The Ethnomusicology of the Last Dreadnought
There’s a beautiful book called The Countess of Stanlein Restored, by Nicholas Delbanco—now sadly out of print—that recounts the history and the loving restoration of a Stradivarius cello. This week’s story by Yoon Ha Lee takes that in a very different direction, with an ancient and terrible weapon of war. Like the last dreadnought itself, the story reminds us that sometimes “beauty is nothing but/the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear.” ~ Julian and Fran, February 5, 2023
The Ethnomusicology of the Last Dreadnought
By Yoon Ha Lee
It is not true that space is silent.
The darkness between stars is full of threnodies and threadbare laments, concertos and cantatas, the names of the dead and the wars that they’ve fed. Few people are unmoved by the strenuous harmonies and the strange hymns. Fewer people still understand their significance, the decayed etymologies and deprecated tongues.
It is your solemn task, as an archivist of the last dreadnought, to preserve its unique ethnomusicology for rising generations.
* * *
The last dreadnought has a structure that gives it a primary resonance frequency 9 octaves and 14.3 cents below middle C in the equal temperament A=440 Hz system. This cannot be a coincidence. The shipwrights of the Diamantine Regime paid attention to every numerological detail, and anything that deviates from their intention needs to be brought into alignment. Thus the tuning of the reconstructed dreadnought is of utmost importance, and helps put its battlefield repertoire into context.
The dreadnought’s secondary structures and cavities give it harmonics that shape its unique timbre. An archivist must also take into consideration the pragmatics of the dreadnought’s intended use. The presence and motions of crew members, prisoners of war, ammunition, cargo, fuel, and other mutable elements alter the dreadnought’s timbre over time. These in turn change its optimal orchestration in ensemble/fleet/battlefield conditions.
It is deceptive to discuss acoustical properties in purely physical terms, such as the speed of sound in spinal neutronium or the frequency spectra of mess hall prayers, although these factors are not without their import. Just as the ancient morin khuur, the Mongolian horse-headed fiddle, has a “male” and a “female” string, formed respectively of hairs from a stallion’s tail and a mare’s tail, as well as an origin story, the materials that comprise the last dreadnought’s construction possess mythological and sociocultural significance. It did not suffice to build an instrument of this nature using substances mined and manufactured from arbitrary locations, or by arbitrary institutions. The very integument of the dreadnought required the extraction of wealth from specific subjugated entities.
Perusal of the historical record reveals, for instance, that the cognitive weave that powered the dreadnought’s fire-control systems came from the colony on Ostara IV. The weave’s properties depended not only on environmental conditions, such as certain rare elements in that world’s atmosphere or its tiered hierarchy of citizenship rights, but the design of the machinery and the arduous working conditions of the dedicant workers. Accurate reconstruction of the dreadnought after the damage sustained in its final battle presupposes access to replicas of its components, engineers trained in the old skills, and factories aligned with the Diamantine paradigm.
Opponents to strict ethnomusicological construction often argue for the use of modern substitutes. They have yet to demonstrate that the timbral qualities of chameleon matter can fully mimic those of the genuine article. To be sure, sometimes compromise is necessary. The secrets behind the dreadnought’s salamander lasers and recrimination cannons have been lost despite the cryptoarchaeologists’ best efforts. In such cases we permit ourselves a conscientious substitute. Nevertheless, a purist approach to period music demands our best effort.
We address next the question of repertoire. Some preliminary discussion of notation is necessary. The dreadnought’s weapons included not only the recrimination cannons responsible for crippling enemy ships or bombarding planetary settlements, but the sidearms of the officers and the vegetable peelers of the chefs. Their percussive and tonal properties, alongside their many articulations, allow for a staggering number of potential combinations. Scholars have devised a vector space notation specifically for this class of ship.
Despite the instrument’s complexity, analysis reveals trends in the orchestrators’ preferred playing techniques, both in rehearsal and battlefield performance. Consequential engagements were carried out allegro con fuoco, with engine-room energy outputs in excess of 250 kilophoenixes. Incoming barrages often resulted in tremolo or vibrato with predictable frequencies.
It’s easy for us, when examining the notation, to lose sight of the improvisational nature of dreadnought maneuvers. We do not always possess urtexts or other early editions of the scores. Frustratingly, parts of the early manuscripts are sometimes overwritten by marginalia such as coleslaw recipes. (We are particularly troubled by the substitution of nondairy alternatives for sour cream.) The ones that survive often have lacunae, suggesting that the orchestrators left their captains and crews a great deal of interpretive leeway.
