Signifying Nothing

Signifying Nothing is unique among my vocal works because it is the only instance so far when the musical ideas completely preceded the choice of text. I had studied Ligeti’s music, and I was inspired by the polyrhythmic textures he called micropolyphony and the way he broke down words into individual phonemes. It occurred to me that if I could transition from a homophonic choral texture with standard text treatment into a polyrhythmic texture with fragmented text, and back again, the music would go in and out of cohesiveness with a striking effect. The idea was to let each phrase ebb in and out of being, only briefly existing as an understandable line of poetry with a cohesive melody and rhythm.

I started thinking about what might be an appropriate text, and then my husband suggested Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth. With its existential theme, it was absolutely perfect (“Life’s but a walking shadow… signifying nothing.”) To top it off, just after I chose that text, members of C4 (the Choral Composers/Conductors Collective of which I was a founding member, and for which I continue to compose, sing and conduct) brought up the idea of doing a Shakespeare-themed concert. And so C4 premiered Signifying Nothing in 2010. The full soliloquy is below, and you can hear C4’s performance of the piece at

On February 16th, I will perform Signifying Nothing as part of a vocal quartet with alto Suzanne Schwing, bass Phillip Cheah, and tenor Dennis Tobenski. Thanks to Phillip’s amazing flexibility, we can perform the piece with only four singers even though it calls for a three-part soprano divisi at the end—Phillip with jump from bass to soprano!

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last Syllable of Recorded time:
And all our yesterdays, have lighted Fools
The way to dusty death. Out out, brief Candle,
Life’s but a walking Shadow, a poor Player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the Stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a Tale
Told by an Idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

— William Shakespeare
from The Tragedy of Macbeth: According to the first folio (spelling modernised). Hamnet Edition, 1877. Act 5, scene 5.

Come hear the internet come to life on February 16th!  (Tickets, $20, are available here; proceeds befenit the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.)


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