The Music of the Dwarves

Tags: musichistorycomposition

Orid Oru, "The Universes of Forever": a world not much different from many others, whose most notable feature is a huge inland ocean connected to the outer waters that surround the world only through a small channel in the northwest. The western dwarves of Goden Tarmid "The Rope of Blades" have long followed a complicated prophecy requiring them to send an adventurer around the world, circling the ocean. It was they who built the bridge of Merchantwinds across the strait, making possible, in theory at least, an entirely land-based passage around the world. So far, nobody has actually completed the journey, because there are many dangers along the way.

Far to the east, the Letter of Wealth founded the fortress of Mengthak "Lashedlocks" and held it strong for centuries. But under increasing pressure from goblins, men, competing dwarven groups, and even elves, the fortress eventually fell. For a long time no group could hold it; battle after battle was fought, with each winner barely having the chance to bring in a garrison before the next attack put some other entity in control. During this time, many adventurers of the Rope of Blades met their ends in Lashedlocks as they tried to pass through on their round-the-world pilgrimages. Eventually, the Rope of Blades leadership determined to send a military expedition to take Lashedlocks once and for all for themselves, and hold it as a safe resting and supply point for travellers. The expedition was initially successful. They built up the defenses, secured the towers that had been built during the periods of goblin occupation, and settled in to build of stocks of food, drink, and weapons.

But the endless caverns below the fortress, which the dwarves could not secure without locking out the very travellers they hoped to support, became a source of endless incursions by hideous monsters from before the dawn of time. And a cave fish man wererabbit wandered in, bit someone, and the ensuing multi-year epidemic killed hundreds of dwarves. The dwarves of Lashedlocks at one point managed to quarantine all known remaining wererabbits in the inn (whose name was changed to the Playful Club of Boys for obvious reasons) where they would spend most of every month discussing poetry and literature with each other, then turn into horrific yet strangely cute monsters briefly at full moon. With no other way to eradicate the menace and not risk further infection, the uninfected outside spent months building an aqueduct to inundate the inn with cleansing water. It was all for nought, because as they were cleaning up from that episode, visiting poets who had been bitten during the initial outbreak years earlier then left Lashedlocks before their symptoms started to show, returned as visitors and started biting people. There were several such renewed outbreaks, each costing a high price in dwarven blood.

Repeated battles on the surface steadily depleted the strength of the garrison. After years of attempts to bring the place to stability, with the Rope of Blades population in Lashedlocks whittled down to a handful of adult dwarves and many grim children, the few survivors barricaded themselves inside with no access to the surface, hoping that in a generation or two, the world would be ready for them. Merchants of many civilizations came to Lashedlocks to trade, and finding the fortress entirely sealed, camped out near the gates with their goods and pack animals in the mistaken belief that it would open up soon.

The next time a representative of the Rope of Blades made it as far as Lashedlocks with a party of adventurers, she entered through the caverns below to discover the huge complex was (still? again?) knee-deep in corpses of dwarves, goblins, trolls, men, and hideous monsters for which there is no description. The first survivor they could find was a ten-year-old dwarven child, who claimed, with a somewhat disturbing gleam in his eye, that nothing out of the ordinary had occurred and he was just having fun playing with his toy axe.

That adventurer died soon after (while wrestling a moon monster in the wilderness south of Mengthak), but her report had made it back to the Mountainhomes, and another expedition was sent to retake Lashedlocks yet again. They opened the drawbridges, let in the hundreds of merchants who were still camped outside, and immediately drafted all into the labour force, or attempted to. It was a hard life of constant work, discipline, and risk. Just cleaning up the corpses that littered the entire fortress took more then a year. The supplies of alcohol ran short, a serious problem in a culture where everyone is alcoholic from birth; nobody knew how to operate the stills properly and the crops failed so they couldn't make more booze fast enough to satisfy their thirst; and goblins and nightmare creatures from below continued to attack with regularity. Many of the merchants died, unaccustomed to the harsh realities of fortress life.

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Now in the pyrolusite temple of all gods on the top floor of the fortress Mengthak "Lashedlocks," sixteen drawn and haggard former merchants trudge in a circle, performing their ancient dance in honour of Athser the cave swallow god of the sky and rainbows. It is a dance recalling their mountain home in the far west, and it should be sweetly joyous but is here mournful. The dancers' movements imitate those of the little bird that is Athser's avatar as they dream of a final escape and redemption from their suffering. They never hope to see their home again while living. The music of the thur bone organ and the buqui drums (not a traditional Rope of Blades instrument, but common in Lashedlocks because of foreign influences) fills the room. Listen.

[MP3] [FLAC]

Procedurally generated musical forms

As you may have guessed, this is all related to a Dwarf Fortress game. Dwarf Fortress is an open-world exploration and simulation game that might be concisely described as a cross between Nethack and Simcity. There's a procedurally generated fantasy world, potentially huge, full of different civilizations and cultures, and as player you can manage a dwarven settlement or control an individual character who roams through the world. There is no clear goal or objective except any you make for yourself, but since survival (at both the individual and civilization level) tends to be difficult, that usually becomes part of the goal.

Dwarf Fortress has the reputation, not entirely deserved, of being one of the most difficult and complicated computer games in existence. Dwarf Fortress also has a reputation for creating narratives: anyone who's played it for a while finds themselves with stories to tell. People involved in "game studies" (the study of games as literary or artistic works) have spent some effort on figuring out what it is about Dwarf Fortress that makes it especially prone to storytelling.

For a long time it's been the case that the dwarves and other creatures in Dwarf Fortress have entertained each other and supported their religious ceremonies with music. And in a fairly recent update, the developers added a feature to the game whereby it will generate detailed technical descriptions of the specific musical forms used by each culture in the game world. These technical details are associated with cultures and individuals, so that the dwarves of the Rope of Blades might tend to usually use one musical scale while their neighbours use another, or a great dwarven bard might even invent his own musical form which then becomes popular among other bards. And the descriptions are precise enough that it seems, in principle, we could write music to match them, and that might be a fun thing to do. What does the music of the dwarves actually sound like? Let's find out!

Here is the game-generated description for The Paints of Jade:

The Paints of Jade is a devotional form of music directed toward the worship of Athser originating in the Rope of Blades. The rules of the form are applied by composers to produce individual pieces of music which can be performed. The music is played on a thur. The entire performance should be made sweetly, and it is to be loud. The melody has short phrases throughout the form. It is performed in the nural rhythm. Throughout, where possible, composers and performers are to make trills.

The thur always does the main melody.

The Paints of Jade has the following structure: a passage and another one to two brief passages possibly all repeated.

The first simple passage is at a walking pace. Chords are packed close together in dense clusters in this passage. The passage is performed using the berim scale. The passage should be composed and performed using glides.

Each of the second simple passages is consistently slowing. One one pitch is ever played at a time in this passage. Each passage is performed using the ibruk scale.

Scales are constructed from twelve notes spaced evenly throughout the octave. The tonic note is fixed only at the time of performance. Every note is named. The names are ermis (spoken erm), thoth (tho), thatthil (tha), góstand (gó), libash (li), lakish (la), asdos (as), roder (ro), nel (ne), biban (bi), ugog (ug), and ish (ish).

The berim pentatonic scale is thought of as two disjoint chords spanning a perfect fifth and a major third. These chords are named alak and sedil.

The alak trichord is the 1st, the 2nd, and the 8th degrees of the semitone octave scale.

The sedil trichord is the 9th, the 12th, and the 13th (completing the octave) degrees of the semitone octave scale.

The ibruk hexatonic scale is constructed by selection of degrees from the fundamental scale. The degrees selected are the 1st, the 4th, the 5th, the 8th, the 9th, and the 11th.

The nural rhythm is a single line with thirty-two beats divided into eight bars in a 4-4-4-4-4-4-4-4 pattern. The beat is stressed as follows:

| x x ! - | - - x - | x X - x | x - - x | - x x - | x - - - | x x x X | x x - X |

where ! marks the primary accent, X marks an accented beat, x is a beat, - is silent, and | indicates a bar.