Let’s look at the best-known urtext, the battle plan for the engagement in which the last dreadnought was disabled and all hands executed by enemy marines. This is known by nonspecialists as the Battle of the Despot’s Fall, but its proper name, as attested by contemporary sources from the Diamantine Fleet, is the Battle of Severed Hopes. We are fortunate that the urtext survived at all. The relevant data crystal, rather than being properly declassified and excavated, turned up in a holographic mall directory on Station Excelsior. It took the devoted work of code scavengers to extricate the text from a morass of nutritionally unbalanced menus.
The authorship of this urtext is contested. The prevailing opinion is that Admiral Kim Spinel Sharpe wrote it with the assistance of their council of captains, as was common practice in the Diamantine Fleet. A significant minority holds that Sharpe was incapacitated by an obscure religious practice known as container gardening, and their XO drafted the plan at the eleventh hour. The degradation of the text makes it impossible to read the document’s version control, although some promising advances in quantum interpolation may shed light on the matter in the future.
In any case, the plan directed the last dreadnought, with its hypertrophied weapons, to open with a power chord against the more discordant forces of the Diamantines’ enemies. The orchestration manuals of the day called for a ratio of a single dreadnought to one hundred battle cruisers or equivalent. The percussion line alone should have demolished the other side, especially with the chimera missiles deployed as a basso continuo.
The urtext does not go into granular detail regarding the timing of the cannons’ broadsides. Records suggest that the tutti passages favored in most scores of the period were honored more in the breach. Instead, subtle syncopations and latencies on the order of 5 to 30 nanoseconds caused a stochastic form of polyrhythm, especially during opportunistic crescendos.
Other anomalies persist in the supplementary material. This engagement should have contained at least three movements, in contrast to the way the last dreadnought was overwhelmed almost immediately due to sabotage of its fire-control systems. The identity of the saboteur remains a mystery.
Additionally, in most accounts, the enemy marines’ boarding action met with only token resistance. It is unthinkable that the defenders of the Diamantine Regime would surrender so easily, especially with certain death awaiting them. It seems likelier that the last dreadnought capitulated with a more satisfactory authentic cadence, likely a heroic last stand, of which the resistance suppressed records.
The pernicious nature of this understanding, popularized by unscrupulous post-Diamantine historians, makes it imperative that we clarify the leitmotifs representing figures from Admiral Sharpe down to the lowliest rating. From a purely structuralist standpoint, Sharpe’s absence from the final cadenza and accusations that they fled while abandoning their crew are nonsensical. We should take seriously the proposal that it is up to us not only to replicate, but to build upon the solo repertoire intended for Sharpe.
Still, as with the physical restoration of the last dreadnought, we must not be content to stop with Sharpe themself. Admiral Sharpe existed in a framework starting with their childhood and training, and extending to the details of their service. While less dedicated archivists have attempted to reconstruct the particulars of the Battle of Severed Hopes through computer analyses and Monte Carlo simulations, only the wholesale reproduction of that framework will be wholly satisfactory.
We cannot accept the extinction of such a valuable and venerable instrument or its music. To do so would be to abdicate our responsibility as archivists. Our task is to bring back the last dreadnought and its capacity for combat, in the fullness of its original context: not only the fleet, but the Diamantine Regime and its creative agenda.
But why stop there? Once the last dreadnought has been restored, future works can be composed for the instrument. Such neo-Diamantine conquests will illuminate the practices of the past.
* * *
It is not true that space is silent.
The darkness within stars vibrates with sonatas and strophes, rondos and refrains, the fame of the dead and the lives that they led. Few people are unmoved by the stirring anthems and the strategic arias. Fewer people still understand their significance, the resurrected creeds and reanimated creations.
It is your solemn task, as an archivist of the last dreadnought, to ensure the revival and transmission of its music.
As for those who have been silenced for the sake of the performance, they are of no consequence.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Yoon Ha Lee is the New York Times bestselling author of Dragon Pearl and Tiger Honor. He lives in Louisiana with his family and has not yet been eaten by gators.
“The Ethnomusicology of the Last Dreadnought,” © Yoon Ha Lee, 2023.
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No one has the vast imaginative capacity of Yoon, that's for certain. And that last line is shattering.
What a complex, fascinating, and rather disturbing tale. 💙