All Together Now
Parallel Octave turns poems into vocalimprovmusical choruses
Published: August 11, 2010
After less than a year as a Baltimore resident, Dara Weinberg, a MFA candidate in poetry at the Johns Hopkins University, has found herself the de facto wrangler of a weekly gathering of muttering, yipping, drawling, shouting, cooing voices. The voices aren’t in her head—they’re the participants in Weinberg’s directorial project and Baltimore’s new improvisational chorus group, Parallel Octave. Parallel Octave’s rotating cast has included Hopkins philosophers and engineers, Peabody composition students, Single Carrot Theater actors, and occasional drop-ins of miscellaneous provenance. Now taking place at the Baltimore Free School, Parallel Octave is poised to bring all sorts of Baltimore artists together—and perhaps create a new kind of art in the process.
Parallel Octave’s improvisational chorus is a hybrid form, taking cues from Greek choruses, jazz improvisation, spoken-word poetry, and vocal experimentation. Each session starts with a poem read aloud then goes from there, with chorus members providing vocal backup, sounds, and music to bring the poem to life. The group’s name, according to its web site, harkens back to “a time when the theory and practice of poetry and music were one and the same thing: when poems were sung, and when choruses were chanted.”
Not that the group is attempting to parrot the ancient Greeks—which would be impossible anyway since, as Weinberg notes, no one knows exactly how they handled choruses. Instead, Parallel Octave’s web site defines “chorus” as “any kind of poem that can be spoken by a group of people in the presence of music.” Chorus members not only read aloud; they vocally interpret the poem using repetition, echoing, and other vocal techniques. The chorus can stress a particular word or phrase by speaking emphatically as one; they can complicate the leader’s reading by opting for a contrasting tone; they can provide ambient background murmurs, handclaps, or humming. And that’s not even counting the musical accompaniment. Parallel Octave aims to push the boundaries of a form that they’re somewhat making up as they go along.
People drawn to Parallel Octave mention just this freewheeling discipline as one of its strengths. Thanks largely to Weinberg’s efficient management—and the fact that the equipment, on loan from Hopkins’ digital media lab, needed to be returned within two hours on the day City Paper visited—meetings move along at a healthy but unrushed clip. At a session held in late June, Weinberg passes around copies of the week’s poem—James Wright’s “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave”—and speaks briefly about the poet’s background and recurring themes. After a quick, non-chorused read-through, the meeting’s five participants discuss various takes on the odd, angry poem. Although several Parallel Octave participants study poetry, the discussion tends to be more accessible than academic; the goal is to get a handle on the text before leaping into performance, not to parse line breaks.
For the newbs, Weinberg explains that a leading reader (or readers) sticks closely to the text, while the other chorus members serve almost as backup singers, chiming in with emphasis, funny sounds, or ghosty whispers wherever they deem necessary. On the afternoon in question, a piano, saxophone, and laser harp provide a gloomy counterpoint to the voices’ driving cadence. After a few unrecorded practice attempts, people appear to be getting a handle on how to work as a group, intuiting when to jump in and when to back off. There’s time for two recorded takes before it’s time for the equipment to go back to Hopkins; within a few hours, Weinberg has posted the resulting chorus on the group’s web site.
The spirit of improvisation is fundamental to Parallel Octave’s work—although it’s a different kind of improvisation than some participants are used to. The musicians, especially, appear both intrigued and occasionally perplexed by the process. John Berndt, Baltimore’s experimental/improvised music impresario, pointed out via e-mail that Parallel Octave is attempting “something different” that’s in “the opposite direction from much of improvised music, which tends not to involve words and tends to focus on the individual contribution (or, pushing the envelope of individuals together in unique ensemble modes).”
