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Read my article on chip music in planet magazine

Read my article on chip music in planet magazine

March 16th, 2010  |  Published in Uncategorized

blip festival

We’ve hit the boss level. Hally’s jumping around the stage like a hopped up game-show host, spitting out robotic vocals into a microphone. On the screen behind him, CHiKA’s visuals are spinning and pulsing a ride through letters spelling out his name. He’s wearing mirrored sunglasses and a red leather jacket, and his hair slicked back. He’s ripping through a manic set at the after-party for the second night of 2009’s Blip Festival, and a room full of the world’s greatest chip musicians is dancing like mad. As he breaks into the first verse of “Surfin’ USA”, riding a stream of chords that hit like power-ups, it’s impossible to grasp how music on hardware three-decades old (in this case a stack of customized Famicoms) could be fueling an orgy of pixels and square waves straight out of a William Gibson novel.
This is the fourth Blip Festival, the brainchild of 8bitpeoples, a chip music collective founded by Jeremiah Johnson (a.k.a. Nullsleep) in 1999 and co-administered by Josh Davis (a.k.a. Bit Shifter), and The Tank, a performance art space that’s been the heart of the New York chip music scene since 2002.
The marathon of sets churned out over the past six hours at Brooklyn’s Bell House this past December has witnessed everything from Rainbowdragoneyes‘ metal Euro-pop and Nullsleep’s post-cyberpunk to the live drum and Game Boy duo Starscream. All of them make music using the hardware found on seemingly obsolete video-game hardware, everything from Game Boys and Nintendos to the more exotic setups assembled by the artist little-scale (for tonight’s set: an Atari 2600, a Sega Master System and a Sega Megadrive).
This week, many of the aforementioned musicians have descended upon Texas to play Datapop 3.0 at South by Southwest. This may only be the event’s third appearance in Austin, but the practice was pioneered decades ago. Not many would have thought chip music could produce so much variety when Bit Shifter and Nullsleep started performing it live in the city nearly a decade ago. “I don’t really see chip music as a genre — you spend enough time at Blip Festival and you realize all these guys are playing different types of music,” says Mike Rosenthal, co-founder of the Tank. “There’s some consistency because of the specific set of instrumentation these musicians have chosen to use, and set of confinements.”
“There’s a particular restriction they’re putting on themselves because they like how it sounds, but these guys are amazing composers in their own right and rockin’ performers.” Rosenthal was quick to recognize the potential of chip music in 2002 when he was working as an electronic music curator. He put out an ad on Craigslist asking for electronic musicians to play an event, and in walked Bit Shifter with his Game Boy setup. The whole crowd got exposed to something Mike hadn’t seen enough of in electronic music. “These people are a lot more inclined to be jumping around and viscerally interacting with a thing, which is much more like a guitar player or a drummer, than just standing stoically behind a laptop. When people are mashing on these buttons and doing live effect manipulation, it’s so much more engaging to watch.” Not many people had been able to watch before then, but as Bit Shifter, Nullsleep, and Rosenthal’s paths intersected, chip music found a home at the Tank that shortly transformed into Pulsewave, a monthly showcase of performers that galvanized the New York scene but also has attracted outsiders.
It wouldn’t be a mistake to see chip music as an analogue to punk, in that it strips electronic music down to its bare essentials, but the comparison starts to break down when you hear sounds that the hardware simply wasn’t meant to make. It’s an aesthetic that insists upon pushing boundaries that were broken the moment wave tables made it possible to play any sound digitally without having to synthesize it. Yet that aesthetic isn’t at its roots musical; it’s algorithmic.
All the music at Blip Festival operates within the constraints of hardware most of us grew up with, and that resurrects in digital music the kind of transparency we normally ascribe to acoustic instrumentation.
You aren’t left wondering whether a DJ is checking his email onstage because the sounds you hear are so legible. Combined with the kind of live visuals produced by Philadelphia’s NO CARRIER on custom Nintendo ROMs, a true 8-bit performance offers up a sort of cutting edge live demo that doesn’t mask the machines that they’re made with, but re-appropriates them, embracing their limitations as a vehicle for expression. It’s a dynamic Johnson is constantly exploring in Nullsleep’s music and an aesthetic he’s dubbed post-cyberpunk: “What happens if everything falls apart and all we have to rely on is this old hardware? Technology is becoming increasingly complex and it’s easier to grasp the operating principles of older gear at a low level.” And you could hear that earlier in the night when he served up thirty minutes of thumping and droning tension that didn’t paint over the sound with melodies or hooks, but plunged deeper into the sound chip of his Game Boy and drove ahead into fertile ground.
