Chorale, a talking-choir recital by the French collective L’encyclopédie de la parole, got off to an uncertain start. Although this was the last of the troupe’s five performances, no one in the audience seemed to know where in the Performa Hub, located in a former Catholic school on the corner of Prince and Mott streets, it would take place. Once the audience had helped drag some heavy wooden benches in from the courtyard, the chorus took its place.
L’encyclopédie de la parole was founded in 2007 and involves a rotating cast of poets, musicians, visual artists, performers, choreographers and filmmakers who identify themselves on their website as “experts of speech.” The Performa delegation included about a dozen people, two of whom took turns conducting, orchestra-style, the half-French, half-American chorus, which recited an esoteric selection of five short texts transcribed from videos the group found online; each lasted about 3 minutes. Before each performance, the conductor would briefly face the audience and identify the source material to be recited.
The crispness and synchronicity with which the performers delivered every syllable, intake of breath and gentle foot tap was impressive, especially considering this was their first performance in English.
First up was an excerpt from a dance tutorial video. The conductor raised her arms, and the choir began chanting in near-perfect unison: “Fist your sides! Up, punch, cross! Point your right hand from low to high!” I couldn’t help imagining what the original video must have looked like: a crowded dance studio with an impatient instructor barking orders at a group of students who aren’t quite up to snuff, or perhaps a one-on-one lesson recorded for study purposes.
Next was the recitation of a clip from a droning, monotone speech given by Senator Robert Byrd; you could read the mock-lethargy on the performers’ faces as they repeated his words, livening up only when exclaiming “barbaric!” four times at increasing volume.
The funniest—and trickiest to learn, given the accents and overlapping dialogue in the original material—was L’encyclopedie’s frenzied performance drawn from a YouTube video recorded while a group of excitable tourists were on safari. Did the crocodile get the baby? Were there other sightings aside from lions and buffalo?
Chorale‘s final two clips were drawn from a 2007 episode of CNBC’s “Mad Money” and a recording of a hypnotist. The shrill and frantic anger of the former contrasted with the emphatic serenity of the latter demonstrated the varied musicality inherent even in spoken language. I would imagine this is even more apparent when L’encyclopédie performs in la belle langue.