In a Seattle music shop, I fiddled with a synthesizer’s sliders and knobs. It took only a few minutes for me to corrupt the pulsing square waveform into something completely unlistenable. I turned the volume down and pretended to toggle through the menus.

After starting HRT, my orgasms changed—long, body-shaking, and mind-erasing. But they didn’t happen frequently. Whether I was with myself or someone else, hours would pass and I would be no closer to climax. When I did come, I tried to note what combinations of touch felt the best, the position of my body, the temperature of the room, what I had done earlier that day, all in an attempt to recreate ideal conditions for the future. But my body and my relationship to pleasure changed rapidly with my fluctuating hormone levels.

In college, I ditched synthesizers for a bass for one reason: its simplicity. Plug a cord in, tune the strings, fill a room with sound. Synthesizers require knowing how oscillators, filters, noise generators, and other wave modifications react harmonically to one another. They also require a preternatural ability to remember button combinations and sequencing to access every feature—combinations not standardized between synthesizer manufacturers. I could spend an hour stroking keys and have less than nothing to show for it.

Wendy Carlos, who composed soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron, is a trans woman and co-developer of the Moog synthesizer. In archival footage, she explains the process of modulating sound waves. She turns a knob, shifts a patch cable; the sine curve changes shape on the green oscilloscope—from the speakers a violin turns into a flute. I don’t know a better metaphor for transitioning than the analogue synthesizer, the C note that remains within a changing wave.

When I listen to synth music, I’m aware of how much it’s about its own making. How the modulation of a waveform, the essential function of a synthesizer, is as important to the music as melody and rhythm. Transitioning is similar. I do the same things I did before starting HRT. But my approach to them has modulated—I am now more conscious of the differences between my body and mind typing a sentence and the given cisgender model.

In undergrad, a philosophy professor asked me what I would think if I heard the most amazing flute playing from behind a closed door. Would I feel in the near-presence of a virtuoso? What if I opened the door and saw a person sitting at a synthesizer rather than holding a flute? How would I feel then? How would my perception of the musician change? I think of this conundrum when I go out wearing tucking panties. If people see me and think I’m a woman, how would they feel if they knew I was assigned male at birth?

As much as I don’t like to admit it, this line of thinking—the bio-essentialism it’s symptomatic of—follows me into my bedroom. Though I’ve only had sex with people I’m in ongoing relationships with since starting my transition, I still wonder whether they see me from some perspective as a woman and how they feel if and when that perspective shifts. Sometimes, I wonder so much I’m incapable of orgasm. More than a combination of touch, this insecurity is what modulates pleasure in my body into a feeling I barely recognize.

Carlos started HRT before her breakthrough album Switched-On Bach was released and before she discussed The Shining’s soundtrack with Kubrick. Anxious about how her feminization would be received, she wore fake sideburns during public appearances. But as she came out more publicly, she began to present more and more femininely. Listening to Carlos’ music and words through her journey, it’s obvious the C note of her being remains, even as the sine wave of her body modulates. This is the hardest notion to explain to cis people—how, through transitioning, I become more myself.

After playing the synthesizer, I spend weeks watching YouTube tutorials, reviews, and other guides before I go back to the music store to purchase it. An employee takes my debit card. The process is like a sped up version of my decision to medically transition—years spent researching on Reddit, paying a pharmacist for a bottle of pills, relearning my own body. As the employee fills out a receipt, he asks if I have a name other than the one on my card. I say Rivka.

Rivka Clifton is the author of Muzzle (forthcoming JackLeg Press). Her work can be found in: Pleiades, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Prairie Schooner, The Journal, and other such magazines. She is an avid record collector and curator of curiosities.

Artwork by Kah Yangni