Video game music

Originally published in Plan B magazine, February 2009 – – and many thanks to Louis for the edit.


Formative influences being what they are, it’s little wonder that a generation raised in darkened rooms, eyes transfixed by bouncing sprites traversing blocky mazes, should now be found recreating video games culture in their art. Marnie Stern’s looping runs and baroque lack of variation in tone should be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever wielded a joypad, while Wizardzz – a side project of Lightning Bolt’s Brian Gibson – made an entire gaming concept album with 2006’s Hidden City Of Taurmond. Look deeper, though, and you’ll find a thriving subculture of games-influenced musicians that’s broad in ambition and scope, encompassing everything from emulation, remixing, cover bands, and original composition – projects borrowing not just from the games themselves, but from the culture, music and community that has grown around them.

In the US, this culture is traceable back to the late Nineties, when

bands such as Generic (later the Advantage) and Jenova Project

(later the Minibosses) began to arrange and cover popular game

music themes, touring often, making recordings freely available, and

encouraging others to join the remix culture – a growing scene of

musicians dedicated to re-recording game music.

It’s a culture that grew directly from the ranks of gaming fanboys. “I

met some kids that were learning 8-bit songs in my high school,”

explains Spencer Seim, drummer for The Advantage (who also

count amongst their number touring Marnie Stern guitarist Robby

Moncrieff). ”They were playing along to some previously

programmed drums, but I’d just bought a drum-set, so I asked if I

could play along. It was something I’d thought about doing a bunch

but had no idea in going about it, but they’d already taken all the

nerdy steps to go about learning all the stuff.” Many of these bands

typically gravitate towards Nintendo games, attractive for their instant

recognition, insistent and repetitive lead melodies, distinctive tones,

over-layered arpeggiation, and frequent modulation – many of the

staples, of course, of prog-metal and math rock. Game music is, in

short, noodle heaven.

Yet outside of its stories, there is little of the fustiness of prog or the

arcana of math-rock in game music. As a form, it’s progressed from

a classically Japanese foregrounding of melody towards the greater

textures brought by FM synthesis and multi-channel sampling, each

innovation giving rise to its own heroes, foremost among them Koji

Kondo, author of generational earworm the Super Mario Brothers

theme, Koichi Sugiyama, whose Dragon Quest 3 was the first game

music arranged symphonically, and Nobuo Uemura, whose Final

Fantasy soundtracks have synthesised Japanese and Western

traditions to such popular effect.

It’s perhaps no surprise that game sound technology, driven as it

was by composers pushing the envelope of both hardware and

programming, for some time became a staple of home electronic

composition. The Amiga and Atari ST were widely used by

contemporary Western musicians – the Amiga for its sequencer, the

ST for its MIDI – as affordable, state-of-the-art kit unavailable

elsewhere. Use of game consoles and chips – particularly, but not

exclusively, the SNES (or, for the faithful, the original Famicom) and Game Boy –

has since given rise to the thriving chiptune and 8-bit scenes, inhabited by the

likes of Nullsleep, Bit Shifter, and Unicorn Kid. “I was pretty fascinated by the

texture and mood of video game music as a kid, and the economy and

efficiency of these programs has really spoiled me,” said Bit Shifter

to digizine Chaos Control of his decision to reach for 8-bit

technology over traditional musical tools. ”It’s a pretty abstract

system, which to me is really a plus. It forces you into an unfamiliar

mode of conceptualising music and sound, which can lend well to

happy accidents and unexpected results.”

The chiptune scene is beginning to be popularly influential, as we

saw with last year’s global crush on Crystal Castles’ punk 8-bit. But

as evocative as the tones are, the majority of the chiptune scene is

remarkably futuristic; less a feint at kitsch than a passionate

advocacy of the power of polyharmonic bleeps, assembled like

edifices, yet retaining the plasticity and innovation of the best

interactive in-game music. Chiptune has instituted its own annual

bonanza, New York’s Blip Festival, while Two Player Productions

has documented the scene in the excellent Reformat The Planet,

which toured international film festivals in 2008.

Far from the filesharing and DIY shows of chiptune and remix is the

orchestral performance tradition, which has arisen primarily from the

lush scores dominating game music since Dragon Quest 3. Koichi

Sugiyama instituted his ’Family Classic Concert’ in 1987, bringing

the most popular game music compositions to the stage. The Final

Fantasy soundtracks are perhaps the apoetheosis of orchestral

game music composition, and the first to break the international

market. Since 2002, these compositions have been performed

orchestrally to concert halls all over the world, while 2007, the 20th

anniversary of Final Fantasy, saw the start of a world tour which

continues into 2009. Game franchises are wise to the remix scene

too: in 2003, Uemura recruited the Black Mages, a prog metal band,

to perform new arrangements of the Final Fantasy themes. The

Black Mages are as much a part of the Final Fantasy franchise as

Uemura himself, appearing at official concerts and events.

The symbiotic relationship between game music and Western music

cultures has come full circle with the institution of music-making

games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band saturating Western gaming

markets. When players pick up the controls to wail along to Blue

Oyster Cult, they are, wittingly or unwittingly, parodying two decades

of video game music culture by learning new, game-oriented

arrangements of rock staples. Game music is an evolutionarily lively

form, replicating and variating, inviting participation and innovation

by its very nature.


~ by bunnyrabble on March 27, 2009.

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