Friday, March 23

The Electronic Score

You're working your way through a maze, eating pellets. You turn a corner and come face to face with a ghost. You turn around to escape, but another ghost blocks your way. You have nowhere to go. The ghosts move in for the kill and you collapse, cursing, "Damn, they killed me again!" Now you're running through a jungle, trying to avoid obstacles and dangerous animals. You grab hold of a hanging vine, trying to swing over a swamp, but your timing is off and you fall into the snapping jaws of an alligator. "I just got eaten," you moan.

I've never put too much thought into exactly how I came to enjoy electronic music. I've always assumed my interest simply grew out of exposure to a few records I enjoyed in my teens, including Eurythmics, New Order, and Depeche Mode. Once I heard "Blue Monday" and "People Are People" I just started following the trail, and somehow I ended up here today listening to Autechre and Taylor Deupree.

Earlier this week I watched 8 BIT, a documentary about visual artists and musicians who utilize Gameboys, NES machines, and Commodore 64s as their primary tools. The film could use some serious editing and focus, but overall it contained lots of interesting tidbits. One of the taking heads talked about how interesting it was that even though these old video game characters were very low-res, abstract collections of blocky pixels, gamers were able to engage with them emotionally. Pac-Man and Pitfall Harry are hardly photorealistic humans, yet players are able to immerse themselves in the game. In the case of Atari's Adventure, the main character is literally a single block, and still player's preface descriptions of their actions with "I." Interestingly, this ties in with something Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics, his classic book on the workings and visual grammar of sequential art. Essentially, McCloud explains that the more basic and abstracted a character design, the more readers will be able to identify with that character.

In a sense, the character in a comic book stands in for the reader. That character is your avatar, pulling you through the narrative. In Pitfall!, you are not simply controlling some disconnected second party. Pitfall Harry is your avatar. He is you. I've always had the feeling that music taste is at least partly vicarious; people are drawn towards types of music they can imagine themselves creating. The performer becomes your artistic avatar, and if you're a computer geek or a video gamer, it's much easier to envision yourself as Kraftwerk than as, say, some rock guitarist.

So, back to 8 BIT. One of the musicians in the film theorizes that this group of artists grew up with video games and video game music, so naturally they have an emotional connection with these electronic sounds. There's more than simple nostalgia at work here. For my generation, the first to grow up with video games, these games provided our first opportunity to control and guide a system towards achievement and reward. These feelings of empowerment and success were always set to electronic melodies. The connection was made.


Karen said...

some very good points here. i think about that scott mccloud point all the time, by the way.

Bruce said...

Thanks. I recommend Understanding Comics to people all the time. The lessons in the book apply not only to comics, but are really useful to anyone creating or thinking about visual story telling or visual communication in general.

Michael said...

Have you checked out the album of Kraftwerk covers done by some of the 8 Bit artists? There are a couple of clunkers but some of it is really good.


Bruce said...


I heard a couple of clips from that Kraftwerk covers cd a while back and wasn't too impressed. But then again, I'm not really a huge fan of 8 Bit music. It's interesting on paper, but in practice I find it a little annoying. I think it's a cd I'd like to hear once, though, just to see how they handled the various Kraftwerk songs. Isn't having 8 Bit artists cover Kraftwerk a little too obvious an gimmicky?

Dan Barrow said...

I've always loved the sound of 8-bit, even if it was just because I was a total nerd when younger. It's not so much that people can emotionally identify with the characters as that it just brings back good memories, like watching old episodes of Hong Kong Fooey. Also, I've been listening to a lot of French electro recently, and I just thought of how the 8-bit sound has affected it - the same process of forcing out sound, making it as economical and brash as possible.

P.S. I actually met Pac-Man the other day, running down the high street. He was bigger than I always thought.