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Intelligent Machines

'Chiptune' artists use vintage computers and video games to craft a new musical genre

NEW YORK (AP) – Haeyoung Kim, a classical pianist, took the stage at a hip Manhattan art space before a crowd of twenty- and thirty-somethings, many shaggy-haired and wearing T-shirts and glasses.

As her performance began, the room filled with electronic beeps and buzzes of a 1980’s video game pulsing to a danceable beat, as if Mario were hosting a rave. As heads bopped in the audience, Kim proudly held up her instrument: a Nintendo Game Boy.

The performance on a recent Friday was part of Blip Festival, a four-day celebration of music made with obsolete computers and electronics. So-called ”chiptune” or ”8-bit” music is building a cult audience among former Atari jockeys.

”We are the first generation for whom video games and computers played an important role in our childhood,” said Mike Rosenthal, 29, one of Blip Festival’s organizers. ”Now that sound has taken on meaning, and many of us are at an age where we want to take apart our toys and see what else we can make them do.”

Chiptune includes pop, metal and other styles. The electronic, tinny sound of the first commercial video games has aged enough to feel nostalgic: The eclectic artist Beck has even released an EP of chiptune remixes.

The small chiptune community exists largely online through file-swapping and on bulletin boards, and events like Blip are rare. Some artists came from as far as Europe and Japan to perform. A few fans traveled that far to watch.

The scene is informed by the do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock and hacker culture, and many artists rely on jury-rigged gadgets. Favorites include the Commodore 64 and Atari 800, but the most popular chiptune gadget may be the Game Boy, the monochrome handheld device Nintendo debuted in 1989. The instruments have only a fraction of the computing power of today’s average cell phone, but that’s part of the appeal.

”It makes you more creative to work within the tight limitations of the technology,” said Jordi Huguet, one half of the Barcelona-based chiptune duo Yes, Robot.

”Yesterday’s technology tends to get lost. Using it to make something new is part of the challenge,” he added. His gig case contains several Game Boys, a toy voice changer and a Texas Instruments Speak & Spell with about a dozen new switches and dials attached.

Proving that chiptune is about more than nostalgia, a few Blip attendees were too young to remember the gadgets that inspired it.

”I’ve always liked video game music. I think it’s cool,” said Long Island resident Emily Corvi, 13, who was escorted to the show by her mother. ”I didn’t even think this music was possible.”

There also is an element of subversion; the artists are playing with the icons of their youth and breaking the boundaries of what the technology was designed to do.

”People like tweaking the corporate nose. When you make music with a Nintendo NES, Nintendo isn’t telling you what to do with it,” said New York-based Chris Burke, who performs as glomag. ”But we love what Atari and Nintendo made. This music is more of an homage than anything else.”

Because chiptune artists’ instruments are often more than 20 years old, they often break down, adding unpredictability to performances. Indeed, the power cut out several times during Kim’s performance, prompting the crowd to cheer even louder.

Kim, who performs as Bubblyfish, said she discovered chiptune while studying electronic music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

”When I first heard about making music with a Game Boy, I thought it was a great, nontraditional way of making music.

”Classical piano is great, but it’s someone else’s music, and I wanted to create my own,” she said. ”I wrote a piece for the Game Boy and tried to transpose it to piano, but I was only somewhat successful. It sounded a lot better on the Game Boy.”

——

On the Net:

www.blipfestival.org

www.bubblyfish.com

www.yesrobot.net

www.glomag.com

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