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Carmen ex Machina

By (September 1, 2009) No Comment
Music is universal. It is the sound of the human spirit, a language without words that speaks to us all, a magical thing that can transform and transmute the mundane and drab. At least that’s what I remember from Mary Poppins. Yet, for all its purported universality, it’s highly divided by personal preference and taste. There are few things more unbearable than music we dislike and, I’ll admit, when someone thinks highly of music I think is poor, my instant reaction is to transpose my judgment of the music onto my judgment of their character.

This variation is due, in some great part, to the diversity of musical forms and styles, a diversity that, for good or ill, has been codified and tied to demographics. Music is part of lifestyle, and lifestyle is part of your age/culture/socio-economic bracket, so music ends up getting centered around market nodes as both an expression of, and a sales pitch to, subcultural units. Music is universal, yes, in that everyone listens to it – but everybody buys a different sales pitch.


What, then, of the gamer subculture? Cinema, with its close ties to the theatrical forms that preceded it, was able to adopt the musical and the opera; Darth Vader gets his own leitmotif, lucky bastard, and an awesome one at that. Even in the silent era, in-theatre musicians would play a score to match the action. But video games were not given the same options, both because of its unprecedented formal structure (being a private, interactive experience) and the technological constraints of early game machines.

Music has had a fascinating history in relation to gaming. The early limitations of the medium were considerable, as a listen to the ‘Pacman’ soundtrack (such as it is) will immediately tell you. But, as is so often the case, adversity forced innovation, and as early as the iconic Nintendo Entertainment System (home of the original Mario Brothers) the simple 8-bit systems were being pushed to their limits, used to produce what would become some of the most enduring and recognizable tunes in video games’ (admittedly short) history. By the time Mario became ‘Super Mario’, more and more skilled hands were being brought to bear on video game projects, with dedicated composers scoring games much as movies were scored, producing the appropriate atmosphere, be it adventuresome (like Zelda’s distinct overture), spooky (the glum sound of Mario’s underground journeys) or tense (the boss-battle themes in most every game). Talent, like that of Mario and Zelda‘s Kondo Koji and Final Fantasy‘s Uematsu Nobuo emerged and talent was recognized.

A turning point in the realm of high culture came with the grand treatment of Dragon Quest‘s soundtrack by the London Philharmonic in 1986. This might not seem terribly remarkable during the 80’s, an era that saw the general digitalization of music, but it marked the acceptance of video games, at least in one aspect, as an art form. Video games were not a shameful place of work for composers, nor was what they composed beneath the notice of prestigious musicians and conductors. This interest was matched and mirrored by the progress in synthesizer technology; the practice of writing a game’s data on a disc, then using the remainder of the disc’s space to house high quality sound files in the same manner as audio CDs, was adopted by successful 90’s video games such as Warcraft II, Mechwarrior II, and Total Annihiliation. These games, set in realms of science fiction and fantasy epic, left behind the earlier, more limited musical formats of the Genesis and Nintendo Entertainment System era in favor of skillfully rendered classical numbers, with convincing horns and strings playing music that would not seem out of place in cinema.

As technology improved, so did the ability to place grander, yet more glorious scores in games, such that 2007’s Halo 3, Bungie Entertainment’s wildly successful conclusion to the Halo series, used a 60-piece orchestra and a 24-voice chorus in its soundtrack. The score, a killer series of compositions that would put John Williams to shame, was composed by Martin O’Donnell, whose significant musical work has been almost exclusively for video games. Gregorian chants and sweeping sonatas create a breathtaking backdrop to a scene of a world in peril at the hands of alien crusaders, all performed by skillful musicians, all for the sole purpose of enhancing the playing experience. In a little more than a decade, video games weren’t just in orchestras, they were using them.

Meanwhile, the young folks who were raised with the NES grew to become artists and consumers and a new genre emerged as a result of their affection for the games of their youth. ‘Chiptune’, the kind of music you heard emanating in boops and beeps from the Nintendo machines of the eighties and nineties, has been thoroughly integrated into popular music genres such as Electropop, House, and Electronica. The ‘future of the past’ sound of the synthesizer has proved to have its own beauty, and anyone who tells you there isn’t fine music being made in the techno genres hasn’t given a fair listen to Justice, Simian Mobile Disco or the work of Richard David James (aka Aphex Twin). This hasn’t been only due to the influence of video games; digital music has it’s own very worthy tradition. However, the video game gave digital music a direction, a narrative, and an emotional content that has made both individual pieces and the general style widely recognizable. There is even a world-touring video game music concert, ‘Video Games Live’, which I am kicking myself for not seeing in Austin when I had the chance.

