On the advice of a teacher who saw his potential, Staten Island native Kevin Parks ’95 entered Brooklyn College’s Conservatory of Music planning to become a guitarist. An accident to his hand led him to switch to composing, and with that, his career plans changed. Today, Parks is the curator of the Music and Recorded Sound Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where he preserves New York City’s musical heritage. Here, he talks about his time at the conservatory, the importance of a public archive, and the nostalgia he felt on a recent return to campus.

Kevin Parks

Kevin Parks

Do you come from a musical family?

No. I was a first-generation college graduate, born on Staten Island. After high school, we were encouraged to take the firefighter’s and postal worker’s tests or think about the military. There wasn’t a lot of talk about going to college. But I had a music teacher who said my harmony homework was solid and that I should try CUNY, that Brooklyn College had an excellent conservatory. I entered as a music performance major in guitar. But an accident with my hand made it clear I would not have a career in performance. So, I left school and reapplied to the Conservatory of Music as a composition major. That decision ended up impacting my entire life.

What was so special about Brooklyn College that you decided to return and try again?

At Brooklyn College, I got the feedback and encouragement from faculty and mentors that I needed, and without judgment. They never said my chops weren’t good enough or I didn’t have traditional European-style ear training or anything like that. They took me as they found me, schooled me up, made me a scholar and a composer, and put me on a path. I went on to Dartmouth and got a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. I lived and worked in South Korea for 20 years. None of these things would have happened if I hadn’t gone to Brooklyn College. I’m prouder of my bachelor’s degree than anything.

And now you’re at the New York Public Library.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that a first-generation kid from Staten Island would get the gig. I had been working for two decades teaching, composing, and performing experimental electronic music in clubs and other venues in South Korea. I had had some small experience working as a media specialist doing archival work for NYPL, but I applied, not expecting anything. I got an interview, was offered the position, quit my job as a college professor, and moved back to New York City. I love teaching, but come on, it’s the New York Public Library!

What does your typical day look like?

I work on public programming and scheduling free events, but much of what I do is acquire archival materials. I might work on taking in the collection of a radio station that closed down or composers who are looking for a home for their papers. I travel to look at collections and assess their conditions and whether our patrons could make use of them.

What’s in the collection?

Anything that has research value. A collection could have musical scores and photographs. We take analog tapes, videotapes, film, negatives, prints. We take hard drives, but we don’t take a lot of what we call 3D objects—they take up space and often have limited research value. For instance, we were given all of Lou Reed’s letters, notebooks, and audio recordings, but he also had a ton of guitars. We gave those back to the donor, his wife, Laurie Anderson. But one of the fascinating things about the Lou Reed archive is there’s a lot of crumpled things in it. I got the impression that while creating, he would get sort of grumpy and crumple up a piece of paper with notes on it, throw it in the trash, and then somebody would think, “Maybe I should get that and smooth it out.”

Are the archives open to the public?

I always joke about my collection, but the reality is that it belongs to the people. It’s everybody’s collection. If you are a New York City resident and even if you aren’t—it’s all yours. If you want to see something, you make an appointment, and we show it to you. I might stand there while you look, but you get to see what’s in the archives. We are constantly working to make it so that when people like me who were born and raised in New York City come to the library, they can find a little of themselves in it, and that the collection reflects the population that uses it.

There is a big emphasis on documenting the musical life of the city. Someone like Arthur Russell was an essential part of the downtown experimental music scene since the mid-Seventies. His collection materials would overlap with avant-garde composers like Meredith Monk, Mikel Rouse, John Cage, and Christian Wolff, all of whom are in our collection.

Are any faculty from the Conservatory of Music in the public library’s collection?

Yes. Some of the works of professors who were my teachers at Brooklyn College—H. Wiley Hitchcock, Noah Creshevsky, and Charles Dodge—are now in NYPL’s collection. I went back to campus two weeks ago for the first time since graduating to make an inventory of those items. It was amazing to get off the train at Flatbush Avenue and see that everything was different and yet sort of the same. The avenue was still the chaos that it always was, everybody on the street, on the make, doing the do. And then I got on campus—and this will sound corny—but I felt all the feels. I saw the students and the buildings, and I thought, Brooklyn College took a kid like me and decided I was a worthwhile investment. I wouldn’t change that experience for anything in the world.