Before landfills were full of obsolesced hardware, underground groups of artists and programmers engaged in the earliest forms of digital graffiti, inserting graphics, animations, and music into cracked software. They proudly showed off their work in a practice that eventually broke off into free-standing demonstrations of their own. The demoscene, as it came to be known, insisted on squeezing every ounce of performance out of hardware rather than simply upgrading, and distributed CG animations set to original music that often produced effects on screens and through sound cards that were without precedent. Yet demos were never a live medium, and as chip music formed into a niche community in its own right, it was never clear that “video game music” would ever be anything more than novelty – until it added the element of performance, that is.
By 2005, monthly showcases matured into full-blown tours. When Stockholm’s Covox got in touch with Bit Shifter and Nullsleep, telling them he wanted to play in the US, they didn’t hesitate to start lining up shows. They called it the Data Destruction Tour, an 8-bit showcase featuring “Game Boys and Nintendo Entertainment Systems, forcibly conscripted into the manufacture of unprecedented electronic music – low-res, high-energy, and completely unique.” Momentum built, and by 2006 an invitation to play shows in Belgium and the Netherlands evolved into the International Chiptune Resistance world tour, which brought them to Japan and back through the West Coast. In the span of a year a global community of musicians that had been primarily an online phenomenon transformed as they all started to meet in person. Then nine of Japan’s best got in touch with Nullsleep and Bit Shifter, saying they were coming to New York and wanted to play shows. The Tank wasn’t big enough, as there were too many musicians for one night; and so, Blip Festival was born.
“What we have is a time and a form of music that can be owned completely by the musician, where there’s very little barrier to entry,” Johnson says. “If you have a passion for it there’s not much of a barrier between where you want to be and how to get there.” There’s no need for labels with online distribution, and no need to break a wallet when a Game Boy running an LSDJ cartridge (what Nullsleep composes on and performs with) can be had at the merchandise table or on eBay for under $50. Today’s intern for 8bitpeoples or the Tank might end up playing shows tomorrow. As Rosenthal explains, “A lot of people who start off as enthusiasts turn into performers. Our intern [Jean Y. Kim] a few years ago met everyone working on the scene and started doing visuals. She worked on Blip Festival last year and was doing visuals for Starscream this year.”
It’s no wonder that what this scene collects and compiles inevitably spawns new ones. Where there were no performers from Philadelphia at the first Blip Festival, the city now lays claim to a thriving scene driven by its own monthly showcase, 8static, and before long the city’s visualists will be taking over the skyline when their work starts being displayed atop the PECO building.
Hally’s set showcased the best of what chip music has been, but the night wasn’t over when he left the stage. After the set break, the lights went out and in walked CONDOM, a one-time collaboration between Covox and Random. They took to stage costumed in robotic LED eyed masks and debuted an original set that embraced the constraints inherent in their name: use a condom once, then throw it away. All of the visuals and music were erased once it was over, and it will never be performed again. CONDOM took the notion of a live demo to another level, taking a practice that started online and was inherently remote, and re-establishing it as something that could only be seen live. Years of liberating from within constraints culminated in imposing one more.
With every performance, chip music re-establishes the uncharted potential within seemingly obsolete hardware; and there are no signs of it letting up soon. At a time when the music and community are flourishing it comes as no surprise that the low-fi digital sounds they work with are filtering their way into popular music.
There may be a long wait for Blip Festival 2010, but in the meanwhile the lineup of chip musicians at Datapop 3.0 is set to rock South by Southwest in Austin this week. In its third iteration, the lineup will feature Nullsleep, Bit Shifter, Hally, Random, Starscream, and others, and it should not be missed.

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