

“I gained from Cellular Songs…a renewed commitment to presence of mind in each instant I live.”

Carson gartner, unc opera student

Callahan’s students were particularly attuned to Monk’s performance, as they were deep into rehearsals for a student interpretation of Monk’s lyric-less opera Atlas, which was set to premiere on campus in early April 2020. Six months later, the opera students are yet to perform Atlas live. While the current remote semester unfolds, they are working on an Atlas film that they hope to publicly stream this winter (watch a clip here). 

At Callahan’s urging, I made a brief Zoom visit to his class to prompt these undergraduate Monk experts to consider the gravity of their last live Meredith Monk performance. Their insightful reflections were as much about their individual reactions to Cellular Songs as they were about the arts as a practice of togetherness, a practice that has renewed poignancy after extended isolation. Carson Gartner shared, “I gained from Cellular Songs (albeit on a slight delay) a renewed commitment to presence of mind in each instant I live.” Mackenzie Smith wrote that delving into Monk’s practice encouraged her “to learn and explore within the uncertainty.”

For me, the words of these students feel like important lessons for this time. Indeed, I see Carolina Performing Arts’ current pause in live performance as an opportunity to reimagine our organization, to recommit to our theaters not only as stages for performance, but as spaces where artists and audiences are invited to come together to embrace the uncertainty of the live.

Amanda Graham is the associate director of engagement at Carolina Performing Arts. Through her work, she regularly engages with faculty and students across campus. Currently, she is cohosting Feedback: The Institute for Performance, a new set of free virtual courses on performance open to adults in the Triangle. 

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