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!


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!

Orientalism, Kill Bill, and the “Death of the Author”

Another response to James.

I was going to respond a couple of nights ago, but then my response ended up being half a dissertation and I saved it as a draft at my blog instead. Sometimes being able to easily jump from box to box means that you’re less likely to stay in one to make a, um, concerted point.

I guess that’s always the problem with authoritative statements about something relative–they turn back on themselves. But the nice thing about that is that it means you know you’re getting to the limits of the box and have to step out of it to see it from a different vantage point.

See, the other reason I didn’t respond was because of this:

To really live your life like that– not just adopt such a position in a drunken argument at a loud party– I think would be quite difficult.

Because I seriously starting thinking about all the performance art, phonetic poetry, noise music, experimental film/video, sound installations, multi-media performances, etc, etc…ad nauseum that I’ve been doing the past ten years and realized how easy it is to fall into the box that lets you talk about (i.e. critique) post-modernity without actually having lived it.

It always tickles me when reading academic (or pseudo-academic) pomo crit of things–to go back to the idea of “Death-of-the-author-as-result-of-Western-Critical-mindset”–because those types of text just bring to mind the cliched armchair critic that wouldn’t likely know the first thing about doing some of the activities that are the object of his criticism.

See, there’s a common saying in Thailand: “Kohn roo mai poot; kohn poot mai roo” (and this is actually just a restatement from the Daode jing), that translates (quite straightforwardly) as “The one who knows doesn’t speak; the one who speaks doesn’t know.” Timothy Hoare, in his book about the Thai dance-drama form Khon, writes about the phrase for some length (and yeah, it is ironic that he writes about it at all):

Even in the Thai language, reliable literary works on Khon are minimal, for the discursive habit of producing meticulous documentation that is grounded in a long and careful process of research has simply not been a traditional aspect of the Thai academic/historical consciousness. Appropriately, Khon provides us with a prime example of how this is so. In Thai education overall, the familiar euphemism, “Those who can’t do, teach,” has no meaning. Quite the contrary in the case of Khon, a teacher of Khon is an accomplished practitioner of Khon. He/she is respected for his/her ability, experience and knowledge as a performer and living vessel of the tradition, not as a “scholar” in the Western sense of the term.

Consequently, if it is deemed necessary for an arts institution to compile and publish a new text under its own authority, it is usually not the teacher–the one with expertise–who is commisioned to author it, but someone from “the outside,”…who knows the artform as “a layperson.” The result is usaully sketchy, sometimes inaccurate and, at best, suitable for the tourist who wants nothing more than a superficial treatment.

Setting aside some of the Orientalisms in the quote I gave, there’s a Buddhist saying, “mistaking the finger that is pointing at the moon for the moon itself,” that captures the idea that Hoare is stating rather succinctly.

I especially love reading critiques of Asian cinema, particularly “martial arts” flicks. Since a number of comics bloggers had so much to say about Ron Rosenbaum’s anti-Kill Bill/Sin City piece a while back, I’ll use it as an example (with some Saidean interpretive glosses in brackets):

Or maybe you were too busy laughing yourself silly over the single most ridiculous beard in the history of cinema [which just happens to be precisely one of the types of hu hsu (“beards”) as it has appeared in decades of Chinese Cinema and centuries in traditional Chinese Opera], the one on “Master Pai Mei,” who we’re supposed to believe is the ultimate extra-special, wise-beyond-Yoda spiritual warrior [because obviously the wu lao sheng character, as expertly performed by Gordon Liu, in traditional Chinese Opera and Chinese wuxia pian Cinema warrants immediate derision and dismissal]. You know, the laughable Orientalist caricature [because surely Ron knows a “real Oriental character” from a “laughable Orientalist caricature”] who teaches Uma Thurman the super-secret, way-forbidden “Exploding Heart” punch with which she finally kills Bill?

Pei Mei flippin' the beard.
Pei Mei flippin’ the beard.

Point is, each and every movement (not just the spoken text) that Gordon Liu performed has a meaning. Each and every piece of clothing and the beard and hairstyle that Gordon Liu sports have meanings. Even each specific movement of the beard that Gordon Liu performs has a meaning. But most of that is lost on an audience unfamiliar with the ersatz language of Chinese cinema and Chinese Opera.

