A Modal Mentality for Modal Music


A different definition of modality

In its most general context the word modus or ‘mode’ may be defined as ‘amanner or way of acting, doing or being’. In this definition the emphasis is placed on the process of being or of moving toward a certain something which in itself, although constituting the sole reason for the process, can only be the passive result of the way the process itself unfolds. Purely musically speaking, this phenomenon can be defined as the actual manner through which primarily interlocking intervals and rhythms – and by extension, timbres and dynamics – form themselves into recognizable open-ended nuclei (the smallest possible identifiable melodic pattern or cliché) which in turn are transformed into other nuclei. In this process the ultimate ‘point’ of resolution is actually more one of dissolution. This so-called ‘modal manner’ of movement may be heard in its clearest and most elevated form in all essentially monophonic chant traditions which are theocentric and that therefore require an equally theocentric orientation in their performance. The singer of chant may thusly be said to be in a state of being in-chanted (see: incantarsi, which implies the condition or action of being sung). 

This modal manner of singing (and/or playing) modal music may easily be contrasted with the more ‘tonal’ one with which western-educated musicians are very familiar. In tonal music, regularly determined and easily identifiable points of departure and arrival (points of confirmation) constitute the framework within which essentiallyclosed patterns dominate. This tonal procedure, which is primarily homophonic and functionally chordal or vertical in nature, developed concurrently with an increasingly more anthropocentric state of mind within western culture. With certain interesting exceptions, western classical music from the 16th century until today typifies this approach. This music asks for an approach to singing and playing which we associate with the concept of cantare (or, by extension,  toccare

As the technical procedures connected with the performance of tonal music are well known, because collectively they comprise the basis of all classical music education, a short resumé of them will suffice:

the air is inhaled primarily through the mouth

the required air pressure must be consistent and relatively high

the naso-pharynx is not seen as the most important initiating place for the resonance, but        

                        the mask in general

a sound which is characterized by a prominence of high overtones is avoided

an aesthetic premium is placed upon the ‘beauty’, regularity and homogeneity of the t


therefore much emphasis is given to a stable and rounded vowel formation

the sound production is ‘projected’ outwards

although the dynamic spectrum is large the point of departure is loud rather than soft

dynamic change is allied to the musical phrase rather than to the word or the function of 

                        the tone or interval

the speaking and the singing mechanisms are carefully separated

physically speaking, except for its role in the articulation of consonants the tongue is 

                        generally encouraged to remain low and passive and the mouth to remain open.

In contradistinction, the modal principles and practices which form the basis of chant traditions (and of the ‘poly’phonic traditions which emerged out of some of them) are no longer well understood. The result of our fundamental lack of a deep-seated experience has been a kind of free-for-all approach to the making of our own modal music by western-trained musicians. Very often we are 1) blinded by either the most striking elements in our own written Gregorian chant tradition, namely the neumes (the notated signs for its melodic practice) and/or 2) enamored by the most superficially accessible elements in the still living oral chant traditions, such as certain vocal techniques, colors or ornamental clichés. In both cases (perhaps because the languages and practicesinvolved are partially or entirely unknown to us) we focus not on the modal principles which bind all chants because they are a direct reflection of the most important reasonfor the very existence of chant (the worship of God or the search for reunification with the universe), but precisely on those elements which separate their practices, namely their linguistically oriented characteristics. The result tends to resemble a kind of spiritually oriented ‘world music’.


Basic principles for the singing and playing of modal music

The following ten guiding principles have been gleaned from a study of many years into both the distinguishing and the unifying characteristics of the living, predominantly oral chant traditions of the world. I arrived at these principles before I began my  serious study into and performance of our own notated western chant traditions. They have always served as crucial points of reference in this study, regardless of language, period or style. 

