The Everybody Ensemble
Welcome to the Everybody Ensemble! We’re so glad you could make it for our concert tonight! We chose this location, where the Zambezi River empties into the Indian Ocean, so that aquatic and semiaquatic and land animals could all participate. The flapshell turtles didn’t have far to travel, but we know that many of the rest of you have been traveling for months, even years, from Puducherry and the Grampian Mountains, from your bogs and boonies and cubicles, and we are grateful for all the trouble you took to get here. The trip would seem easiest for the birds, but of course they couldn’t leave their eggs behind—and we see that some owls are still arriving, rolling their eggs around the mud puddles, stopping every several yards to sit on them and warm them up.
While they are settling in, let’s talk about how you would like to be arranged. In a conventional choir the magic number is “four”—four sections corresponding to the four registers of the human voice—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. But “four” is insufficiently magic for our assemblage here: “four” leaves out the dolphins and oilbirds and rhinoceros singers and the animals who just thrum.
So, all twenty quintillion of you, just go ahead and arrange yourselves however you want! As soon as there’s more than one of you, you can be homogeneous or heterogeneous. You might sort yourselves by smelliness, sneeziness, spazziness, speckliness—speckled chachalacas can sort themselves from plain chachalacas, Holsteins from Jerseys. You can sort yourselves by biases and then again by sub-biases; there can be a reflective section and a section for those who are all reflex. There can be a section for the surreptitious—we’re not sure who you are, but we noticed you arriving, obscured by the leafy branches, pampas grass, and toadstools you were carrying in front of you.
There can be an emergency section for the two- and three-year-old humans, who are forever losing their marbles, who act like the stars are sparkling them to death. We will use the emergency singers quite a bit in our program tonight, since most music could use a little emergency. With the toddler contingent, there will be no pathetic, droopy music, no songs of resignation. They may be joined by some emergency singers at the other end of life, too, the ones jonesing for time. Along with the emergency singers, there can be a section for emerging singers, like owlets, as well as submerging singers, like crocodiles.
There can be a section for those who feel like precursors, like all those people and animals in history. Precursors sing with a lot of presentiment. Or maybe you feel belated and sing with lots of remembrance, like you elderly koalas who remember your forest before it ceded to the suburbs. Or maybe you feel perfectly current, like the man of the minute: currency has a lot of currency these days. But however current you feel, remember that everyone here is as contemporary as everyone else, and as temporary.
If you are undiscovered, you are in good company, with millions of undiscovered species. The Tapanuli orangutan herself was an unknown till last year. Those of you who aren’t sure whether you exist or not can sing with the Mongolian death worms. If you feel imperfect, you can join the likes of Abraham, Moses, and David, or you may find yourself gravitating to the perfect section, with the wind-up toys and the single-celled constituents of slime mold. If you do join the perfect section, your repertoire will necessarily be reduced, for perfection is only attainable in miniature. Anyway, music is a good form for the fallible, because mistakes made in music are like mistakes made in snow. Also, imperfections make someone a better wisher, and a better wisher is a better singer.
There can be a section for the thousand-songed singers, like the thrashers, and a section for the one-song singers, like the white-bellied go-away-bird—“Go away, go away!” Someone who can sing only one song is someone with a very stable identity, like an ice-cream truck. When an ice-cream truck joins the symphony, either everybody else has to play “Turkey in the Straw” over and over and over, or else the ice-cream truck has to stay quiet during the other pieces till finally everybody plays “Turkey in the Straw.” With their one jingle, ice-cream trucks can evince one thing and one thing only—not death welling in sweet William, not a girl imploring her lover to remember her but not her wrongs. Though of course the more versatile musicians cannot dispense Choco Tacos.
We’re sorry, but there will be no prizes awarded today, and if you came here hoping to sing about money, remember that money is a sore point with many animals. We couldn’t really think of any indelible songs about dollars anyway. Oh, and another thing we should have said first off is that everyone must stop eating each other. One important foundation of music is that the musicians are not devouring, eviscerating, mutilating each other. Forgoing these pleasures, you may discover a different kind of pleasure. Spanish ribbed newts, please refrain from poking your ribs through your skin and poison-jabbing your neighbors. Tasseled wobbegongs, stop ambushing your little oceanmates. Humans, please turn your guns into kazoos.
That music is nonviolent is one reason we chose it; also because it transcends apathy, invective, and fatigue. Many of you must be so tired from all your trekking, to say nothing of your normal dam-building, web-spinning, burrow-digging, dish-doing. Many days are so exhausting that we conceive insipid, dishwatery philosophies. So let’s have a song to spike our philosophies!—a solo, sweet as a julep, sung by a canyon wren. While she sings, we can think about how there is so much being in so many beings, but also so much being in one being. One little wren can fill a whole canyon with her silvery rallentandos. Tininess is no object for musicians, and neither is gravity. Are you a tiny musician? No worries! Are you a musician subject to gravity? No problem!