But the dismissiveness and derision that is relatively commonplace in criticisms of either Asian MA films or films inspired and heavily borrowing from Asian MA film conventions iare premised on a box that doesn’t have nearly as much to do about the genres as some would like to believe. Would we criticize a composition in Sign Language like this? Would we say that “talkies” are just an adult version of or reference to infant’s “babble-talk?” I’m still actually surprised that I haven’t come across a review of Kill Bill that mentions the fact that Beatrix doesn’t actually kill anyone in vol. 2.

I don’t think it’s at all controversial to state that kung fu flicks rely heavily on Chinese Opera traditions and conventions (hell, even Chinese comics do), but the “Death of the Author” idea is just one aspect of what I’m coming to call textually driven criticism.

See–this is also why I didn’t post before–going off on tangents are so much easier when you’re used to jumping boxes.

Dave Fiore is fun, even when he’s going off into what linguist, Ray Jackendoff, calls the “Western bias of non-linguistic” thought. “We don’t know something until we try to say it.” “We communicate stories through narratives.” (my bad paraphrases of things Dave has stated). It doesn’t seem like many people realize how fuzzy the boundaries between different forms of communication or human interaction can be while they are [ironically] stating, unequivocably, that language is ambiguous.

What’s the difference between music and languages that use lexical tones to differentiate between meanings?

What’s the difference between the highly formalized gestures of Asian dance-dramas and the gestures of Sign Language?

What’s the difference between writing visual graphemes (i.e. “text”) and drawing visual logographs, pictographs, comics, or writing mathematical ideograms, and musical notation?

I’ve always said (partly because it’s so damn clever) that the last person you ask about a piece of art is the guy what made it. In truth, what he has to say about a work in question may be interesting, but I don’t have to believe him if I don’t want to.

See, that’s where textually driven criticsm has gotten in the way of the idea of an intentional object. Why does intention have to be bound in what an author says about her work? Why can it not be bound in the work itself? In other words–going back to mistaking the finger pointing for the moon itself–an author that makes a statement about her intention of a work is already different a different matter than the actual intention that the work itself was meant to communicate. If you say (or rather type) to me:

(A) “You’re an ass!”

and then

(B) explain to me:

“What I intended by (A) is (C).”

What seems to be really going on here is that (C) is your interpretation of (A) “You’re an ass!”

(C) is pointing to (A) like the finger to the moon. An author’s intention need not be considered unrecoverable when all we’re doing is looking at an author’s comment (C) about (A). Look at (A) if you want to find the intention.

The “perfect” act of communication I mentioned in that other comment is precisely the utterance of (A), not the explanation (B) or the “interpretation” (C).

I don’t think statements in the form of “all acts of communication have a diffusive quality” at all gets close to articulating these types of differences that I’m making. Indeed, these types of statements are constructed from within a box that makes them very improbable (or at least unacceptable). Obviously, critics can just reject my box, or any other box for that matter just as they can reject Chinese jingju conventions and talk about the laughable beard of Pai Mei, or just call people “stupid fucks” for that matter. Doesn’t change the [provisional] fact that these critics can’t make (or choose not to make) distinctions that others can.

This is sort of what I meant by choosing to acquire the skill to play the Dvořák Cello Concerto rather than implicitly blaming the piece (or the composer/author) for it’s “essential” difficulty. The Dvořák’s purported “difficulty” is just the reader’s commentary on her own relation to the text. In other words:

She be explainin’ (or (B)) through (C) her relationship to (A) rather than changing her relationship to (A) by acquiring skill.

I guess that’s also another Buddhist aspect of one of my boxes–the “Nagarjunian” idea of upaya-kausalya (“skillfull means”), that is. Damn me for being raised Theravada Buddhist I suppose.

Don’t ask the person, because he’ll just give you an interpretation of his intention. The actual intention is bound up in the “utterance” of the intentional object–which can also be some type of performative act like a statement. In other words, Kohn roo mai poot; kohn poot mai roo na krop.

That last makes a sort of sense given this context, since we’re basically analyzing and criticizing criticism after all. And by all means, more pics of guys in lingerie!

*note that this is a very abbreviated/cut-n-pasted version of the comment I was going to post. Maybe you’ll be thankful for this fact after you’ve read through my self-indulgent post. heh.



originally posted here as “response to James 3.5”: