New Albany-based cellist and composer Jon Silpayamanant wrote his first opera several years ago. Like many of the great classics, it’s not sung in English.
But instead of German or Italian, Silpayamanant’s work is written in Klingon.
Yes, Klingon — the bloodthirsty aliens from Star Trek with bumpy foreheads, whose language of the same name is perhaps not the most musical (when asked if he needed to warm up before singing, Silpayamanant laughed and said ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter for Klingon). There are a lot of consonants placed back-to-back, and some guttural sounds.
But Silpayamant is not the first person to find the beauty in an alien language.
There is a whole subset of sci-fi and fantasy fans — and linguists — who are interested in constructed languages; things like Tolkien’s Elvish languages, the dialogue in the Star Wars universe, and of course, Klingon.
And there are societies based around learning these languages.
Last weekend, the Klingon Language Institute held its annual q’uepa — that’s Klingon for ‘big meeting’ — in Indianapolis. Most of the attendees were there to listen and learn about the nuts and bolts of the language, like syntax and proper grammar. It’s a pretty robust language with synonyms, swear words and a full dictionary.
Like Siplayamanant, most were at the convention because these constructed languages, and the coordinating universes, are special to them.
But for long time, Silpayamant was a musician by day and a sci-fan at night; it took a while for him to combine those.
“I think when I started playing world music, I started getting involved heavily in the belly dance music,” Silpayamanant said. “So, I started a lot of those types of events. I started noticing a lot of them were very much fans of sci-fi and fantasy shows.”
Some of his new friends invited him to a sci-fi convention, where he played music from the franchise.
And that’s when Silpayamanant — who also teaches music at Indiana University Southeast — turned a scholarly ear to the music found within the Star Trek universe. And it’s become kind of an obsession.
“I in particular started looking online, finding resources,” he said. “I bought all the old tape editions of the Klingon language that were released by Simon and Schuster back in the 90s, so I have all those.”
He continued: “I eventually hooked up with the local Klingons [who] helped us with pronunciation.”
When Silpayamanant talks about “us,” he’s referring to his band, the il Troubadore Klingon Music Project. He and the other members, all classical musicians, perform original music in the language as well as songs found in the TV show, like this one from the “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” episode “Playing God.”
Silpayamanat also composed the score for a nationally performed play based on Charles Dickens’ work called “A Klingon Christmas Carol,” and locally leads a Klingon caroling group in Louisville during the holidays — all of which takes a fair amount of research.
“For one, it took me several weeks just to find all those fragments of song,” Silpayamant said. “You know, I’d read about [a song in an episode and say] ‘There was a song in that? I don’t even remember that. I need to go find that episode.'”
And as a result of all this study, Siplayamant has taken to calling himself the Klingon Xenomusicologist.
“‘Xeno’ obviously means ‘out there,’ basically ‘not here,’” he said. “So in sci-fi, the idea of a xenobiologist is someone who studies alien life.”
But Silpayamanent also has other non-Klingon projects in the works. He teaches cello to k-12 students, performs in a tiki group and loves traditional Middle Eastern string music.
So, you could say he’s just a general lover of music of this world — and of other worlds, too.