Memorizing the Tristan Chord (Institute of Fictional Ethnomusicology): An Exposition

  Fig. 1.  The "Tristan chord."

Fig. 1. The "Tristan chord."

The Tristan chord from the opening of Tristan und Isolde is possibly one of the best known moments in the history of opera (fig. 1). I remember, fondly, how a mere few notes were thoroughly discussed, dissected, and mystified in music history seminars. Volumes have been written about the chord's unusual harmonic features, and its significance in the trajectory of western classical music; but the sensual and poetic aspects of the composer's bold gesture - the sonic materiality of the Tristan chord as heard - continue to elude descriptions. 

The chord is also a constant source of anxiety for college music students. It frequently appears in undergraduate music analysis examinations. As any conscientious student from Hong Kong would tell you, one way to internalize an aural phenomenon is to make up a Cantonese phrase that replicates the pitch contour of the aural phenomenon in question. This method is effective for a range of academic pursuits, from foreign language pronunciation and musical passage memorization, to mathematical equation recitation.

Fig. 2. A page from the English vocabularies section of the Tung Shing.

Cantonese is a perfect vehicle for such an endeavor. It contains a total of nine tonal inflections, providing the possibility of nuanced mapping between the invented phrase and the object to be memorized (see a wiki article on Cantonese phonology here; incidentally, speakers of tone languages such as Cantonese are more likely to possess perfect pitch). The Tung Shing (literally the "all-knowing-book") is an ancient divination guide and almanac that is widely read in the Canton area of southern China. The Hong Kong version of the Tung Shing typically includes a section on English vocabularies (fig. 2). Here, the pronunciations of English words are indicated in the form of random combinations of Cantonese characters, which are entirely detached from the meanings of the words that they refer to. For instance "hotel" is hou de (literally "good & dad"), and ballroom is bo lam (literally "wave & forest," or a "forest of balls.") This is how my grandmother, and many other from the working class of her generation, learned to "converse" in broken English without necessarily understanding the semantic meaning of the words they speak. Signs dissolve into sonic objects, pure forms, mere utterances. Over time, some of these nonsensical phrases would take on the meaning of the English word that they point to through wide-spread usage, and eventually replace the original Chinese characters that signify the thing in question.

  Fig. 3.  Interviewing one of the participants.

Fig. 3. Interviewing one of the participants.

Memorizing the Tristan Chord (Institute of Fictional Ethnomusicology) was commissioned by the Goethe Institut in Hong Kong to commemorate the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner. The project started in the fall of 2012 and concluded in April 2013. Through an open call, I recruited Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong to invent Cantonese phrases that would map perfectly onto the pitch contour that leads up to and immediately follows the Tristan chord (the majority of partipants were able to accomplish this, but some were, for the lack of a better word, tone-deaf). Participants came from all walks of life: from avid opera lovers, to music novices. Participants were asked to sing the Cantonese phrase several times with the piano. I also asked them to describe the chord to me by focusing on the musical and sonic features alone. All interviews were conducted at the McAulay Studio of the Hong Kong Arts Centre (fig. 3). The process was documented on video.

Ohrwurm: 30624700

Participants were asked to sing their invented Cantonese phrase several times in front of the camera. Prior to this, each would have spent around 10 minutes repeating the phrase silently to themselves, to ensure that the characters' intonations follow the pitch contour of the passage. I imagine that what I'd accomplished, through this process, was the infliction of ear worms onto the participants, a forceful marriage of music and nonsensical and/or previously related words. Those who participated in the project will never hear Tristan und Isolde the same way again. One of the participants (Patrick Lo) reacted very strongly to this. He simply refused to go through with the process. He considered the Tristan chord and the operatic experience that it represents to be sacred. To him, marrying the passage with unrelated words would be an unimaginable act of corruption.

  Fig. 4.  George Lam's  A Life of Numbers .

Fig. 4. George Lam's A Life of Numbers.

Musical "corruption" in the form of ear worm-planting is difficult to undo. There is a distinguished tradition of Canto-pop covers of classical music, and one of the best known and most interesting examples was George Lam's A Life of Numbers (fig. 4), which was in turn an adaptation of The Toy's 1965 epic A Lover's Concerto. The lyrics from A Life of Numbers are consisted almost entirely of random strings of numbers. Canto-pop covers of classical tunes, which erupted into the popular lexicon in the 1980s, was my initial point of entry into the world of classical music. To this date, I am still unable to hear the theme from Bach's Minuet in G major without silently counting "3-0624700" in my head.

The Politics and Poetics of Dissonance

The texts that the participants came up with fall loosely into four categories: (1) auto-biographical statements, (2) haiku-like poetic expressions, (3) responses to the scenario of the interview itself, (4) lists of things. Phrases from categories 1 and 3 were often surprisingly personal and borderline Freudian. Participants brought their preoccupations into the process. Singing sessions turn into confessions of repressed desires. Participant Albert Poon (fig. 5) was clearly responding to the political climate au currant in Hong Kong:

  Fig. 5.  Specimen 013, Albert Poon.

Fig. 5. Specimen 013, Albert Poon.

No more arguments
- Albert Poon

Several prominent Hong Kong political figures were referred to (fig. 6 & 7), including the last governor of colonial Hong Kong Chris Pattern, and the recently-deceased democratic fraction spiritual leader Szeto Wah:

  Fig. 6.  Specimen no. 040, Kenneth Kam.

Fig. 6. Specimen no. 040, Kenneth Kam.

Fat Pang (Chris Pattern)
Go Downstairs
Oh it’s raining
- Kenneth Kam

  Fig. 7.  Specimen no. 046, Corvus Kwok.

Fig. 7. Specimen no. 046, Corvus Kwok.

Uncle Wah (Szeto Wah)
Honeydew melon
How are you
- Corvus Kwok

Singing is an activity that is severely repressed. We silent our "libidinous pulse of singing." Karaoke is a sanctioned and socially acceptable form of release, a means of "restoring the musical power of the voice that has been lost" (Hosokawa & Mitsul 1998, 18). I conducted all the interviews in a small theatre that is two stories below ground. I had the feeling that I was hosting secret penance services in an underground karaoke. The open call specified that no musical training is expected of the participants, still many felt the need to confess, at length, their lack of musical knowledge. Some were embarrassed about the fact that they knew nothing of Richard Wagner or Tristan und Isolde. I sat behind the camera and listened. I make no eye contact with the participants once the video shooting had begun. The lens and the microphone served as buffers between me and the songs, as screens in a temporary confessional.

A number of participants composed deeply religious texts. Wing Sze Ng's (fig. 8) chosen texts are not explicitly religious, but they are reminiscent of the sort of language that is often used in Cantonese versions of hymns:

  Fig. 8 . Specimen no. 008, Wing Sze Ng.

Fig. 8. Specimen no. 008, Wing Sze Ng.

My only wish
In the heart
Singing silently
- Wing Sze Ng

Castle Cheng's interview left a strong impression. "Abandon-The flesh-For eternal life," he uttered, with a severe and understated expression. I could not have composed a more appropriate poetic exposition for Tristan und Isolde. Participant Paco Chung's Cantonese phrase reads like a haiku: "Strange-Dream-Do not acquaint;" local curator of contemporary art Jeff Leung sung, with humour and a sense of great urgency, "Approaching-Approaching-Wife is approaching!"

Samson Young, April 10, 2013.