Upon entering Memorial Chapel, I was directed to the balcony seating section rather than the main section of pews downstairs. Wondering what the reasoning was for this odd seating arrangement that made for a fishbowl-like geometry, I sat down and prepared myself for the concert ahead. The performance, an exposition of Wesleyan graduate fellow Brian Parks’ compositions from the past six years, began when Parks sat down at the chapel’s pipe organ and proceeded to flawlessly navigate his way through one of Bach’s choral preludes, a magnificent piece of playful point-counterpoint. Parks occasionally jumped down to the bass register of the instrument, shaking the room and pulling the audience closer into the organist’s rhythmic ebb and flow. The prelude, along with the Bach-composed postlude that concluded the concert, was the only non-original work of the night.
The next piece, titled “concerto for orator and performing spectators, or Clarkson Peebles IV leads a conversation with the pluralistic you,” provided an opportunity for audience interaction. Turning our attention to manuscripts that had been placed on the pews, we began to make our way through a theoretically stimulating conversation between (the pluralistic) us and Parks, with different written sections often being split between the two halves of the audience, sometimes in simultaneous discord.
Ranging from self-conscious meditations on linguistic meaning and auditory understanding to postmodern meanderings on identity, performance, and society, the joint oratory engaged the entire audience’s attention and will, framing the rest of the concert as a time for aesthetic appreciation, social interaction and critique, and personal self-discovery. The incredible oddness of the piece was confirmed by the eccentricity of its constructed “author,” Clarkson Peebles IV, a born-again environmentalist performance artist alter-ego of Parks himself. The line between Dadaist absurdism and socially engaged rhetoric was blurred in a way that confused some of the audience but proved delightful to those who allowed for the conceit of uncertainty.
The next piece was the premiere of a choral tiling arrangement, sung by a chorus of 14 students whom Parks had recruited. Arranged in a straight line, the singers sat on the edge of the stage, slowly standing in groups as the canon progressed until all of them were singing in roundabout patterns. Though mathematically arranged, the conducting and performance of the work translated the algorithmic canons into understandable, beautiful harmonic themes. As the canons completed, each voice part sat down again, calmly relinquishing their hold on the audience’s attention. Afterwards, Parks led a traditional congregational hymn in what could have been a gesture of irony, aesthetic appreciation, or social critique.
The next act, titled “permutations on laudate dominum,” was another choral work that made use of a penatratingly sad yet occasionally uplifting series of long-noted vocal interactions to achieve minimalistic bliss. While it was difficult to find patterns in the piece, the emotional resonance of the arrangement and the tonal purity of the singers’ inflections were enough to keep me engaged with the number.
The next ensemble consisted of six student gankogui players. The gankogui, an African bell played with a wooden stick, though at first abrasive, soon became a conduit for impressively intricate rhythmic interplay with each player keeping hir own complex meter intact. Every few bars, two or more of the percussionists would simultaneously raise a bell above their heads to strike it, as a signal both to each other and to the audience that the polyrhythms were still aligned. The experience of watching this interplay was mesmerizing, more akin to seeing a puzzle assembled than to watching a musical performance.
The next four routines ventured into the discipline of dance. In the first routine, three ballerinas were directed by three separate male conductors singing extended long tones, making for what I found to be a somewhat tiresome affair that dragged on far too long, although audience members with more of a taste for experimentation likely felt otherwise.
The next two dance pieces abandoned musical accompaniment and were thankfully much shorter. “Deux objets mathematiques trouves” featured one of the ballerinas grasping onto a table as she made shuffling, rapid-fire foot movements. The movements were precise and elegant, bringing attention to the dance’s formal beauty.
The next work, “different rates of develop and envelope,” was not particularly visually astounding to someone unfamiliar with the art of choreography (myself) and therefore went right over my head. The final dance was much easier to follow; a single ballerina (Janet Simone Parks, Brian’s spouse) partitioned her body into separately moving components. The movement of each of these components (legs, arms, and head) was dictated by one of three respective student vocalists. There were certainly operational and aesthetic pleasures to be found in figuring out how she was able to so fully isolate her limbs and her head.
Without warning, the lights were then turned off, and the chorus began filing in on both sides of the balcony. The next piece, a tiling canon entitled “lely tiling canon for ballet dancers,” took on a sadder, slowly mutating quality. Beautifully clashing tones coming from every direction prompted me to close my eyes in appreciation. A pattern of dissonance and partial-resolutions allowed for the attentive ear to predict the direction of the harmonies. The lack of lighting ultimately proved alluring and dramatic.
When the lights returned, Parks again took the stage in front of the organ to play a Bach fugue that served as the night’s postlude. Upon leaving the chapel, I could only seem to make sense of the performance through the words of Clarkson Peebles IV.
“Without conformity, non-conformity is impossible. Non-conformity is an essential component of conformity,” wrote Peebles (or Parks; you decide). In Parks’ negotiation of performative standards and musical mathematics, we are made to understand his works as merely a part of the dialectic processes of normalization and aesthetic dominance.