Review: Meredith Monk's Cellular Songs at the National Museum of the American Indian

Group image: Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble (clockwise): Meredith Monk, Katie Gessinger, Ellen Fisher, Allison Sniffin, and Jo Stewart. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Group image: Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble (clockwise): Meredith Monk, Katie Gessinger, Ellen Fisher, Allison Sniffin, and Jo Stewart. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

by Lucia Pieto

Contributor & Intern

Still vocally vibrant and pushing artistic boundaries, Meredith Monk and her vocal ensemble performed her piece Cellular Songs at the Rasmusen Theater located in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.

This performance was organized in collaboration with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Meredith Monk is a multidisciplinary artist whose past works have explored patterns in human nature and behavior. She’s best known for her musical pieces that use innovative and experimental vocal techniques, often combined with instruments and dance. Cellular Songs is the newest of her works and explores human beings in relation to the human cell. 

Cellular Songs, her latest piece, written for an entirely female version of her vocal ensemble took place in brightly lit stage with experimental films playing on the large screen in the background. Monk shared the stage with four other women, dressed in white, and all contributing uniqueness to the piece. The performance was filled with minimal sounding vocals and harmonies and framed by avant-garde choreography. Monk’s Cellular Songs references the biological processes of a cell. Voices blend creating the unity that cells have to harness for human bodies to function — a cathartic and almost cleansing experience. 

Meredith Monk © Christine Alicino

Meredith Monk © Christine Alicino

During the performance, Monk explains the concept of cellular function while reading the book The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddartha Mukherjee. She explains that a cell’s life depends on cooperation and interdependence. In Cellular Songs, she invokes these aspects of a cell’s life to suggest a revolution in patterns of human behavior, and new behavior that’s centered around connection, cooperation, and healing instead of greed and competition.

Monk says that while working on this project, she was motivated to center the piece around cooperation in part, because she sensed that a patriarchal current was entering back into society. This is also why her choral ensemble is comprised only of women. The performance expresses that women are given a space to be whole, and that men can also find that within themselves. Cellular Songs not only pushes the artistic limits that Monk has been pushing her entire career, but urges us to question the way we as humans think we’re supposed to interact and behave with each other.


Lucia Pieto lives in Washington DC and is interested in film studies, writing poetry, and taking care of neighborhood dogs. She has performed her poetry at Rhizome DC, an art space in Takoma Park. She’s looking forward to studying English at Georgetown University in the fall.