Actually, Maestro, Infinity Isn’t A Number

On November 7, I received an email message with the subject line “CHORAL SINGERS NEEDED!!” It turned out to be from a student in the music composition program here at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He had written a piece for a choral ensemble, and he was looking for singers to rehearse and perform it in his master’s composition recital a few weeks hence. He was writing to ask me to participate in the project, if I wasn’t too busy.

Now, by no means am I a very good singer; I’m just a lowly computer science student who happens to be a member of University Chorale, which is but one of the thirteen Jacobs School of Music choral ensembles. Nobody in the graduate composition program would have any reason to know who I am. I’m sure that this particular student composer, after contacting all the actual good singers he knew, just got my email address from one of a number of lists the choral department keeps, most likely the list entitled “Passably Okay Singers Who Can Probably Be Flattered Into Being In Your Ensemble For No Credit And No Compensation, As Long As You Make It Sound As Though You Think They’re Somehow Important And/Or Special.”

Whatever the composer’s recruiting technique was, it worked, and I readily agreed to rehearse and perform his piece. I was assigned to sing the seventh alto part, and rehearsals were to begin the following week. The title of the piece was White Love/Shadow Illumination No. ∞. Yes, that’s correct: “Number Infinity.” Needless to say, hilarity has ensued.

There are 27 of us in the choir for White Love, which is a not unrespectable number of singers for a choir assembled on short notice. The only problem is that the piece is written for 32 voices. I don’t mean merely that it is ideally sung by 32 singers; I mean that it has thirty-two distinct vocal parts. The upshot is that everyone ends up having to sing chunks of other people’s parts, which means that my score now has a ludicrous number of arrows drawn on it and, for good measure, here and there a rather frantic-looking “sing!!!” written in. You know, as though I would be doing anything else.

When I picked up my music before the first rehearsal, those were the two most immediately obvious characteristics of the piece: the title, and the fact that it had a lot of parts. After an initial flip-through, I was pretty excited about singing it; after all, it isn’t very often that I get to sing a piece that has tempo markings like “sweet yet eerie”. Once rehearsals began, however, another characteristic of the piece became evident pretty quickly: it’s really hard. For example, the time signature changes four times in the first six measures — and that’s the easy part. Then there’s the stuff that the composer had to invent notation for. To wit: if, during a long conducted accelerando, you have some notes appear inside a box, it means you’re supposed to ignore the conductor and sing the boxed notes at the tempo at which you were singing at the moment the box began. (When the box ends, of course, you revert to whatever the conductor is doing.) Now, I’ve been singing in choirs for a few years, and I have, from time to time, sung a piece of music that required me to do fractions to figure out how fast I was supposed to be singing. However, I can say with a fairly high degree of certainty that White Love/Shadow Illumination No. ∞ is the first piece I have ever sung in which figuring out the tempo is, mathematically speaking, a calculus problem.

Luckily, this is the sort of situation in which being at a university that has one of the best choral music programs in the world can come in handy. It turns out that a number of the people who are in the White Love ensemble with me are the kind of people who can actually do this sort of thing — and they can do it sweetly-yet-eerily, to boot. One such excellent singer is the fellow who has the eighth alto part, which, luckily, doesn’t diverge from the seventh alto part very much. I’d be screwed without him, and I think we both know it. But with him there, I can manage not to fall apart, and if I focus hard, I can sometimes even sing musically. Our tight schedule has only afforded us five rehearsals, but they’re going to have to be enough; the performance is this afternoon, and then it will all be over.

So, have I gotten anything out of all this? Well, a few days ago, I was at a regular University Chorale rehearsal. We’ve been working on 18th-century polyphony, the kind of stuff that doesn’t have bar lines except here and there where a sympathetic editor has decided to put them in for you. It can be tricky music to sight-read — but, as I suddenly realized that day, it ain’t no White Love/Shadow Illumination No. ∞. And so I decided that, for the next hour and a half, I would concentrate just as hard on University Chorale music as I always had to concentrate whenever I was at White Love rehearsal, just to see what the effect would be. It turned out that in that hour and a half of intense concentration, I ended up singing better than I’ve done all year. So, in the end, perhaps I will indeed have gotten something out of all this, aside from twenty pages of pencil-scrawled score and perhaps a round of applause later today. If nothing else, maybe I’ll have learned something about where my limitations are and how close I can get to them.

-posted by Lindsey

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5 Responses to Actually, Maestro, Infinity Isn’t A Number

  1. Alex Rudnick says:

    After the composer has a piece named “No. ∞”, where can he go from there? It’s closely analogous to the problem of playing with your amp already up to “10”…

  2. Roy Huggins says:

    I think the only way a conductor would be willing to do a piece with instructions that mean “ignore the conductor” is if the conductor is also the composer.

  3. terrorfirma says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the composer has written absolutely everything there is to know about White Love/Shadow Illumination, in which case there need be no more numbers.

  4. Dana says:

    So how’d it go? It certainly sounds interesting…

    (And I know what you mean about relying on the person near you; I was a considerably better cello player before my stand partner got expelled in high school.)

  5. Actually, Roy, the conductor wasn’t the composer! And the conductor specifically told us to ignore him for the boxed notes. I’m sure he would have liked to have control over those notes, but he didn’t have enough time, or enough arms.

    Dana, I think the concert went very well. For me, there had been a turning point near the end of the last rehearsal, when the conductor pointed out that we were mostly getting notes and rhythms correct, but that we sounded very tense. He was absolutely right, of course: we were tense from the effort of trying to get the notes and rhythms right! At that moment, a bunch of us seemed to realize, “Hey, by now it’s as ‘correct’ as it’s going to get, so instead of worrying so much, why don’t we just relax and try to make a beautiful sound?” So that’s what we did, then and in the performance, and it ended up being a good choice.

    Your high school cello experience sounds like my high school trumpet experience. It was painful whenever one of the better trumpet players either quit or graduated and I was forced to stop leaning on them. As a singer, though, I tend to be the leanee, so it was humbling to find the tables turned.

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