Phalanxes of singers stand poised to descend the stairs in the lobby of the Mundelein Center at Loyola University, boys on the left, girls on the right, boys in cool colors, girls in warm, everyone in jeans or, the uniform of the somewhat new millennium, yoga pants, a picture of health, youth, vitality, and optimism in Erik L. Peterson’s Checks & Balances, created in collaboration with composer Kirsten Hedegaard and the Loyola Chamber Choir as part of the Body Work exhibition curated by Betsy Odom and Rafael E. Vera at the Ralph Arnold Gallery.
The male voices sing the word “checks,” holding a steady beat against the unwieldy “balances” sung by the women—an uneven dactyl, more off-kilter than a waltz. Each group sings in accompaniment and counterpoint to the other in dense harmonies that rub against dissonance, occasionally broken by a strain of a familiar melody, a single voice wandering into a vocalise phrase of the “Star Spangled Banner.” They continue their song as they process across the Loyola campus, occupying selected venues at length. They seat themselves in a circle around a planter, face off on the stairs by a fountain, line up along the arches of a covered walkway, stand in a ring overlooking the lake, walk in a loop around a semicircle of bushes, arrange themselves in lines under a viaduct, and, finally, sing on opposite sides of the glass of the gallery where Peterson’s neon sculpture shines in the window—reading, in a play on the “checks cashed” signs that hang in the windows of currency exchanges, drugstores, and the like—of course—“CHECKS/BALANCES.”
Through its chanting, incessant repetitions, their song becomes a sounding of the spaces they inhabit or colonize, a test of the acoustics of each space, the way radar probes the air or a depth finder the water, a constant signal altered by the surrounding landscape, which ranges from the pristine Loyola architecture to the dinginess and dilapidation of the bus shelters and underpasses of the streets immediately beyond its borders. Each place encourages its own distance and mode of engagement, obscuring or revealing the ranging voices of individuals, presenting the song as a unified wall of sound or an ecosystem within which particular parties emerge and retreat. The feeling is of a tensely sustained order verging on anarchy, shored up only by each person’s consent to participate in the union.