dear moth's powder
what is it about modulation, about taking it higher, about, what Mahalia'd sing as the tendency to want to move on up a little higher? think about it. of the many songs i have directed or played, we would want to take a song just a little higher, just a little higher, just a little higher, continually moving up the scale, recalibrating our voices, rewriting the possibilities of the song by way of stretching our vocal cords and widening our mouths and with each successive key change and release of a whooooo! just after we'd "land" in the new key. well. i think by now you're starting to get a sense for how i think about music and sound as locational and sorta maybe like literal places that listeners inhabit. and no, you have not written back and no, i haven't sent these letters to you so no, you don't know of their existence though something tells me - some presence, some haunting, some haint - that you still know that i'm writing to you and thinking about you and each letter that i think and breathe and write to you becomes just another such version of me taking it just a little higher, revising the concepts and ideas and dreams and visions of you i have with each subsequent writing that would give you maybe a bit more knowledge of the one whom you said you knew so much that you could not stand to any longer know. well.
we begin songs in one key, kinda like how we dance and shout, trying to withhold energy until the vamp, the drive. and then, finally, we let them have it: we give it a go, we exert all that we have within us. modulation occurs in some such songs, making audible migration and movement and motion, modulation as that sonorous refusal of stillness and being stilled (though, of course, being stilled is merely another "movement"). and the audience sits - well, by the time of the modulations, probably no longer sitting but is moved as the choir is moved - so the audience stands and is moved and amazed and surprised and enraptured by the heights achieved that were not initially imaginaned. and there's something rather sensuous about it. something a bit erotic. it's in the ways taking it higher brings all of the attention to our wearied bodies. though our voices are worn out to the point of exhaustion - but right there, at that broken edge, when the voice reemerges with new vigor and life and love - we sing and go higher and higher and higher, centering the very bodies that would be so discounted and dismembered in our theologies. many of our christian theologies are - i don't have to tell you, i know - really restrictive about what our bodies can and cannot do. i mean, we both know that pentecostalism was disdained and thought occult initially because of the focus on embodied holiness and sanctification, and because of the dancing and shouting and clapped hands and stomped feet and rolling on floors and sweat, the sweat, the sweat and they didn't even have air conditioning then, so it was likely very much also a smelly experience. can you imagine a religious tradition that not only allowed for the senses to be attacked by corporeal praise but desired this assault? well.
when we sing and we go higher, the congregation hears the voices...and more. and the more is the way they look at what the voice does: to the mouths opened wider than they should be and the lips that quiver and the chins that quake and the necks twist with veins protruding and with the sometimes wagging, sometimes prostrate tongues, and with the sweaty brows and foreheads. no one can keep their eyes closed with all that modulation. so the audience, of course, must attend to the visual aspects of such a - literally - moving sonic performance.
so indeed, at least in western musics, this thing called modulation is the changing, moving - nay, transitioning - from one tonal center to another. and the notion of a tonal center is all about inhabitation and marooning, about staying and leaving, about the constant movement and migration and flight, what a friend's friend called the dislocated African's pursuit of a meta-voice. it also makes present the fact that each of us has the capacity within us to move over and above and away from that which would keep up regulated and relegated, that which would keep us bound and beleaguered. modulation renounces one tonal center for another, does not seek rest but rather, seeks occasion for new words and new worlds. modulation is the chance, the encounter, the moment. modulation is event.
i don't know. when i think of modulation, and certainly when i hear it, i think of the choir arriving to a new key together and that arrival is but a short inhabitation in that space or field of epistemological exploration of the sonic zone, to, let's say, have a look (again, by way of throwing the voice) around at the new digs so to speak, the new space opened up by way of some such new tonal center. but then, of course, arriving at that tonal center cannot last too long but some such director will - exuberantly, probably a bit too excitedly - take their hands, form two fists while, with their thumbs stretched giving the choir some sorta thumbs up motion; or take that one hand (for me, it was always the right hand) and point straight up, stretching from the arm through the index finger pointed, and breathe all yoga-like air into my finger or whatever - letting the group know it was time, yet again, to take it just a little higher. and i think, most profoundly, is the notion of arrival because it does not denote final destination but it certainly indexes that you've left somewhere, some place or space from which you sought release. well. each modulation as the event of arrival? can we modulate together? i'd like to arrive...with you. i carried you in that dream after i arrived to the house. we arrived in the bedroom after i carried you across thresholds. and we arrived to libidinous joys - ok, we ejaculated and released and screamed after moaning and grinding and fucking, yes - after we arrived together in the bed. we arrived at heartbreak when joy ceased and our visages created more turmoil than butterflies. but we do not need to stay any there but can move to some such other event. grab my hand. let's go.
when every voice is a bit of a fugitive, on its run away from normative function and form, well, modulation becomes but yet another occasion to critique the general field of normativity. if, as Arthur Jafa might argue, every note in black singing is inherently unstable, given to caprice, is bent before its own being bending, is worried previous to the occasion, well, then every taking it a bit higher is the possibility for critiquing the sonic space just evacuated and escaped. similar to how, with melisma, several notes break the syllable when sung such that the notes are both that which break and that which are broken concurrently, well, modulation both moves from while moving to (and too). it's kinda like how Harriet Tubman escaped Eastern Shore, Maryland, arrived in New York and was, for all intents and purposes free but returned to that very place that enslaved her only to bring others. freedom for her was fundamentally social but it was also - excuse my obfuscatory nature - modulatory. constantly, freedom was being enacted by movement toward the spaces - New York, Canada, above Mason-Dixon Lines, etc. - where freedom could be enacted. double movements, we could say. sorta like how being a runaway could very well mean (and did for someone like Harriet Jacobs in the crawlspace; or Henry "Box" Brown in a box) not running at all, but being stilled. sometimes, i suppose, stilled movement migrates just as effectively.
i've only once heard modulation that occurred by way of declining the scale rather than - excuse my desire to sound witty - scaling the scale. and there, too, was the element of surprise and joy by each step downward. well. what is it to be able to talk about reaching for heaven but not hell? if your silence has taught me anything, it has been that i should continue to revise and restate and recalibrate and that i could reach down, into that seemingly empty sonic space to get something from you. that silence, of course, is putative. that silence, of course, is noisy as hell. so i'm descending its reaches while, at the very same time, moving just a little higher. so this is me, taking it just a little higher in hopes. in hopes. i'm tryin to steal away, steal away home, because, well, i ain't got long to stay here. gonna sing a new song in a new home sooner than you will soon think. some call it nirvana. but i'm not there yet. i still want you. and my wanting you is evinced both by my writing you and my refusal to send to you. gotta figure out a different means of communicating. maybe if i ascend the Empire State Building, sing you a song from the rooftop and throw you a paper airplane that reads something like "say you'll go with me?" would that be high enough?