Or as laser harpist Stephen Edwards writes in an e-mail, “Improvising against and alongside other musicians is one thing, but adding a different artistic medium that’s not strictly mine [was] a little funky at first.” And Parallel Octave participants appear to draw strength from its participants’ diverse backgrounds. Music director Joe Martin, via e-mail: “Within the group, I’ve played with a trombonist who’s directed several plays, a straight-up Art Ensemble of Chicago-style alto sax guy, and a capital-”A” Actor, among others, and we all were very clear about our senses of musical and performative right and wrong.”
Weinberg’s best advice for participating? “It’s about learning to listen”—which is not to say that things don’t fall flat sometimes. As Berndt points out, “It is interesting, and extremely difficult to carve out a space of evocation between text and music outside of idiomatic realms.”
An underexplored medium comes with fresh problems; luckily, though, Parallel Octave takes the fusion of music, poetry, and acting as a source of mutual inspiration. “The presence of musicians shows actors that it’s OK to behave musically,” Weinberg says. “To crescendo, not just to act character-ily.”
Credit Weinberg for much of the project’s energy; she’s struggled with variations on the chorus since she was 17. Her initial take on the form was in many senses the opposite of the work she’s doing with Parallel Octave—highly rehearsed performances where choreographers made sure that actors moved in unison. She soon found that actors chafed against the rigidity of scripted movement and speech—“people would do one show with me and then stop”—but she found it difficult to leave the chorus behind. An attempt at improvising a chorus during a workshop with high school students in Los Angeles was the turning point. “We made up rules,” Weinberg shrugs. “And we made something.”
Since then, Weinberg has worked with improvisational choruses in a number of places, each time tweaking the formula slightly. What sets Parallel Octave apart is the genre hybridization. Poetry and music can work well as parts of a chorus, but not just any poetry or music. Weinberg takes pains to pick poems that work well when spoken in unison. Martin has pointed out to Weinberg that she tends to select the unfamous poems of famous poets, but Weinberg insists that’s not intentional. Instead, she focuses on choosing “chorus-type poems”—that is, works with a strong sense of meter, musicality, character, narrative, and theatricality. Repetition helps.
The most successful chorus poems have a public quality, and sound like they’re meant to be proclaimed to an audience. “I think that writing for poetry and writing for theater/performance used to be much closer together,” Weinberg notes, offering Wallace Stevens’ “Emperor of Ice Cream” as an example. The brief, 16-line poem begins with a command: “Call the roller of big cigars.” (Parallel Octave read the first stanza gleefully, and the second with a certain jazzy dissolution.)
Weinberg, a Los Angeles native, sounds unwilling to let the four-month-old project settle into a formula. The group currently has 15 recorded poems up on its web site (paralleloctave.wordpress.com), but Weinberg is already thinking about how Parallel Octave might build on the weekly meetings to create something even more ambitious. A compilation CD of greatest-hits choruses? A live performance? Something else entirely?
“I’m going to let Baltimore tell me what to do,” she says. “That’s gone really well thus far.”
To start, Weinberg’s inviting Baltimore writers to come up with choruses for the group to perform, and has already collaborated with performer/playwright Ric Royer. Core members have started to think about adding a bit more structure to the process by including composed performance to the group’s repertoire. But the struggle here is one of balance—maintaining the group’s all-encompassing ethos, its supportive spontaneity, and the thrill of the intuitive, improvised choice, while incorporating memorization and rehearsal to create a more structured performance.
More than anything else, Weinberg sounds grateful—for the use of Hopkins media lab equipment, for the enthusiasm of weekly participants, for the generous, collaborative spirit she’s found here. “Baltimore just says ‘Yes,’” Weinberg says. And Parallel Octave is ready to say yes right back: “If you want to work with us, if you want us to do something for you, we want that. We want to include and expand. In big screaming letters, welcome Baltimore.”
Parallel Octave meets every Saturday at 2 p.m. On Aug. 14, it records Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” and a poem by local poet Megan McShea at the Baltimore Free School (1323 N. Calvert St.; freeschool.redemmas.org). Meetings are open to any interested performers. It is also seeking Baltimore writers to write new choruses and Baltimore artists to collaborate. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.