Three months in a row, which is something of a record at least for the past year or so, the hexawe.net netlabel has served up healthy doses of unhealthy chiptune-derived music. The MP3s on Hexawe tend to veer from the retro, chipper arcade simulacra that defines much chiptune and instead head headfirst into noisier climes. As heard on Thrash Bandicoot‘s “Threat,” this isn’t a matter of common noise (MP3), of so-called (mistakenly so, if it must be said) unmusical sounds, but instead of disparate impulses. Stitched together into a suite-like format are elements of fuzzy bass and echoed vocal snippets, and techniques ranging from sudden junctures to a sense of counterpoint that verges on randomness.
It was nearing the half-year mark for the hexawe.net netlabel — a half year since it had last made public one of its tantalizing bits of abstract chiptune-flavored sample-packed near-anarchic music. But then, fortunately, came “Fat Punch,” credited to Kool Skull (MP3). It bears all the marks of a hexawe.net track: the phaser sound bites, the cut’n’paste madness, the arcade-on-fire intensity, the broken-speaker fuzziness. And like all the label’s releases, it came accompanied by a Zip archive of its constituent parts, allowing you to play with them in the freely available software from littlegptracker.com. You needn’t even install the Tracker software to get a taste of Kool Skull’s track’s inner workings. While the full piece is highly enjoyable, I recommend downloading the Zip file and playing all but the two longest samples (the only two longer than a second) set on random in your MP3 player of choice.
Recommended reading, news, and so forth elsewhere:
¶ Tinkerer, Hacker, Solderer … Felon?: The idea that when we purchase consumer electronics devices we’re not free to do with them as we wish can feel like this consensual extralegal hallucination, but until it gets to the Supreme Court it’s going to remain in that wonderful zone of Forever Litigation (apologies to Joe Haldeman). We can look forward to “Master Chief v John Doe” on the docket some day — who knows which side Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney will take? — but in the meanwhile, an attempt to convict someone (a man in his late 20s named Matthew Crippen) for modding Microsoft Xbox 360s has ended, albeit on a procedural technicality: engadget.com, wired.com, joystiq.com. There doesn’t appear to be a Crippen entry at freedom-to-tinker.com, but that site, hosted by Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP), is a treasure trove of issues such as this one. As for the Microsoft case, it always seems remarkable when a company founded by hackers goes to war against hackers. Let’s be hopeful that Xbox’s new Kinect doesn’t get the same sort of helicopter-parent attention. Because the Kinect is proving eminently (intentionally, some might say) hackable: crunchgear.com, hackaday.com.
¶ DJ Hero (Circa 1985): While on the subject of extralegal gaming, this rendition of the audiogame DJ Hero needs to be seen to be believed. It re-imagines the game as if it had been programmed for an NES system back around the time Ronald Reagan was entering his second term as president:
This is no mere retro dream scenario. You can download the actual functioning game at ericruthgames.com. It speaks to the energy within the so-called chiptune, or 8bit, music community. If you think chiptune is just a self-conscious geek fetish, it’s important to understand it’s more than faux arcade music created long after the fact. A game like Ruth’s — which is to say the effort that goes into such games — speaks to the benefit many find in viewing our current technological experiences through the technology of the near past. As chiptune/8bit develops as a culture, it becomes increasingly like a near-past version of steampunk. (I was initially going to say “recent past,” but “near past” is better, because it aligns with the more common term, “near future.”) How 8bit culture differs from steampunk is worth spending more time pondering. One particular strong point is the way a new generation pushes old technology past its previous understood limits, both functionally and creatively; the result raises the bar for software engineering today, when practitioners feel less constrained — a situation that has led to bloatware, feature creep, and other tendencies of our time.
¶ Lacquered Up: Footage of the “Urushi musical interface,” developed by designer and musician Yuri Suzuki with composer/musician Matthew Rogers:
Apparently it resulted from a program led by Emiko Oki, intended to cross-pollinate British designers and traditional “lacquer craftsmen of Wajima, in Ishikawa prefecture.” More on Suzuki at yurisuzuki.com. Found via designboom.com. The photos at designboom.com show that the craft isn’t simply that of the lacquer experts; there’s a lot of detail about the musical interface’s development and production. This is way older than steampunk. This is Kamakura-punk.
¶ System-ing the Game Music: There’s discussion of procedural music systems going on at fe01.redstonewire.com, the Minecraft game’s message board. That’s via twitter.com/dizzybanjo, aka Robert Thomas, who is CCO at RjDj, the reactive-audio tool, and who after some message-board nay-saying by others weighs in with some constructive ideas:
In terms of how procedural music for games / virtual worlds is created – I agree with some points on this thread. When programming procedural music, its important to somehow codify the musical structures that are present in the types of compositions, or improvisations you want the system to create. This is an art form in itself.
¶ The Music Industry vs the Record Industry: Thanks to Alan Wexelblat of copyfight.corante.com for noting the Disquiet.com Despite the Downturn compilation (a multi-artist critique-in-music, or “answer album, to a specious article in The Atlantic by Megan McArdle) in his discussion of Jeff Price‘s “The State of The Music Industry & the Delegitimization of Artists,” which debunks a lot of music-business doomsday scenarios and received wisdom. Writes Wexelblat: “If this argument sounds familiar, it should: Marc Weidenbaum made this point back in May, though he did it artistically rather than by crunching the numbers.” Price’s work is at blog.tunecore.com.
