The Choir (Short Story)

choir
SHORT STORY

By Jujur Prananto

SUGENG was peeved. In his long musical career, this was the first time he was faced with a problem like this. He would have preferred the task of heading a giant orchestra with thousands of players, than dealing with only a handful of people and
complications that had nothing to do with art itself.

Ah! He had only himself to blame for accepting this job. And crying over spilt milk would never solve anything. Besides, who would have turned down eight hundred thousand rupiah per month, just to train a choir once a week?

“When we are close to performing, I would like to ask for Dik Sugeng’s understanding, and increase the number of rehearsals. Twice a week, or perhaps every day before D-day,” the Governor’s wife had explained when she first asked him to become the coordinator-cum-conductor of the Swara Budaya choir.

“Yes, Bu. No problem.”
“Of course, there will be an incentive for you apart from the regular transport money.”
“Thank you, Bu. Thank you very much.”
“It’s like this, Dik Sugeng. It would be a pity if the artistic potential of the provincial administration were wasted, wouldn’t it? Many of our employees have hidden singing talents, you know. But the problem is, they only sing in the bathroom.
They are afraid of singing in the office, afraid of violating office regulations. It won’t do, will it?”
“No, Bu. That won’t do, indeed.”
“That’s why we need to accommodate such talents elsewhere. I think the best thing is to start a choir. Besides channeling their talents, a choir is good for discipline, isn’t it?”
“Quite, Bu.”
“It’s like marching. A hundred people follow a single command to turn right, but there is this one person who turns left, ruining the entire line. The same holds for a choir. The name itself, paduan suara — a fusion of voices — implies unity, and unite they must. A hundred people start singing on the third count, but if only one person makes the mistake of starting on the second count, that’s the end of it.”
“Yes yes yes, that would be chaos.”
“So basically a choir is togetherness. And that’s an exercise in discipline itself. So if the administration sets aside funds for this need, it will not be a waste, because indirectly the choir will improve our human resources.”

***

The program at Swara Budaya began in earnest with the selection of members. Sugeng had to pick from hundreds of civil servants, both men and women, officials from the provincial administration, those from the representative offices of the various ministries, and all their family members.

It turned out that there was much hidden talent in the administration. The result was unexpected. After spending over a month on the selection process, the choir was ready, at least on paper.

There was a civil servant at the tax office who was a winner of a singing contest for junior high school students on a regency level. There was also a female employee at the agricultural office who used to have a contract with a Yamaha organ dealer to sing at demonstrations in shopping centers before she started her career as a government employee. There was also a section head at the mine and energy office — notorious for his stern demeanor — who turned out to have the voice of an angel; he was the conductor of the Karang Taruna youth organization’s choir in his village.

“I was right about the hidden talent, Dik Sugeng, wasn’t I?”
“Yes, Bu. You were absolutely right.”
“I consider the first selection a success.”
“Thank you.”
“However … I would like to make some suggestions, if I may.”
“Of course, Bu.”
“I had a discussion with the other executives and we believe sixty people are too many.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem, Bu. Having so many people will only make it easier for me to arrange the groups. At first I thought of forming groups of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, groups of fifteen each. But it won’t be that rigid. The group of basses, for example, will not be that big, because bass voices tend to become too dominant if we don’t restrict their number.”
“Maybe the number can be reduced to fifty?”
“Yes, it can, Bu. It can.”
“Well, while you’re at it, I’d like you to please take some other things into account, things which may not mean anything to Dik Sugeng but are very important to us … how shall I explain it? It is not exactly a constraint, though.”
“What do you mean, Bu?”
“May I just get to the point? Let’s look at the list you’ve made. See this Pak Yadi. He is … well, he’s only an office boy, isn’t he? I also heard it said that he is still a part time employee. It’s not that I’m really worried about his status, I’m only concerned about his own wellbeing. I mean, after working all day, doing physical things, will he still have enough energy to sing?”

Sugeng felt a hissing touch his heart.

“Also this Umi. I know her voice is very nice. But her husband is a typist who is still on I-A level. Won’t she suffer from having to mix with the other ladies? She is in the soprano group, isn’t she? Hey, look, Bu Kun is also in this group. Pak Kun, Bu
Kun’s husband, is the head of the section in which Umi’s husband works. That means Umi’s husband is the subordinate of the subordinate of Pak Kun’s subordinate. It will be too much for Umi if she found herself chatting with Bu Kun, won’t it? What would
she bring up during such a conversation?”

Sugeng did not say anything.

“Well, and as for Pak Kanto, don’t cross him out. Poor man, he has always wanted to be in a choir. Dik Sugeng gave him the lowest mark, I noticed? It’s true, his voice is not that pleasant, but do keep him. Anyway, he is the administration’s cashier. Should there be problems, he’ll take care of it, see.”

Sugeng nodded his head. He simply did not know what else to do.

“O, yes! Before I forget, I want to ask you something. Later a Bu Monda will join you. She was not on the list, was she? She did not follow the selection process, but actually her voice is very nice. Five years ago she took part in a radio contest.”
“Did she win?”
“No, not really, not as such … but I did recognize her extraordinary courage and spirit. That’s why I’m asking Dik Sugeng to take her on. She’s Bapak’s cousin.”

