At the midpoint of Universal Tonality’s opening composition, “Tails of a Peacock,” spoken-word artist and vocalist Leena Conquest interjects, “Where there’s a will/there’s a way/to survive/Hope is relentless, hope is relentless/It will never die.” Conquest speaks/sings William Parker’s lyrics throughout the two-hour piece, as a 16-piece orchestra swells and deflates, swings and turns rubato, fires madly abstract and sweetly, four to the bar.
Universal Tonality was recorded at the onetime location of Roulette in Tribeca on December 14, 2002, and one could surmise that the music’s passionately billowing waves of abstract expressionism were in some way fueled by the horrors of September 11, 2001. Tribeca is directly north of what was Ground Zero, and while any direct inspiration is impossible to confirm, surely the assembled musicians felt the music deeply, the atmosphere of the location itself impossible to escape.
The performance included such historical figures as Grachan Moncur III, Billy Bang, Jerome Cooper, and Dave Burrell, joined by Gerald Cleaver, Joe Morris, Matt Lavelle, Steve Swell, and Conquest, who acts as the music’s divination point. All these musicians were integral to Parker’s music through the years, the performance a kind of open-ended overview of his amazing body of work.
Though a score was composed, the musicians’ participation was optional, helping to make this truly egalitarian sound work—what Parker called “breathing together”—vital and democratic. Separate voices flow to the surface at will, then just as easily glide back into the weblike structure of the piece.
“There are no keys, no chord changes, modes or notations,” Parker wrote in the album’s liner notes. “We all speak different languages, but we feel each other. The music guides us. All we have to do is listen. All we have to do is feel.”