During the Black Artists Retreat, hosted by Theaster Gates at the Park Avenue Armory, the musician and composer, Esperanza Spalding presented a truly unique contribution to the convening, the theme of which was sonic imagination. Spalding noted that MIT scientists have developed a method to extinguish fire using sound waves. For Spalding, this possibility leads to an extraordinary question about the analog potential of the human voice as a sonic device and a rivetting question: could a human voice, leveraging the same force of frequency, stop a fire arm?
In our group meditations, Gates moderated a conversation about the concept of cantus firmus, a musical term describing an existing melody that becomes the basis for a polyphonic composition. We considered the value and potential power of voices in polyphony, a sort of positive reframing perhaps of the old preaching to the choir adage, towards the layering of meanings and agencies. What if this could serve in some situations to produce a great benefit, and a derivative force could be conjured through this kind of layering of harmonies on a commonly held theme?
The potential of this idea was further punctuated when an extraordinary trombonist, Dick Griffin, demonstrated his ability to harmonize with himself created multiple tones as he played, while circling his breath with hair raising mastery. In the poem, Sorrowdrawl, by Osip Mandelstam, the speaker is similarly harmonizing with himself to make a chorus of meanings. Though Mandelstam’s poetic voice could not physically stop a bullet, it is interesting to note that the bullet also could not stop his voice.
When we think about cantus firma in relation to time, we are also challenged by Nasheet Wait’s idea of talking to the past, which is one of the inquiries inspiring our study. What does it mean to be in proximity to voices in times past, present and future? Can poetry, as Tracy K. Smith suggests, provide an opportunity for simultaneity?
During the Time study, I am reminded of the potential of cantus firmus, which can allow the layering of meanings and agencies when voices in harmony are layered together over a common melody or theme, as we are seeking to layer, not only ideas, but artistic disciplines in these workshops. What strikes me about the potential of polyphony, through the foundational toning of cantus firmus, is its dependence upon proximity in time. Voices layered together in what we name “the moment” have an entirely different character than voices and ideas that we, through poetic imagination, align outside of time: the way in which we, even now in this reflection, are aligning with the voice and music of a poet of the last century. What becomes possible when we seek the moment we call the present—this now—in which to establish a chorus of voices? What harmonies from moments past now flood the interstitial spaces of our consciousness faster than water fills a glass of ice? This is the song-ness of time, its substance surrounding and holding the weight of our own tension, both physically as bodies but also emotionally and mentally as yearning, surviving, questioning beings. Even in our resignation, our boredom, we are held in time, dependent.