The Video Game-Inspired Music of S.F.'s J-Pop Summit: A Chiptune Off the Old Block

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The Glowing Stars
If you play games, you've probably built some strong associations around the music of games. Maybe you recognize a passing Pandora jam from the latest Madden. Maybe you catch yourself humming the Super Mario Bros. theme at your desk at work -- hell, you at least know the tune. Even that goddamn Angry Birds song grows on you. Gaming music has exerted an especially powerful pull on gamer geeks, tech-heads, and mainstream artists alike, but the etymology of its influence isn't always obvious.

As part of its "Cyberpop Overload!" theme, S.F.'s fourth annual J-Pop Summit Festival has dotted its musical lineup with such "video game inspired artists and DJs" -- a broad claim that speaks as much to the evolution of gamer culture as it does to its music.

Electronic DJs Amaya and Vex Mode, returning from gigs at last year's festival, don't strictly make gaming music so much as work in the heavily synthesized milieu that shares the same roots as early game music. Random Encounters, best known for their string of game-based comedy vids on Youtube (example: "The Best We Can Be: A Princess Peach Musical"), inhabit an obsessive, multimedia-oriented fan culture that also gives us Mario bass jams and Halo cosplay. By contrast, the Bay Area's Glowing Stars reflect a gaming obsession by directly utilizing vintage gaming hardware to create original compositions.

From a production perspective, the Glowing Stars probably lay the best claim to the descriptor "game-inspired music." The duo (composed of guitarist/vocalist Lizzie Cuevas and drummer/programmer Matt Payne) took it upon themselves to crack open a couple of Game Boys and rewire the sound modules. Under their control, the gauzy bloops and whooshes of Nintendo's popular handheld crackle like Pop Rocks under the group's sunny indie-pop ditties, such as on their 2011 EP Anything Past That. Going to such lengths to replicate a few simple synths sounds might seem an extreme measure to replicate gaming sound effects, but musicians have actually been doing it for years.

Here's a word you may not know: "chiptune." These days, chiptunes are almost synonymous with video game music. The meaning "chiptunes" has slightly shifted over the years, but in its strictest sense, the term refers to a musical composition created (and constrained) by the instruction set of various chipsets used in early personal computing and gaming. The first chiptune composers were, in fact, some of the first game composers themselves. Space Invaders is widely considered the first video game soundtrack, featuring a simple 4-note soundtrack in maddening repetition. Classic Commodore 64 scores from composer Martin Galway (Comic Bakery, Arkanoid) began out of Galway's procurement of a C64 assembly language development system.

But it was the Yellow Magic Orchestra, a pioneering Tokyo synth-pop group who made their living selling records, not games, that would bring the sounds of games into the mainstream. In the late '70s and early '80s, prior to the release of Nintendo's Famicom / NES, YMO marshaled computer-aided synthesizer programming into jaunty compositions such as 1979's Rydeen, forming the framework for the soundtracks of the 8- and 16-bit gaming console generations. The resultant craze, dubbed "Technopop" in Japan, arrived just in time to influence 8-bit game composers searching for answers to the constrained audio capabilities of the NES, Sega's Master System, and other mid-'80s consoles.


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