Although every tradition is chiefly identified through its own unique characteristics, all of them share a basic approach to chanting which is not linguistic in origin and which, therefore, must reflect their underlying function, namely the unification of the chanter with God or, for lack of a better word, the universe. The ten points given here are an attempt to clarify the shared underlying non-linguistic ‘modal’ properties of these traditions, be they mono-, hetero- or polyphonic, with the intention of raising our awareness of what was probably the original modal basis for what has – almost inevitably - become our tonally-oriented manner of singing our Western chant and chant-basedtraditions. 


1. The importance of oral transmission

Chant exists primarily in the form of an oral and therefore unbroken –tradition: it is passed from one generation to the next essentially ‘by word of mouth’. Different types of solmisation systems and stylized hand movements are employed to aid in retaining the intrinsic character of the material. If a written system exists it is chiefly one which shows nuclear melodic movement (neumes) or only skeletal/pivotal points, not every separate note. 


2. Vibration

The principle point of departure is vibration, not sound. (For western-trained singers and instrumentalists, with our preoccupation with the externally-oriented concept of tonal beauty, this concept cannot be sufficiently stressed.) The concentration of the singer/player is on becoming in-tuned with this vibration and of ‘playing’ with it in perfect harmony with his acoustical surroundings, not on the manipulation of the resultant sound by artificial or contrived means which are at odds with the modality of the music and the space in which the vibration is taking place. Therefore the singer/player can only function optimally within a situation in which he can feel that the vibrations within his body (or instrument) are matched by those of the acoustical conditions of the space in which he is being ‘incantated’. In this way he experiences no separation between himself and his surroundings. The preferred surfaces of the space in which the vibrations are elicited are reflective and the dimensions of the space itself are ‘in harmony’ with them. No chant was ever inspired by supermarket acoustics. Neither, for that matter, by most modern concert halls and many modern churches. 

Speaking now only of the singer and the wind player, their reverberating core and initial points of reference or contact are the hard surfaces – including the teeth – of the naso- and oropharynx. In addition the flexible muscles (referred to by one fluitist as the ‘wasabi point’) behind the nose play a significant role in helping to control timbre and intonation by influencing the amount of vibrating air that is reflected against them.The vibrations, which are largely elicited and enhanced by a flexible and forwardly directed tongue, expand both inwardly into the rest of the body and outwardly into the surrounding space which further magnifies the vibrations, thereby returning them to re-‘inspire’ the singer or player. 


3. Overtone orientation

In the four main theocentric religions still practiced today (Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) it is agreed that spirit (and by extension air) enters through the nose. Physically speaking, through the activation of the hard surfaces of the naso- and oropharynx, the strength of the higher partials is considerably increased; the slower the vibrational oscillations the greater is the potential for creating high overtones; the higher and richer the overtones the closer does man ‘feel’ his affinity with the immaterial world of spirit (and, by extension, with God) and the less conscious is he of his own physical separation from this spiritual world. All chanting is therefore highly overtoneoriented. The presence of these higher partials in incantare is recognized most strikingly in the often ‘shimmering’ and flexible timbresof the vowel sounds. 

It is primarily the relationship between a) a flexible and forward-lying tongue and b) the teeth and hard-palate which produces the changes in timbre and therefore of overtone configuration. The lower and more resonant the voice the richer and more complex are the overtones. 

4. The initiation of a tone

A beginning ‘tone’ is first ‘felt’ as a soft, undefined, low, quasi-spoken (parlando) sound which evolves into a sung tone. This relationship is a natural extension of the singer’s desire to find within himself those vibrations which match his surroundings before eliciting a tone, and serves as an eloquent expression of his recognition of the primary source of his inspiration. It may occur very quickly and almost imperceptibly, or more slowly, as a kind of portamento or slide. This gesture goes hand in hand with a natural and spontaneous inhalation/inspiration partially or completely through the nose and is an inherent characteristic of all chant traditions, which are centered around and developed out of the normal elevated incantation or declamation ranges for a particular language and function. As such, quasi-spoken inflections are a basic ingredient of the sung tradition. 


