Feeling the Music

There are nights when everything clicks together perfectly at choir practice. The sopranos aren’t shrieking, the altos eschew hooting for a more melodious tone, the basses aren’t going flat, and the tenors – well, they aren’t stretching their range too thin. Last night was not one of those nights. We ran twenty minutes late, and the pro-union part of me seems to shut off almost automatically at 10 PM so the last bit was accompanied by silent grumbling and more vocal body language breakdown. Then again, it was some minor miracle we had a productive rehearsal at all what with the piano missing all of its keys.

I thought it was a joke. So did the other early-arriving choristers waiting with me for rehearsal to get started. And being of empirical mind, I went to check the state of the piano, distrustful of the bass and tenor laughing on stage. But they were right: our first rehearsal in three weeks and the piano had none of its 88 keys, just a gaping hole of wood. The choir director arrived and another chorister was dispatched to fetch the house keyboard, located further downtown.

We rehearsed, and the keyboard showed up. And did not work. It stayed not working until someone got the idea to channel the sound into a booth at the back of the auditorium, which took another twenty minutes to set up properly. We rehearsed all the while, but for me it was too late: singing a cappella makes my sense of pitch move from absolute to near-rigid. A quarter-tone misstep creates virtual screaming, and going half a tone off key or more is the musical equivalent of a chainsaw across a blackboard. So when the choir director insisted that we were singing in D major when it was perfectly clear the collective pitch was damn close to E flat, I couldn’t sing half of the time. 404 Not Found. Musical Notation Does Not Compute. Eventually I succumbed, quieting the absolute pitch monster that railed against my fellow choristers for their obvious lack of correct pitch even though there were times I didn’t quite hit my marks.

The interminable rehearsal finally ended after an arduous, mixed arrangement rendition of a four-movement piece that is deceptively easy to sing, if also deceptively derivative of many previous composers. But as I walked the twenty or so blocks home along the edge of Morningside Park, the excruciating pain invoked by my sense of perfect pitch faded in favor of ruminations on the book I had just finished reading. A major release, one that’s already racked up plenty of pre-publication rave reviews and seems certain to garner many more positive notices post-publication. And when all is said and done, I’ll probably recommend it, for there are moments of brilliance, characters who act in ways that are surprising and true, and a real sense of scope.

But the choir practice revealed what was wrong: whereas the author’s previous books had been written in a key and time signature that was letter and note perfect, this one seemed about a semitone flat, with a perfectly balanced 78 rhythm coming up a bit short, a beat missing every three or four bars. As if the author’s hearing had changed just enough over time that he or she was unable to detect the minute changes, and still acted as if the music was exactly right because everyone else agreed it was so.  Not nearly as awful as Sinatra in his later years, performing standards way out of tune and rhythm for an audience basking in the nostalgia of his prime, but a far cry removed from the technical brilliance of Midori or Joshua Bell or Vladimir Horowitz in their respective primes.

Something tells me that when the time is right, I’ll come up with a lengthy explanation of what worked and what didn’t. But the truth, the simple, unvarnished truth, is that I didn’t feel the music. I hope like hell I do next time.