Arab Music and Musical Notation

I read a review of a book titled “Arab Music and Musical Notation” (Markaz ʻUmān lil-Mūsīqá al-Taqlīdīyah) by Issam El-Mallah last night. The review was written by Kathleen Hood.

The description of chapter 3 gives one of the primary reasons that so many non-Western musics’ notation traditions are double edged swords. As she states:

In chapter 3, “Arab Musicians’ Use of European Notation,” El-Mallah examines the history of music notation in the Arab world and argues that the unquestioned use of notation has had a negative effect on the structure and performance of Arab music. The tyranny of notation tends to limit improvisation and ornamentation, characteristics that previously were the hallmarks of Arab musical style. This chapter also presents a bleak picture of the state of commercial Arab music, which is increasingly dominated by the Egyptian recording industry and in which regional diversity is sacrificed in an appeal to the broadest audience.

I fear most Western classically trained musicians would far too easily agree with the latter without really understanding how there can be a ‘complex’ art music without having notation and so might not understand the implications of the former. But it is an argument used worldwide (many of the pieces about my native Thai classical music traditions also bemoan the fact that Western notation has crept into an academic setting for teaching Classical Thai music–for exactly the same reasons El-Mallah gives above.

Playing without music and improvising

Jon Silpayamanant playing with the Eastern Caravan Group at Cafe D'Jango in Bloomington, Indiana (Sep 4, 2011)

So last night I had the opportunity to perform with the Eastern Caravan Group in Bloomington, Indiana.  I was sent a handful of sheet music to work with just a couple days ago, but ironically I ended up using practically none of them.  I was initially just invited to perform whatever I was comfortable with from the music sent but as soon as I heard a tune announced that I knew (albeit, in a completely different key) I reached for my cello and looked at Shahyar Daneshgar (the de facto leader of the esnemble) and he just nodded and smiled.

So what was supposed to be a small guest appearance with the group by me ended up with me playing the whole evening (minus the first couple of tunes) with the group.  And it was an absolute blast.  The two or three tunes the group played that I did know were all in different key areas than I had learned or performed and the arrangements were completely different but that hardly mattered to me, apparently, as I seemed to have no problems transposing the melodies to the new tonal areas without much effort (which actually surprised me, even).  And as Shahyar Müellim had, in our initial correspondence, wanted me to play more in the bass range, I was also transposing down two octaves.

The whole evening was like that with the exception of a popular Azeri dance tune we played for one of my partners in Raks Makam who happened to be able to make the show.  I was alternating between playing bass function (when chordal harmonies were somewhat implied) and playing the melodies (by ear and in real time) down two or three octaves.  The gel holding the two alternating functions together were improvisational transitions or elaboration/ornamentation of the bass or melody line.

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Klingon Music Theory (part 1): Intro

The late Ron Taylor (1952-2002) as the Klingon Chef, Kaga, on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Kaga frequently serenaded his customers with Klingon folk songs

Ok, here it is, the post you’ve all been waiting for!

Kinda.

So yeah, as many of you know I’ve been playing “Klingon Music” for some time now (about mid 2009).  It’s basically a side project of my difficult to categorize group, il Troubadore.  We’ve simply named it the “il Troubadore Klingon Music Project” for lack of a better name (or rather, at risk of re-naming the group for the Klingon Music project, thus drawing away focus from “il Troubadore” as the group).  If you prefer, you may just refer to us by our “Klingon name” of bomwI’pu’ (which almost literally translates into English as the “Songmakers”).

So, for a number of years (well before il Troubadore was formed) I’d been a member of the yahoo group, the “Klingon Music Guild” and had on occasion research [what little] Klingon music existed since.  Sure, I’d come across ter’eS page (if you haven’t listened to his lurDech–DO IT–better yet, watch the video below–absolutely genius!!) as well as many websites with Klingon Karaoke lyrics, but rarely anything specifically about, well, Klingon Music.