5. Melodic intervals

Melodic intervals, not pitches,form the basis of the movement, and although each modal tradition forms itself into a unique system, these intervals are in principle elastic. This elasticity is largely determined by the identity of the interval within the context of the melodic cell or nucleus of which it is an organic part and by its modal function. However, in no tradition does this flexibility go against the principles of good acoustically-determined proportions, whatever the stylistic or linguistic parameter may be. A significant result of the elasticity in interval size and the need to amplify the overtones is that, unless an instrument is present, the singing tends to rise ever so slightly in pitch. 



6. Intervallic nuclei

The chant melodies themselves are formed from small, open-ended but easily identifiable groups of intervallic nuclei. These nuclei may be very rudimentary, in which case theymerely define the skeletal modal path of the text. However, they are much more frequently designed to either 1) increase the tension around one reciting tone or 2) to enrich the act of moving between tones which will define a particular modal direction. These neumatic figures allow the wave-like tension which results from this type of movement to grow, as it were, from within. Of course this phenomenon is strengthened by an acoustical environment which enhances the higher partials. In such an acoustic the structurally pivotal tones of the mode may be strengthened to such a degree that they in turn will generate new combinations of intervallic nuclei on mostly higher tonal levels. The ascending spiral serves as an apt visual representation of this ability to expand organically from within. 


7. Modal hierarchy

The character and function of these intervallic nuclei, and by extension of a particular mode, (such asthose of Gregorian chant)is determined not only by the sequence of intervals but also very largely by how they are sung: by the presence of different kinds of ‘portamenti’, by minute changes of dynamics and rhythm, by clearly defined ornamental or cadential clichés, even by fast or slow oscillations or inflections on a particular pitch. The skeletal solmisation-type mnemonic formulae which are often used to memorize these nuclear clichés are learned together with these nuances. At this point the all-important phenomenon of modal hierarchy becomes apparent: no tone, no interval, no ornament, no rhythmic pattern, no dynamic change may be isolated from its ‘organically’ determined function in the mode, a function which is therefore always in proportion to its surroundings. At its most inspiring this complex intermingling of vibrations produces a kind of heterophony which may eventually, as it did most strikingly in Europe, develop into modal polyphony. 


8. Consonantal orientation

Because of the desire to vibrate organically within a kind of spiral ramp, the regulatory impulse of the consonant becomes all-important. This is often ‘soft’ and stretchable; in chant voiced consonants are preferred over unvoiced and nasal consonants over the others. Physically the orientation is toward the upper jaw and the teeth, the bone and cartilage closest to the nose. For this reason the tongue feels a constant attraction toward its primary soundboard, the teeth and hard palate. As a result, the mouth is never very far open. Generally speaking the modal movement can be characterized as a wave-like action from a (sounded) consonant through an unstable, ‘searching’ vowel back to a (sounded) consonant. This movement may be syllabic, neumatic or melismatic. The character of the vowelsis essentially determined by one overriding need, irrespective of the properties of the individual language: the desire to enrich and vary the overtones. This brings with it the automatic need for the tongue to reach out toward the hard surfaces within the mouth. 


9. Pulsation

Although it may appear strange, the primary extra-lingual function of the vowels and consonants is to enhance the quality and variety of the vibration, not expressly the intelligibility of the verbalmessage. Because of this the element of stress accent is largely absent. (A stress accent is an essentially dynamic accent of weight, often elicited by a Glottisschlag on a consonant or a vowel, which causes the sudden cessation or distortion of vibration.) As a consequence of this fluidity of movement, rhythmic groupings are identified as beingadditive or irregular in length. However,the concept of unstructured or ‘free’ rhythm is foreign to chant: an audible and/or felt wave-like pulsation governs all movement. This is the natural result of feeling and working with harmonic vibration and therefore proportion. In this way tempo and ‘measure’ become one. The result is not strictly metrical and cannot be measured except in wave-like units.


