April 20, 2008 / 10:09 PM / in 9 years

Pioneering U.S. singer enthralls Syrian students

<p>Singer Meredith Monk (front L) gives a workshop at the national conservatoire in Damascus April 20, 2008. Monk, the first U.S. artist to visit Syria in years, was invited by the Syrian government to perform at the national opera house on Monday as part of celebrations marking Damascus as this year's Arab capital of culture. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri</p>

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Avant-garde musician and performance artist Meredith Monk enthralled Syrian students on Monday with a lesson on vocal and choreographic techniques in a rare cultural exchange between the two countries.

Monk, an innovative singer, composer, filmmaker and choreographer, gave a workshop at the national conservatoire before a concert in Damascus on Monday with vocalists Theo Blackman and Katie Geissinger.

Washington has imposed sanctions on Syria over its support for anti-U.S. groups in the Middle East.

Politics featured little as Monk and Geissinger gave Syrian singers, dancers and actors lessons in choreography, vocal techniques and how to construct complex singing forms.

“Everybody was nervous and little by little we spoke the same language. I shared some of the discoveries I have made in very direct way. It will help people experience the concert with more knowledge,” Monk told Reuters.

“If we come and just perform we will never find out where Syrian artists are coming from and what they know.”

Monk was invited by the Syrian government as part of performances to celebrate Damascus as the 2008 capital of Arab culture.

The last U.S. group to perform in Syria was the jazzy Freddie Bryant and Kaleidoscope in 2004.

“Music is fundamental as breathing. It speaks to any body. This is why I am here. The politics does not matter,” Monk said.

One of Monk’s favorite singers is the Arab diva Umm Kalthoum, who died in 1975. Like Monk, Umm Kalthoum stuck rigorously to traditional forms of music and singing.

Monk said strict practice and adherence to musical forms did not prevent improvisation even if the text, scale and melody hardly changed.

“A piece I sang in 1978 and I sing now is the same, but you will also hear that I have room to play. It is not that different from Arabic music. Umm Kalthoum took one text and did it different ways,” she said.

Monk’s performance on Monday at the Opera House will span work from her 43-year career, including unaccompanied solo pieces and others with piano and violin.

“I always want to be risky, working on something that I don’t know rather than something I do now,” she said.

Syrian students gave Monk an enthusiastic reception, although her techniques differed from traditional methods taught at the conservatoire, where classes are influenced by Communist era curricula from Eastern Europe.

“Her whole art is different. The exercises she gave we would not have learned in a year,” actress Fatina Laila said.

Editing by Andrew Dobbie

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