Overheard in rehearsal: “Eleven-sixteen? Whaaaat?”
One of the challenges for this year’s Christmas Revels chorus is singing in unusual time signatures.
If you don’t know what a time signature is, let me take a moment to enlighten. A piece of music written in the standard way has a couple of pieces of information at the top left. One looks like a fraction, with a number on top and a number on the bottom. The number on the top tells you how many beats there are in a measure. (A measure is sort of the basic unit of a piece of music—each one starts with a strong beat, normally. That’s one measure in the example above.) The number on the bottom tells you how long a beat is. So music in 7/8 has seven beats to the measure. Music in 11/16 has 11 beats to the measure.
Almost everything I’ve ever sung was written with two or four beats to the measure.
Until now. The people of Thrace use a ton of different time signatures. In the first three weeks of rehearsal, we’ve already worked on several songs with seven beats to the measure, one with five beats, and one that alternates between eight and eleven. We’ve danced to at least seven and nine beats, and maybe some other time signatures that I’ve forgotten about.
When working on this music, it’s pointless trying to count to five or seven in your head. Instead, the counts are grouped into beats of different lengths. A seven is actually sung as an uneven three: ONE two THREE four FIVE six seven becomes short short long, short short long. A five is called the limping rhythm: ONE two THREE four five becomes short long, short long, short long, like someone limping down the street.
The only way I can get the time right is to get the swing of the music into my head. In rehearsal, Tzvety Weiner, our fearless leader of Bulgarian music, keeps us in line with her laser-precision clapping. Most of the chorus is so used to singing with beats of even lengths that it’s easy to nudge the music that way, even we don’t mean to. At home, I’ve been wearing out the “Christmas 2013” playlist in my iTunes, listening to the new beats over and over.
When I’m in the weeds with 5/8, trying to keep that second beat on time, singing in a new time signature can be frustrating. But one of the great privileges of being in the Christmas Revels chorus is having a window into the music and dance of other cultures. In 2005 we sang the music of Scandinavia and I got my first introduction to the uneven beat and unfamiliar drone of Norwegian fiddle music; the dances that go with that music turned into a years-long interest for me. It’s daunting to think that I need to get 11/16 into my bones by our opening show on December 7, but it’s thrilling, too.