​The singular voice of Meredith Monk

The iconoclastic composer-performer Meredith Monk is celebrated for her musical explorations of the human voice.

CBS News

President Obama had words of high praise for Meredith Monk this past week as he awarded her the National Medal of Arts. Not a bad honor for the woman with A SINGULAR VOICE who rarely uses any words in her performances. Martha Teichner has paid her a visit:

The braids are as identifiably Meredith Monk as the voice. Hearing her sing for the first time can be startling. Those sounds -- can the human voice actually make them? Those aren't words she's singing.

Hear an excerpt from "Travel Dream Song," from her 1991 opera, "Atlas," by clicking on the player below:

"One day, I just had a revelation that the voice could be an instrument," Monk said, "that it could move like my hand moves, that it could be like the spine, that it could jump, that it could turn, that it could fall ... that within it were all these feelings that we don't have words for."

Even people who think they don't know her work have heard her music, if they've seen the Coen Brother's "The Big Lebowski." It found its way onto the TV show, "So You Think You Can Dance," when Jessica Richens and Ricky Ubeda danced to Monk's "Vow," choreographed by Sonya Tayeh:

Pop-singer-songwriter Bjork is inspired by her. Since the 1960s, Monk has been on the edge -- subtly, subversively permeating the mainstream.

"It's just been a long-term kind of ever-rippling, outward rippling kind of influence," said Alex Ross, a music critic for The New Yorker. "I think she's tremendously important. She's one of the giants of our era. I mean, I feel lucky to be living in her period in this sense, because there's just no one else out there doing what she does."

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From Monk's 1989 film, "Book of Days." Meredith Monk

What she doesn't do is fall into any one category. She sings, dances, choreographs, and composes. She also makes films.

"Newspapers and magazines have been mystified by whom to send -- which critic from which department to send to evaluate this work," said Ross.

Monk's background may, in part, explain her musical multi-tasking. Singing is in her DNA. Her mother sang commercials on the radio; her grandfather was an opera singer; her great-grandfather, a cantor in a Moscow synagogue.

She was born with a condition called strabismus, which meant that her eyes work independently of each other. So, to help with coordination, at the age of three, she was sent to study something called Dalcroze Eurhythmics, invented by a Swiss composer in the 19th century.

"He developed a series of exercises," she told Teichner, "and one thing that he said that was very beautiful was, 'All musical truth resides in the body.'"

"It sounds to me as if that statement is almost the cornerstone of everything you've done ever since," said Teichner.