And by that I mean music that would function as music that Klingons would have written.  Sure, once Youtube started the video self-publishing revolution, it became easy to find clips of Klingon songs and Klingon Opera from the various Star Trek series and movies.  And now Klingon related material abounds (do a search for Klingon Music on youtube–you’ll see) but still almost none of it is music developed in the style that Klingons would write.  Even the examples from the series leaves a little bit to be desired and I often wonder if this was part of the motivation for the current production of the Klingon Opera ‘u’ in the Netherlands.

It’s about time I started blogging about Klingon Music, so all that aside, here are some tidbits from Marc Okrand’s (the creator of the Klingon Language), Klingon for the Galactic Traveler, in the chapter titled simply “Music” (and some of this info can be easily found online).

Traditional Klingon music is generally performed only by those who have had a great deal of training.  The study of this type of music, whether composition or performance, is considered a discipline not unlike a martial art.  There are precise forms and complex rules, and mastery of techniques takes years of study and practice.  Traditional Klingon musical forms date back to the time of Kahless, if not earlier, and have shown little variation since then.  (Okrand, KGT:72)

Ok, fair and straightforward enough, right?  Actually there are a number of cultures whose art music still follow this kind of strict regime (though that’s starting to change now).  In many parts of Asia the musical training and other performing arts training as well as martial arts training all evolved in similar ways.  In fact, many dance-drama traditions in Asia still have a heavy martial arts component to the training: Kathakali in Kerala, Khon in Thailand, Jingju in China.  And some martial arts traditions are intimately tied to music: Southeast Asian kickboxing; Brazilian Capoeira.

The next paragraph is something that tends to get Westerners, or at least folks who aren’t familiar with musical styles and genres outside of the Western World.

Older Klingon music was base on a nonatonic scale–that is, one made up of nine tones.  Each tone has a specific name, comparable to the “do, re, mi” system used in describing music on Earth.  The nine tone names are (the first and ninth, as with Earth’s “do,” being the same): yu, bIm, ‘egh, loS, vagh, jav, Soch, chorgh, yu.  While the first three (and ninth) of these words apparently are used only for singing the scale, the remaining five are also numerals: loS, “four”; vagh, “five”; jav, “six”; Soch, “seven”; chorgh, “eight.” (Okrand, KGT:72)

Ok, now things are getting a bit more interesting.

I’m going to assume that Okrand, by “nonatonic scale,” means a nonatonic scale within an octave (which is misleading as it presupposes an eight note scale in the first place–maybe we should refer to it as a nonave?) distance since the starting pitch name and the ending pitch name are the same (implying both pitches are the same separated by an octave/nonave).   A typical Western scale would have eight tones that are usually some combination of major seconds and minor seconds (sometimes misleadingly referred to as “whole tones” and “half tones” respectively).  In the Klingon scale I’m going to assume Okrand is referring to an equal tempered scale rather than some odd combination of major and minor seconds within an octave.

Given an equal tempered scale of nine tones, we’re left with a whole mess of pitch intervals that don’t appear in Western scales.  Which is not to big a deal, really, since I’m intentionally highlighting as the point of reference a Western scale, you folks can correctly guess that there are non-Western scales out there.  In fact, there are plenty of them (quite literally thousands) but I’m only going to mention one class of them found predominantly in the Middle East.  This is primarily because there are music intervals within those maqamat/makamlar/modes that come pretty close to sounding like what a Klingon nonatonic scale interval would presumably sounds like–namely, a three quarter tone [interval] or neutral second (technically the interval is very close to a just minor second otherwise know as a semitone maximus).

