In 1964, Monk graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied composition with Ruth Lloyd and Glen Mack, voice with Vicki Starr, and vocal and chamber music with Meyer Kupferman
; she also participated in opera workshops directed by Paul Ukena and Bessie Schoenberg. Dance was prominent in her studies as well. After college, Monk found herself neglecting her voice until one evening she sat at a piano and began vocalizing without words; she found the voice had "limitless colors and textures."
Between 1965 and 2010 she composed approximately 90 works, the apparent influences of which run the gamut of musical expression. "Bartók
was someone I loved as a young woman, and also Stravinsky
. And then I'm a person who loves music from the '20s and '30s, and there's a jazz singer that I love named Mildred Bailey
." She also credits Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell for providing her with meaningful examples of expressiveness. For Monk, linking her vocalizing to movement was a natural extension of the performance experience, "...doing the movement was a way of me finding my own territory, so to speak, of finding my own identity."
In 1968 Monk founded The House, a company dedicated to a interdisciplinary performance; ten years later she formed the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble to perform her vocal compositions. Most of her recordings are available on the ECM New Series. Monk's feature length film, Book of Days, aired on PBS, has appeared on international film festivals and was chosen for the 1991 Whitney Biennial. Her Atlas: an opera in three parts, which was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, The Walker Art Center, and The American Music Theater Festival, premiered in February 1991; a recording was released in January 1994.
A site-specific work, American Archeology #1: Roosevelt Island, was first performed in September 1994, and performances of Volcano Songs (a solo music/theater/dance work) were staged in New York City, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City. Monk's 1998 musical theater piece, Magic Frequencies, toured the United States to critical acclaim; described as "a science-fiction chamber opera," this sparsely scored and sophisticated piece reveals Monk's lifelong fascination with, and investigation of, time travel and transformation. Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall was the site of a celebration of 40 years of Monk's performing in 2005. Songs of Ascension, another work with site-specific origins, was written in 2008 and released in 2011.
Monk has received numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Brandeis Creative Arts Award, three Obies (including an award for Sustained Achievement), two Villager Awards, a Bessie for ASCAP Awards for Musical Composition, and the 1992 Dance Magazine Award. In 1995, Monk won a MacArthur "Genius" Award, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2006. Her 1991 film, Ellis Island, won the CINE Golden Eagle Award. Alan Kriegsman of the Washington Post, writes, "When the time comes, perhaps a hundred years from now, to tally up achievements in the performing arts during the last third of the [20th] century, one name that seems sure to loom large is that of Meredith Monk. In originality, in scope, in depth, there are few to rival her."