Kiki, Bouba, and the contours of tango

Since childhood, I never liked the oval
Since childhood, I always drew the angle
Pavel Kogan. “Thunderstorm”, 1936

Murat Erdemsel, a tango teacher with 10 years of experience, likes to introduce himself as “an avid tango dancer and a thinker first”. “Painting and making musical analysis is my secondary profession”, says Murat, “And I have no future plans to replace the order of these professions. So, every art work I produce, I do it for love and to inspire dancers and our students.” There is little wonder why Murat has to put his unusual gift of a painter of music at the second place, given that everyone is so eager to listen to his lecture on graphic musicality… a breathtaking show where the main roles are played by Murat’s two funny assistants called Kiki and Bouba.

Let me introduce our TA heroes. Here they are, at this simple picture. Of course you can probably make a good guess, which of the two is called Kiki, and which one is Bouba!

The sharp-cornered star-shape (yes, of course that’s Kiki) and the rounded, yin-yangish Bouba trace their origins to a classic psychology experiment which proved that our ability to listen to sounds is intrinsically linked to our perception of geometric shapes. (The tangueros, who are accustomed to “drawing the music on the dance floor”, might say, “Big deal!” But for psychologists and linguists, it was quite an insight. In the footnote, the psychology aficionados may find a more detailed discussion)

It is so easy to start seeing the silhouettes of Kiki and Bouba in tango! The angular contours of letters T, A, N ring like the piano keys. Letters G and O curl like the sounds of violins, flow like the vocal. And the bandoneon – oh, it can do everything, from marking the angular beat of the tango compass to weeping like a human.

It is equally straightforward to reflect the overall contours of Bouba and Kiki on the canvas of the dance floor… A simple straight step, which is customarily described to us as the quintessential mainstay of the tango dance, provides the backbone of Kiki’s linear geometry… while ochos and giros turn out to be equally fundamental swirls of the Bouba.

But it would be inconceivable if if all the diversity of tango was restricted to such a strangely simple pattern! Angularity of the Kiki and roundness of the Bouba don’t exclude one another in the music. Often, in one and the same musical phrase, one can hear both of them, often sung by different instruments of the band. A tanguero is free to choose, which of the two coexisting emotional geometries to express in the dance. And sometimes there could be tiny little Kikis strewn across the waves of Bouba. The overall color of the melody changes along with its geometric contour too; the tones become warmer and colder, the waves rise taller and recede again. The website of Murat and Michelle illustrates the successive steps of creation of Murat’s tango paintings (Organito de la Tarde, S.O.S., Poema), starting from the markup of the overall geometric structure and progressing to ever more details vision of the sound. (You can try it yourself, too! A recent addition to the website is Murat’s “practical assignment”, a kind of a blank outline coloring map for “Indio Manso” of Carlos Di Sarli. Murat promises to post his own, fully detailed painting of “Indio Manso” by mid-January 2012, so you still have time to try your hand without open-book kind of help :) )

And of course, there is an inexhaustible diversity of varying ways of translation of the general “geometric flavor” into the language of steps. Even the straight steps could be made rounded, wave-like, flowing as befits Bouba; even in ochos, the accent could shift from uninterrupted flowing roundness to angularity.

But we’ve jumped too far ahead! Bouba and Kiki are wonderful words, but music isn’t just made out of “words”. There are phrases, sentences, commas, periods, ellipses… (You may have watched Benjamin Zander’s wonderful video in which he impersonates a young piano student, starting from putting an accent on each note… who, had he not abandoned piano, would have likely mastered understanding of true musical phrases :) )

The texts, like the one you are reading right now, may have spoiled us by their explicit use of punctuation signs. But there was time when periods and commas and even spaces between words were frowned upon. In year 55 AD, Cicero condemned these “marks for gift-less orators” who are bound to make meaningless pauses anyway, whenever they simply run of breath. According to Cicero, beauty and purposefullness alone should define pauses and accelerations of speech, in the same way as the rhythm of moves of a pair of human beings is defined by physical purposefullness and beauty (quae non aut spiritu pronuntiantis aut interductu librarii sed numero coacta debet insistere). (No, in those days they didn’t dance in pairs! Cicero wrote about the moves of a pair of… classic wrestlers!)