10a. The drone

 Because of the presence of particular acoustically enhanced upper partials the strongest of which result from the periodic recurrence of the stable harmonics of the perfect octave and twelfth, the presence of a generating, pulsating and even fluctuating droneis felt, even in the absence of its being actually sung or played. The function of this pulsation is to more or less automatically increase the intensity of the vibration. 

10b. The spontaneous use of air

Allied to this practice is the need to allow for the spontaneous intake of air within the still reverberating sound guaranteed by the rich acoustical properties of the space in which this music is sung. This quasi ‘circular’ breathing is directly linked to the deep desire to experience perpetual vibration, which is why modal singers appear to have an endless supply of air: the vibration/sound is an instantaneous response to the spontaneous inspiration of air. In actual fact the amount of air pressure used in the singing of chant is both minimal but constantly changing. Hence the remarkable elasticity of the resultant movements. One could say that ‘spirit’ enters through the nose and with it enters air,unremarked(unless used as a signal) because it remains entirely spontaneous and therefore organic. Only when complete dissolution occurs does spirit or air completely leave the body - through the mouth. A belief which is shared by all mystical traditions is that the inspirited (the inspired) air once again enters the spirit world from whence it came. The modal singing of chant functions as a microcosmic reflection of this belief. 


A manner of moving

These ten shared characteristics comprise a clearly demonstrable illustration of the most basic generating principles of modality: whether speaking of the approach to timbre, vowels and consonants, melody and rhythm or, most crucially, air, the emphasis is always on the actual manner of movingtoward a point of dissolution, not the confirmation or reconfirmation of that point. In fact chant exists because of the enormous force of attraction of an end which is not an end but a transformation into that which will remain forever beyond us. Machaut’s famous rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement, in which his melody ‘works both ways’, serves as an apt symbol for this inevitable force of attraction. In fact the beginning of a breath,vibration, a tone, an interval, a melodic or rhythmic pattern, or even a word, is quite simply un commencement, an impulse issuing from that which is beyond ourunderstanding - which is finally sa fin. 

Purely physically speaking, for the singer these modal principles ask for a completely flexible and always balanced relationship between the movement of the airand that of the various muscles, bones andtypes of cartilageinvolved:

1.as the beginning point of all chant is vibration, all of the bones and cartilage of the body as well as the reflecting surfaces of the surrounding outer spacemust be allowed to fulfill their function as reverberating surfaces. The most important initiating bones and cartilages are those of the nose;

2.as the timbres are always changing, be they of so-called consonants or vowels, so must the muscles of the tongue (either touching or  close to the teeth and hard palate), lips, jaw (never too open), hard and soft palates and larynx;

3.as the dynamics as well as the lengths of the intervallic nuclei are constantly shifting, so must the (always small) amount of air required be constantly changing. This demands a spontaneous and subtle reaction from all the supporting muscles around the lungs and those of the vocal cords. 

For this reason the highest expression of chant in all of these traditions is essentially that of the single voice. 


The word

There is really only one (vitally important) element which separates our modal chant traditions, and that is ‘the word’. The rich diversity of our distinct modal practices and systems is more or less the result of linguistically determined preferences. And it is precisely language which forms the medium for the practice of this ‘exaltation-in-song’. The rituals of our greatest religions are based on the formalized and stylized use of our greatest languages, namely Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Arabic. In this context the first function of these languages is the removal (the elevation) of our selves from ourselves, not our ‘literal’ understanding of their linguistic content. (With all due respect, our ‘vulgar’ tongues, unless wrapped in the beauty of poetry, are simply too close to our daily lives. Somehow the words Praise the Lordand Alleluya do not convey the same depth of meaning.)But even before the desire to express man’s deepest spiritual longings through those languages created to express them the best, comes man’s desire to reach a state of perfect harmony (which ultimately becomes dissolution).  And that desire is universal and therefore indivisible. 


Dr. Rebecca Stewart
(original version 2002; last modified December 2014)

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