Making it real

At a glance, that description seems at least sort of reasonable. It says the octave is divided into twelve equal divisions, okay, that's just like standard human music; there are scales that are subsets of the octave, okay, we do that too; and the beat is a repeating pattern divided into chunks of four beats. All this is pretty familiar.

However, there are also some gotchas. The description talks about chords in the first simple passage, but the "chords" it describes as the basis for the berim scale are not very consonant. The best I was able to do in lining up this scale with the note names of our world was to call the first note of the 12-note octave E. Then the notes of the berim scale are E, F, B, C, and D#. I can't make any conventional major or minor triads out of those notes because the only roots that have a fifth in the scale are E and F, and there are no thirds for them. The alak and sedil chords in the description each include very dissonant semitone intervals (E-F and D#-E). And the whole idea of using "dense clusters" of chords is hard to reconcile with using "glides" (which I interpret to mean glissandi) and trills. The dwarves must have very nimble fingers if they can play dense chords and also glide and trill more than one or two notes within those chords.

Here's the description of the thur. It's supposed to be a sort of reed organ. I don't know what kind of keyboard it has, but the description of the musical form implies that thur players are supposed to be able to transpose music on sight into any key, and that combined with a four-octave range in a "handheld" instrument makes me think the keyboard can't be much like one of our pianos. Maybe it's some kind of compact isomorphic keyboard vaguely resembling that of a chromatic button accordion, with some sort of design features to make trills and glissandi as easy as possible.

The thur is a small hand-held bone musical instrument. The musician uses a leather bellows to send air over interior reeds. The desired pitch is selected using a bone keyboard. The instrument has a four octave range going from a middle to an extremely high pitch. The instrument has a graceful dull timbre.

The second (and possible third) single passages seem a little easier because they're mentioned to only involve one note at a time. Interpreting the ibruk scale as E, G, A♭, B, C, D, there are also a few reasonable-sounding chords we could arpeggiate, such as Cmajor and Gmajor. This seems a little more hopeful as something that could sound like music.

The real sticking point was the "nural rhythm" supposed to be used throughout the song. It's irregular and full of rests pretty much at random. I tried writing things with quarter notes at different stress levels and rests as described, and it all sounded pretty bad. Even if I speed it up and assume that a quarter-note in this rhythm is less than one step of "walking pace" (which is hard to justify from the game description), because the line is so long, by the time it repeats the listener has already forgotten how it started and it just sounds like ongoing random nonsense instead of any kind of systematic pattern. What can we, really, do with this?

What I did was I said, okay, the dwarves are doing a walking dance (I imagine it as something like a cakewalk) to this. They're going to be taking a step on every beat anyway even if the thur playing the melody happens to be silent. So we should be able to hear something on pretty much every beat. And with that in mind, I dug around in the fortress for something that could play a counter-rhythm in a more or less simple 4:4 time to fill in the gaps of the "nural rhythm" and make it sound, frankly, less like ass. What I came up with was the "buqui"; not a Rope of Blades instrument, but there were a bunch of them lying around in Lashedlocks presumably from previous occupying forces.

The buqui is a huge stationary percussion instrument. It consists of two hourglass ceramic drums with leather heads which rest on a glass stand. The musician strikes the heads. The instrument produces a complex sound that cannot be said to be of a single pitch. The instrument has a quavering harsh buzzy timbre.

So I said, okay, there'll be a simple buqui line that keeps the beat through the whole piece, standing in for the stamping feet of the dwarves, and then I'll follow the nural rhythm on the thur at least as far as when the thur is to be silent or playing, but I'll feel relatively free to subdivide the beats in order to achieve other directives like having "glides" and clusters of chords.

Engraving and recording

The workflow I intended to use was to write the music in Lilypond, generate MIDI and PDF sheet music from that, and then play the MIDI on some kind of synthesizer. Ideally, I'd use my modular, but my main modular synthesizer is in pieces spread out all over my apartment right now (after I built a temporary synth in another case for a demo, and then had to tear that apart to test some newly-built North Coast modules) and I kind of wanted to try out the Roland D-05 I bought myself for the Solstice after reading my own gift-giving guide. So I ended up recording it on the D-05 (with the factory "Fast and Slow Rotor" patch) for the "thur," and the Pocket Miku MIDI percussion channel for the "buqui." I'm pleased with how well the D-05 simulates the way I imagine the "graceful dull timbre" of the thur; the Pocket Miku is a less close match to the buqui description, but I didn't want to spend a lot of time on that.