The tango dancers are bound to remain at the same ancient step of progress, because there aren’t any special punctuation symbols placed for our convenience into the music, but instead, the beauty and the internal logic of the melody saves the day. In addition, we may often get help from the “text version” of tango – from its verses. That’s why I always try to understand and to adsorb the letras, and better yet, to translate them for everybody, preserving the meter of the verse. Then, the rhythm and the phrase breakdown of the music take the more familiar shape of a plain, explicitly punctuated text. If you are like myself, and if the text of the verses helps you to hear the beat of the rhythm, then I can offer you a few simple words of advice about the rhythmical structure of the classic Spanish romance (which still hold true for its beloved child, the letras of tango). First of all, synalepha (the fusion of vowels) rules (if a word ends with vowels, and the following word begins with a vowel, then all of these vowels of adjacent syllables merge into a single “poetic syllable”). Secondly, a line of poetry never ends with a stressed syllable (if the stress does fall on the last syllable of a line, then it isn’t the true rhythmic end; instead, it is followed by a “silent poetic syllable”, a pause akin to ellipses).

Or you can continue to think visually, and to paint the melody with phrases of color. For example, this is how Murat depicts the phrases and the pauses of Biagi’s tango vals “Lejos de Ti”:

Letra de Mauricio Rocha

Sin rumbo fijo mi vida va
quien sabe donde se detendrá
tal vez el dia que mi vagar
de nuevo amada te vuelva a hallar
Far away from you (tango-vals).
Lyrics by Mauricio Rocha

My aimless life, you have gone astray;
Who knows, where you’ll stop one day.
Maybe my wandering’s not in vain…
You, my beloved, would I find again?

Happy painting to you!

Footnote on Kiki and Bouba:

The story of Kiki and Bouba started from a psychological experiment, first conducted over 80 years ago by a German researcher Wolfgang Köhler. He showed his subjects the pictures of two simple doodles – a rounded, amoeba-like shape and a star-shaped, angular contour – and then asked, which of the two words from “Martian language” corresponded to each shape. Later on, the Köhler experiment has been repeated in numerous variations. It has been tested with the carriers of very different languages and cultures, with the children of different ages… It turns out that the words “Kiki” and “Bouba” have invariant meanings for virtually all of us. Of course, Kiki is the sharp-angled star-shape, and Bouba is the yin-yang-like rounded shape!

Why is it always so? The reason may be very interesting, according to the present-day psychologists, disciples of V. Ramachandran. It happens because of our ability to experience synesthesia, “the fusion of the senses”, which is also directly linked to our tango-musicality, to our ability to hear the music with our very bodies.

Synesthesia is usually understood as a rare gift of people who may see the colors of sounds or, for example, sense taste of colors. Ramachandran set out to prove that these unusual perceptual abilities are caused by tunneling of nerve signals betwen the areas of the human brain which are responsible for processing data from different sensory organs. For example, when the “information channel” between the visual and auditory areas is open wider than usually, then the auditory stimulus, with the “signal leak” into the visual areas, may possess not just a tone but also a color! At most, 1 or 2% of the human beings have this kind of ability of synesthetic perception.

But once the psychologists realized that fully 98% of people perceive Bouba as having the wavy shape, and Kiki as having the sharply angular shape (merging together our perceptions of sound and geometric shape), they had to ask a surprising question. Is it true that almost all of of us are actually capable of synesthesia, of the merger of senses? (They’ve since found exceptions, of a kind which only confirmed the rule. It turned out that Kiki-Bouba experiment fails with people with certain inborn brain connectivity problems). But why is specific type of synesthesia so common?

The brain auditory info processing centers must be so adjacent to the areas which participate in recognition of geometric shapes that the nerve signals can traverse their boundaries with ease. For example, it could happen because our senses of change of direction, of acceleration, of rotation (the ancient functions of our inner ear) still retain a connection with both hearing and proprioception (the inner sensation of the position and strength of our muscles).

The Kiki-Bouba dualism, until recently, served well to amuse the psychologists and theoreticians of human proto-language, but its only practical application has been in marketing / branding research (which is eager to predict which sounds inform what kinds of associations in a consumer’s mind). Not anymore! Go dancing, and use the same concept in a better way :)