¶ Give ‘Em a Beat: And the Stonesthrow Records weekly Beat Battles are rapidly approaching their 200th (!) consecutive week. Those battles are one of the major locus points of casual copyleft artistry and intense communal creativity on the Internet, a place where musicians, week in, week out, take a single shared sampled and see what they all manage to make with and (for the more accomplished ones) of it, extrapolate from it, limited by time (less than a week) and aesthetic (in the end, it’s all about the beat). Discussion has begun as to what will be the sample for week 200: stonesthrow.com.
This sneak peek of a forthcoming video game says a lot about generational iterations in digital entertainment and culture. In the game, Mimeo and the Kleptopus King, the player leaps between not only those standard signifiers of gaming progress in platformers (i.e., levels), but also between degrees of video-tech sophistication, from 2-bit through 16-bit, and potentially onward.
Generations of audio development are less easily trackable than those in gaming, which is more clear-cut in its platform-dependency, but I wonder if there’s a music out there that can not only glide as easily between worlds as this game does, but that does so with the sort of emotional meaning packed in here — retro Pong samples and off-the-rack vocoding do not count.
Up above are the hero at various bit levels — note that they’re not just the same drawing with higher levels of resolution. And here are two sample stages of the game, showing how color and shading are depicted:
You need to watch the video below to appreciate the fluidity with which the game addresses these generations of technology. You aren’t just playing the same video game at with varying degrees of visual sophistication; certain moves require you to consider which bit level is the best way to proceed.
Here are examples of four degrees of audio, as represented in the Mimeo score — a 2-bit bass line (MP3), a 4-bit hi-hat (MP3), an 8-bit melody (MP3), and a 16-bit counter melody (MP3):
It’s kinda funny that it’s called “program music,” given what such a term suggests in our age of computer-assisted cultural activity.
That’s the term for the classical tradition in which an instrumental work has an inherent but unspoken (that is, unsung) narrative. Perhaps the best known, and best loved, example is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Paul Dukas, which, as the Beatles might have put it, is based on a poem by a man named Goethe. We all have in our heads the Apprentice imagery — those animated mops and buckets — from Disney’s 1940 animation Fantasia (if not the more recent Nicolas Cage film), but Dukas’ music had been around for 43 years before that. Part of what made Fantasia such a fitting tribute to Dukas’ piece is that while the film provided an intoxicating, and indelible, stream of images, it didn’t add dialogue.
Music scholar Nicolas Slonimsky suggested the alternate term “descriptive music,” to allow for a phrase that more comfortably encompasses a broader range of less narrative-driven pieces, like Gustav Holst’s The Planets (not to be mistaken, of course, with Dr. Dre’s recently announced celestial hip-hop project — which it’s worth noting is reported to be instrumental, i.e. rapping-free) and Modest Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition, as covered famously by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer — which brings us back, via prog-rock, to electronic music, circa the 1970s.
Last year, chiptune/8-bit figure Moldilox performed his own bit of “program music,” producing a score to a video game that had never existed, based on the great manga Drifting Classroom by Japanese genius Kazuo Umezu (see disquiet.com, thejosephlusterreport.blogspot.com). With tongue, and game controller, still firmly in cheek, he’s now followed that up with a lesser-known Umezu series, Fourteen, a sprawling future-fiction work starring the tragic poultry-human hybrid Chicken George (shown up top, alongside one of Fantasia‘s anthropomorphic mop buckets).
Moldilox’s faux-score for the faux-game has the following narrative, as he describes it:
“‘The Birth of Chicken George’ and ‘The Liberation of Chicken George’ follow the first and second stages, respectively. The first finds the player controlling the lump that will become Chicken George, maneuvering past scientists in the lab, and eventually making it toward a series of computer terminals while fighting off attackers and growing piece by piece. Stage two has George free at last, and running rampant through a zoo filled with scientific horrors, releasing them all and unleashing them on the unprepared masses.”
Both are performed in classic 8-bit sounds from the Pliocene era of video games, as developed in the audio-software program Milky Tracker (milkytracker.org). The song “Birth” (MP3) has a suitably eerie opening section, with industrial noises, as well as rises and drops in scales that suggests some serious shoots’n’ladders action. And “Liberation” (MP3), with its disco-Beethoven motif, ups the pace, with a more complicated melody, and a lot more zooming around, including moments of dramatic pausing. As with pre-Fantasia Dukas, you’ll have no trouble picturing the action in your head.
More on the project, for which Moldilox provided the game-cartridge image shown above, at beepcity.com.
• October 13, 2016: This day marks the start of the 250th weekly Disquiet Junto project.
• November 16, 2016: I'll be sharing the mic at Adobe Books in San Francisco with my fellow 33 1/3 author Evie Nagy for an evening hosted, from 7pm to 10pm, by Marc Kate (facebook.com).
• December 1, 2016: A likely speaking engagement. Details to come.
• December 13, 2016: This day marks the 20th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 5, 2017: This day marks the 5th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• Ongoing: The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.