That was that. After a slimming process spiced up by all sorts of considerations of position, status, rank, influence and family relations, the Swara Budaya choir was slashed to forty-eight people. After further deliberation — and another review — the number went to fifty-eight in the first week, and was heading
towards eighty in the second month.

“I hope Dik Sugeng understands this rapid, dynamic, development,” said the Governor’s wife. “In such a situation we must position ourselves cleverly, keeping in mind that of course we are people of the East. And as such we still attach a lot of importance to human values, don’t we. So any decision we make must be firm, but also humane. There’s no need for rigidity. Anyway, this only affects how many people there are in the choir. The most important thing is unity, isn’t it? Well, when it comes
to unity, I leave it all up to Dik Sugeng.”

Actually, Sugeng had managed to set up quite a solid team. Members with musical ability were alternated in such a way with those without that when their turn came, sometimes they would open their mouths, sometimes they would not. And even when they did, they would not necessarily produce any sound.

“Well, another thing. This time I really only want to help Dik Sugeng. There’s this song, Hamba Menyanyi, in our first performance on August 17 at City Hall. Am I right?”
“Yes, Bu.”
“Is there a solo part in the song?”
“Yes, there is, Bu.”
“Have you picked the soloist?”
“I’m just finishing my selection.”
“Isn’t it taking too long? I’m worried we will not make it in time.”
“There are a few candidates.”
“Then let Eti sing.”
“Eti … the one with the acne marks on her face?”
“Yes. Eti, my daughter.”

***

It was only natural for Sugeng to be distraught. All this time he had felt Eti would be better off playing soccer than singing. Her voice was below par, her appearance was so-so at best. If given the right encouragement, she could sing at high volume; but basically she was tone deaf. Even when it was not off key, the tone which she produced could be one octave higher than it should be. The result was an uncontrolled, shrill caterwauling.

And who would have guessed that she was the daughter of the Governor’s wife. And chosen as the soloist too.

It crossed Sugeng’s mind to call a halt to all this. To just disband the choir. But what would people say? His responsibility? There was also the fact that he had received a big enough payment. Return the money? Ah, it would be too difficult to collect over two million rupiah, his payment so far. Even if he still had the money, it would be a pity to part with it.

Finally Sugeng decided to go on. There was no other way. At least until after the first performance on August the seventeenth at City Hall.

He was suffering from severe stress. At first he intended to take the whole thing lightly, but he was concerned about Eti’s voice. However much he coaxed and concentrated, it simply wouldn’t take on any kind of shape.

The only way forward was to keep rehearsing. At his own request — understandably supported by the Governors’s wife — Sugeng started giving Eti private lessons. Thus no day passed without them. In closed rooms, in open fields, on the beach. On and on. Hah! Hah! Hah! Hah! Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-si-do-si-la-so-fa-mi-re-do!

The result?

No result. Sugeng gave up. He could only dread the performance. The choir (not too bad, actually, he thought) would be shamed by her shrill, harsh voice.

***

The minutes leading up to the performance were Sugeng’s greatest ordeal. He could hardly contain himself. His stomach churned. His head was splitting. And when the time for Swara Budaya to perform came, he hid in the rest room. Muffled, he made out the strains of the first song … the second song … And as Hamba Menyanyi started, he quickly covered his ears as well, unable to listen to Eti’s shrieking. But damn it, the sound from the stage could not be drowned out completely, nor could the clamor from the audience. No doubt the audience was booing her off.

But wait… the sound of vigorous applause! Yes, clapping. Was it a dream? A hallucination? No. What he heard was the real thing.

Sugeng ran out. He craned his neck towards the audience. Yes! They were really giving the choir a standing ovation. On stage, Eti and the other members of the choir were busily grinning and bowing.

And then the clamor from the audience subsided. Sugeng exhaled with all his might, then he sat down next to a spectator. He took out a cigarette, carefully lit it, took a slow drag, blew the smoke out in delight. “A good choir, Pak, what do you think?”

“Yeah, well, good or no good, we’ll clap. It’s the Governor’s daughter you know, so we can’t really boo her, can we…”

Sugeng choked, like a man who had just taken up smoking.

choir1

— Translated by Darul Aqsha

Jujur Prananto

Jujur Prananto

Born in Salatiga on June 30, 1960, Jujur Prananto started writing short stories at junior high school. He joined the Cinematography Department of the Jakarta Arts Institute in 1979, but never graduated. He began writing film scripts in 1990 and is often commissioned to produce scripts for TV sinetrons. He is now working for a production house. His short story Paduan Suara (The Choir) first appeared in Kompas daily in March 1944 and then in Laki-Laki Yang Kawin Dengan Peri: Cerpen Pilihan Kompas 1995 (The Man Who Married A Fairy: Kompas Selected short Stories 1995). It is printed here by courtesy of Kompas daily.

The Jakarta Post
Sun, Jul 07, 1996

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