The other interesting issue here is Okrand’s discussion of the musical names as being numbers–continuing from the paragraph quoted above he says:

It is possible that, at some time in the past, the numerals were “borrowed” into the lexicon of music in order to sing the scale but, for some reason, the first three (presumably wa’, cha’, wej [“one, two, three”]) were either changed or never used.  It is far more likely, however, that the borowing went in the other direction.  As is well documented, the Klingon counting system was originally a ternary system (one based on three, with numbers higher than three formed from the words for “one,” “two,” and “three”).  Later, owing to outside influences, it changed to a decimal system (based on ten).  The independent words for the numbers three through nine were not originally a part of the Klingon counting system, but they had to come from somewhere.  The musical scale is the likely source.  (Okrand, KGT:72-73)

Since this is a book from the future talking about the history of the past which has not yet happened in our time, I’m wondering how much Okrand is “presaging” a future co-dominance of Chinese as well as American (i.e. Western) culture in referencing musical theoretic notions that are obviously Western (the solfège “do, re, mi” system Okrand mentions) as well as a numeric notation system which is what the Chinese use for their traditional music (i.e. jiǎnpǔ).

But this is the Star Trek universe and not the Firefly universe and more than likely it’s an unintentional Western-centric musical bias, which is fine.  Marc Okrand is a linguist, not a musicologist (much less ethnomusicologist), afterall.

Stay tuned for Klingon Music Theory (part 2): Music Intervals


Also of interest, I was at the Louisville Science Center singing Klingon Songs outside and posing for photos everywhere this past Saturday (May 21).  Tracy Canfield of Alien Tongues and Michael Roney, Jr. (aka naHQun) were inside giving talks about the Klingon Language during the final weekend of Star Trek: The Exhibition.  It was a grand time and much honor was won!

Too Many Notes, too few orchestras

While reading the comments to a post by Drew McManus that I mentioned in my previous post, I came across a reference to a post that drew had written about the issue of having too many groups offering the same thing in a metropolitan area.

While Drew disagrees than in general there may be too much of this redundancy (as he responded) he does think there are some areas, like the Northern Virginia/Washington DC area he talks about in the post I linked, that do have a problem.  Drew seems to think it’s a dangerous idea for mergers, but at the same time he understands that in the case above that might actually help.  Anne Midgette’s snapshot of the German orchestral crisis post-unification would suggest the same.

But back to Drew’s points:

Although I was glad to see that there weren’t any duplicates between the four ensembles, they do have remarkably similar programming (but I give Alexandria a few extra points for programming more new works than their sister ensembles).  If you’re familiar with that area, you’ll also know that all four ensembles perform within eight miles of each other and two of them even perform in the same venue.

Granted, Northern Virginia is a densely populated area but doesn’t it seem reasonable to think that four full orchestras performing similar works for essentially the same audience is simply too many notes?

I have a different idea–what would happen if, say, one or more of these orchestras actually turned into a non-Western Orchestra?  Or what if the re-structuring made it possible to actually provide full symphonic works that were so Eurocentric?

For example, what if that Northern Virginia/DC area had, say, a full Arabic Orchestra, a full Chinese Orchestra, a full Mugham Orchestra in addition to the fourth full Symphony Orchestra?

There certainly wouldn’t be any overlap of programming, nor any duplicate composers in just one art music tradition.

I know, it’s a pipe dream–with the exception of special events American Orchestras don’t often program outside their 100 + year old niche of music from a region on this planet [Europe] that has less than a tenth of the world’s population.  But I know I would be as excited, if not more excited to be able to hear a full orchestra perform the masterworks of Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, Fikret Amirov, or Lü Ji.

I guess I’ll have to wait until the ethnic population(s) of the US reaches the critical mass able and willing to support these non-Western Orchestras–or until this century’s version of the Ford Foundation Grants spearheads “a major boost to [non-Western] orchestras’ quality, length of season and sustainability by providing endowment capital for orchestras that were able to raise matching funds from their communities .”

I guess the question is, if Western Orchestras are having difficulties then how will the non-Western Orchestras fare?  That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out and it is exciting to imagine the future!  Right now, though–there aren’t too many notes or too few orchestras.  Just not enough of the right balance of notes and orchestras.