So as music and technology, composition and gameplay, began to collide, it was only natural that games about music would emerge, and this is perhaps where the intermingling becomes most interesting. Music games constitute an entire genre, with whole companies and development teams solely dedicated to creating immersive musical experiences. Some, like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, have you ‘play along’ with a very rough approximation of a guitar track or bass line, accessing the air guitarist urges in all of us and producing remarkably enjoyable gameplay. Others, like the enormously popular Dance Dance Revolution, require players to move their feet to a song, causing truly work-out worthy levels of exertion for the harder levels of play. And, perhaps most fascinating, are games like Audiosurf. Audiosurf is an amazing concept, a game that takes a song (or any audio file) of your choosing and, using a series of interpretive methods, transforms it into a arcade-style game in which you actually traverse the song. The last of these reaches towards the true theoretical potential of gaming, particularly in its union with music. Music becomes the game, and the game allows for a new appreciation of what makes music. Tones become terrain, tempo becomes raw speed, beats resemble the rate of a living heart; the synesthetic effects are remarkable.

This new form of interaction helps further realize music’s universalizing potential. I know, for my own part, that even my time playing Guitar Hero has introduced me to songs and genres, bands and artists, that I had never known existed, or had considered outside the range of my familiarity, and thus the range of my comfort. And linking physical action with the notes in a song brought me closer to the experience actual musicians have playing their instruments, underlining the previously unconsidered truth that music is a product not just of our minds and its imaginings, but our bodies and its exertions. (Exertions is no exaggeration here – my spouse’s arms ached for a full day after an evening at work with Rock Band‘s drum kit.) Songs I knew before I loved better for having ‘played’ them, and songs I had never heard became new favorites.

This is the great benefit of fusion, fusion that is a direct product of the digitalization of music. Without digital sampling, such remarkable works as DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, a combination of rap artist Jay-Z’s incredible Black Album and the Beatles’ own peerless White Album, would not be possible except perhaps through the aid of expensive studio equipment. The work of one dedicated individual can yield incredible results, making the melodic excellence of classic rock accessible to the die-hard rap fan, and allow those who might otherwise feel alienated by rap more at home with the mop-headed Liverpudlians nearby, and thus more able to appreciate Jay-Z’s lyrical brilliance and emotional eloquence.

Projects like The Grey Album are both a cause and an effect of an ever-increasing cultural intermingling. DJ Danger Mouse’s other work has included collaboration with rapper Cee-Lo Green, producing the hit single ‘Crazy’, a song performed at the MTV Music Awards while the band members were dressed as characters from Star Wars, a nerd culture touchstone par excellance. Danger Mouse has also joined forces with MF Doom, a hip hop artist written about in the New Yorker, whose stage persona is a reference to the Marvel Comics villain Doctor Doom. And from the other side of the (former) cultural divide, you find MC Frontalot and Optimus Rhyme, self-labelled ‘nerdcore’ hip hop artists, whose raps deal with the heavily digitalized nerd subculture and, of course, with video games and gamers. All of which is to say that the lines I pointed to at the beginning of this article are growing more and more blurred, with nerd culture and its subset, gamer culture, playing an important role in that very blurring.

The benefits of such a blur are considerable, and not merely from position of one invested in wider musical appreciation for a wider audience. As collaboration and sampling proliferate, music has a greater opportunity to become a medium for communication, with artists employing the work of other artists, offering alternative interpretations. And games, being a powerful interpretive framework in their own right, can play an important role in this process, both by bringing varieties of music to non-musicians and by providing points of access normally reserved for those who make the music. This is compounded by the increasing ability of the individual to produce and distribute music without need for elaborate, expensive equipment and corporate backing. The practical upshot: soon anyone with a computer and a composition program can write a concerto and hear what it sounds like, and then anyone with a computer and an internet connection can download it. Of course record labels are utterly terrified of digital online distribution, and go to extreme litigious lengths to curtail it; a world digitally connected is a world that does not need them.

It would be remiss of me to promise that there is some serious revolutionary or egalitarian potential in this. I see no gamer Woodstocks rising, gaming music is part and parcel with the well entrenched gaming industry, but by the same token it’s worth asking how many of Woodstock’s attendees grew up, put on ties and suits and subscribed to the Economist. Likely Jay-Z would find the idea of MC Frontalot’s use of rap to discuss his infatuation with goth girls somewhat laughable when compared too his own frank discussions of the obstacles facing black Americans. This said, that two such starkly different viewpoints can exist within the same style, can form a bridge between two otherwise divergent vectors of experience, speaks to the possibility of something remarkable. Walter Benjamin holds out great hope for the political progressiveness of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, and in digital music there is some of that hope sustained. The exclusive, cult status of art in general and music in particular dissolve along with its former cultural barriers. A song out of a machine can belong to anyone, can be made by anyone, and can be sing by any voice.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, video game movies, Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft novel Arthas, Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming, and The Sims franchise.

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