For even canyon wrens have bodies that are subject to gravity, but voices that are not, and this is equally true of guinea pigs. Although they look like lumps, guinea pigs sing not lumpish, leaden songs but whistly whirly-up songs. Sometimes we humans take this soaring property of the voice so far that our songs leave the world altogether, flying up to otherworlds. We’re not sure if you animals have otherworlds or not, but it seems like there are plenty of songs to be sung about the marshes and grottos and simooms you have actually experienced, on the planet you have actually experienced.
If you sing from experience, it will be more interesting anyway, and experience is different from taxonomy, demography. Demography was always handing us scripts to recite and songs to sing, but every time we tried—dutifully we tried—we’d contract such violent fits of yawning that all we ever managed to emit were loud yawny yowly sounds. Many babies were born into the same social stratum on the same March morning on the same hospital floor in Orlando, Florida, but they do not therefore grow up to gaze at the same exact stars or think the same exact thoughts. More various, even, than the stars one might look at are the thoughts one might think.
Anyway, if we passed out songs for you to sing, we’d probably get things wrong, like having the frogs sing about furballs. Even those who are “in the know”— who know that frogs don’t get furballs but that they do contract a chytrid fungus that affects their ability to breathe through their skin—even their prescribed songs might not suit the frogs. If frogs are losing traction, if the world is becoming more frogless, then frogs are supposed to sing songs of desolation. But maybe they don’t want to—even with all the troubles of our time, maybe it can still be fun to be a frog.
So take it away, everybody, sing your own songs! Sing the fungus blues, or pollywog variations. Sing of nursing your fourteen oinking infants, or scoring all those candy-cane beets by pulling them down into your tunnel underneath the garden, or losing your tree of life, or shivering all winter with your fellow bees to keep warm, or being caged for life with a peevish fellow hamster, or surfing the gnarly waves in Curio Bay with your fellow dolphins.
Of course, if there’s one experience we all have in common—like the sun—it’s that we all exist. Excepting (perhaps) the Mongolian death worms, everybody here squeaked onto the Existence Boat, while a bunch of other passengers missed it. Sorry, bub. Actually there are so many more bubs who missed the boat than bubs on board that, when we think about it, it seems anomalous to be alive. This is the thought that unsorts us from our infinite divisi back into an infinite unison—that all animals are anomalies, all ducks are odd ducks.
Now, all you anomalies go swim around a little, or rinse off in the rain and let the sunshine dry your wool or prickles or scales or snarls or plumes or togs, and relax and be ready in an hour to reconvene. Music can’t be summoned—it is not a domesticated spirit, but wanton, like the wind. The wind is never going to hand you a diploma, but it might just blow your mortarboard away. We’ll simply sing as well as we can, all night long, till everybody’s eyes are sparkling. Even goofballs when they sing become sublimely lovely. Sing, you beautiful lumps, you beautiful buzzards and boobies, you beautiful galoots.
Sing, kiskadees, squeak, kinkajous, and laugh, kookaburras—run your gamuts! Everybody’s like a banjo, everybody’s got a gamut, a highest note and a lowest note and a range in between. Some gamuts might be smaller than others, but you can still do a lot with three or four notes. And with all of our gamuts combined— well, twenty quintillion is a number with more zeros than we can even count—whenever we’d hear the number “twenty quintillion” our heads would fall off. Combining all twenty quintillion of our gamuts will make for one infinitely unrunnable gamut. So after we’ve intoned, all night long, our various riffs and ditties under the various stars, then, just as our common star is coming up, we will gather all of our voices together and sing our finale.
The moths can begin with their soft songs, then the rhythm birds can join in, palm cockatoos knocking twigs on wood, prairie chickens booming. Then— tutti!—with juncos trilling, turkeys gobbling, leaf frogs sworping, eagles screaming, sea lions barking, babies bawling, elks bugling, and slugs—oh yes, throughout the whole piece will be interspersed the exquisite silence of the slugs.
Speckled and plain, perfect and imperfect, indigo-feathered, green-skinned, orange-toed, squashed of face, cracked of shell, miniature of heart, young as ducklings, old as hills, everybody raise your sweet and scrapey, bangy, twangy, sundry, snorty voices into such a song of amplitude as only we could sing, we waders and whittlers and melancholy woodpeckers, we Enzos and Ayahs and Wandas and Waynes, we hinnies and yaks and dingos and snakes, and all the little grebes indigenous to Earth.
This excerpt is adapted from Amy Leach’s book The Everybody Ensemble (2021), published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.