Lilypond created plenty of challenges, among them that it doesn't do glissandi in MIDI output. So I had to write them all out as manually-entered sequences of chromatic notes, which looked pretty bad. After I got it sounding the way I wanted, I ended up cutting and pasting to do a new, pretty much separate, version of the music just for the PDF. There were further challenges with getting the dynamic markings to both affect the MIDI properly, and look nice in the sheet music.

And although Lilypond's "articulate script" helped, there were performance details it wouldn't do. I figured that the dwarves would probably pause at the end of each "passage," so I added a fermata at the end of each. But that's another thing Lilypond doesn't do in its MIDI output. So I ended up doing some complicated things with switching the time signatures to add extra time at the end of the measures that were last in each passage, but with the changes not visible in the sheet music (which at the time I was still trying to generate from the same code as the MIDI). I ended up not even showing the fermate in the sheet music, on the theory that the dwarves would just know that they were expected and not need to mention them.

Splitting into separate code for sheet music and MIDI made it a lot easier to get the looks of the sheet music right (no longer having to be sure it would generate the right MIDI output) but that meant it would be difficult to make any further changes to the music as such, because of the need to update the two versions in parallel. I could only really make that split after I was sure the musical content was final. Lilypond's data model (music as data and not code, no possibility for a real if-then statement unless implemented as "tags" to be processed externally) made it effectively impossible to merge the two versions into a single piece of code with conditionals.

Here is the resulting sheet music as a PDF file, and another instance of the embedded player so that if you like, you can listen to the song again as you follow along in the score. I've also posted the Lilypond source code, so you can dig into some of the tricks I used to get the sheet music looking as I wanted it to.

[MP3] [FLAC]

Other forms, other thoughts

It'd be really interesting if other people wanted to try recreating the music of the dwarves (and other races) in Dwarf Fortress. You might follow the description of The Paints of Jade musical form given here, or extract other musical-form descriptions from your own games. On the points where I've made interpretation decisions, I might be wrong, and there may be better ways to interpret those points to produce something that sounds at least sort of like music.

As far as the procedural generator goes, what stands out to me as its biggest weakness is rhythm. The nural rhythm described here doesn't work well, and other rhythms I've read about in other musical-form descriptions from the game, also don't work well. Maybe there's a way I haven't yet figured out to stretch or extend the game-generated descriptions to produce something that works musically while still respecting what's written; or maybe the generator just needs some more work from the boys at Bay Twelve.

Harmony is also something of an issue. This description explicitly mentions 12-EDO, the standard set of notes that is almost universal in present-day human music. Other musical-form descriptions I've seen so far feature either 24-EDO (quarter tones) or something described as an eight-part equal division of the perfect fourth. That works out to just over 19 notes per octave, and 19-EDO is a reasonable way to structure scales which I've explored a bit in my own compositions. Although I've only looked carefully at one world, I haven't seen any other octave divisions mentioned. So I infer that the dwarves do not just choose octave divisions purely at random; they are picking octave divisions that make it possible to produce consonant near-"just" musical intervals, much as human musicians do in our world.

Why, then, do the dwarves create such dissonant scales and chords? Their scales look like something close to a uniform distribution over subsets of a given size of the octave notes, and the result is hard to work into anything like the kind of harmonic framework familiar to our own music. The work of using 12-EDO, 24-EDO, or (nearly) 19-EDO goes to waste. Maybe dwarves have different ears and psychoacoustically a different perception of harmony from ours... but it's worth mentioning that the human civilizations of Orid Oru have their own music which, although distinct, is not fundamentally different from that of the dwarves, and it uses the same kinds of scales and rhythms although not the same specific scales and rhythms.

All in all, it seems that the study dwarven music is still in its infancy. There's a lot we don't know about the music of the dwarves and why they write it the way they do. So if you encounter other examples, please let me know!