​The singular voice of Meredith Monk

"Exactly! You know, it's that idea that there's no separation between the voice and music and the body."

In college Monk studied voice, dance and composition. When she began writing songs, what ended up on the page looked more like an EKG than conventional musical notation, as she explored what the human voice was capable of.

Musical notations for the Meredith Monk work, "Slide" (1973). CBS News

"Within it was male and female," she said. "Within it was landscape. Within it was character. Within it was all kinds of ways of producing sound. And I felt that it was this profoundly ancient instrument."

Teichner asked, "Why not just write music with words that everybody understands?"

"Well, I think words limit everything," Monk replied. "I want people to experience something, and without writing words, I can actually make, I think, a more heart-to-heart experience."

Monk recently celebrated her 72nd birthday. She's won Guggenheim Fellowships, a so-called MacArthur "Genius Grant," and now, just this past week, the National Medal of Arts. She has just completed a year as composer in residence at Carnegie Hall -- all prestigious landmarks in a fifty-year career.

Composer-performer Meredith Monk is awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama, September 20, 2015, in Washington, D.C. White House

Alex Ross said, "Instinctively people think of her as a lost folk singer, who's emerged from the mists of whatever civilization, whatever culture, whatever period -- it's difficult to put your finger on it."

What better pet for such a person than a species 20 million years old? Meet Neutron, a box turtle Monk has had for 37 years. "This is about as primal as you can get," she said.

"I think I've always been interested in a timeless art, more a feeling about time as a cycle or a circle," she said.

One's first impression of the downtown Manhattan space where Monk has lived and worked since 1972 is, time doesn't exist. Never mind what's popular or commercial; here, she does what she's always done: peer inside herself.

"Did you ever care about getting famous, getting rich?" Teichner asked.

"My concern was really the work," Monk said. "I wanted to follow my own path in as honest a way as I could. And pretty much, that's what I have done."

Here, she just plays and plays until the music finds her.

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