My brother , Will Parker, “looked death in the face” as Susan Snively wrote in Fury. There he found the anger, fear and pain just as she describe. But in our conversations I heard more than that. Will also found hope-not in the form of an immediate cure nor a reprieve from death for himself- but in the opportunity to create something good from this devastation of his life. He felt deeply the loss of his many friends, and fellow artists, and was concerned about the role for singers in this struggle with AIDS. He spoke often of a need to teach about disease prevention so this virus would not destroy others. When Will phoned to tell me about the AIDS Quilt Songbook, his words described a patchwork collection of songs which would grow until the disease was conquered, while benefiting people living with AIDS today. But there was more. His voice resonated with a sense of satisfaction-a completion-an integration of so much of what his life had been about: singing; touching his audience; teaching; relishing the joy of life; meeting its challenges with intelligence, thoughtfulness and courage.
As I write this I am looking at his panel for The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and can read the many messages written by his friends: “I will stand as a witness,” “You gave me a world,” “Thank you for the AIDS Quilt Songbook”….It is easy to imagine a soft smile on Will’s face as the AIDS Quilt Songbook grows. Even in death Will Parker continues to tough us and teach. –Amy Doty
In the summer of 1992, the indefatigable Marsha Hunter and Brian Kent asked if the Walker Art Center would be interested in working with them to present baritone William Parker and his project, the AIDS Quilt Songbook. Parker, himself then living with AIDS, had invited an array of composers nationally to create works in response to the pandemic. Along with other renowned baritones, he had begun performing works from the Songbook at various AIDS benefit concerts.
Hunter and Kent were interested not only in bringing Parker to Minnesota for a performance of the AIDS Quilt Songbook, but also in having local composers and writers to contribute; we hear their work on this recording. The concert took place on World AIDS Day, December 1, 1992. Normally commemorated as “A Day Without Art” with galleries closed and art works shrouded, the Walker felt it would be far more appropriate to allow Parker and his friends Hunter and Kent to give voice to all those prematurely lost-to remember and bear witness through the amazing talents and generosity of participation singers, composers, and writers.
Brian Kent opened the concert with an understated performance of John Harbisons’ The Flute of Interior Time. Listening again to this song on Heartbeats, I remain haunted by its last words: “Where else have you heard a sound like this?” Where else indeed?
That night we also heard Parker, Hunter, Kent, and Maria Jette perform songs by Harbison, William Bolcom, Chris DeBlaiso, and John Musto that had been created for the Songbook. New songs were contributed by Minnesota composers Carol Barnett, Craig Carnahan, Stephen Houtz, Carolyn Jennings, Daniel Kallman, Libby Larsen, David John Olsen, and Janika Vandervelde. All of theses songs are included here, as are additional pieces by Cary John Franklin, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Richard Wilson.
By the end of the concert, William Parker’s voice frayed from the ravages of AIDS, faltered; but the notes held pure. Those were the last notes he ever sang in public: he died on March 29th, 1993. Chris DeBlasio, Melvin Dixon, Ethyl Eichelberger, and Susan Gladstone- whose music and words resonate on this recording- also have been lost to AIDS.
During the concert, Marsha Hunter reminded us why we had gathered on that World AIDS Day by quoting the great Irish-American labor organizer Mother Jones: “Pray for the living dead and fight like hell for the living.” In a similar way, Heartbeats reminds us to remember those who have gone before, while also celebrating those who remain.
Thank you to all who donated their time and talents to Heartbeats. But most of all, we must thank William Parker for his vision, strength, and courage. His legacy lives on through these new songs from Minnesota that are now added onto his AIDS Quilt Songbook. – John R. Killacky