A retrospective on the stories and aesthetics of 8­bit music

Taken from the catalogue to Lu Yang’s exhibition ANTI-HUMANISM at the OK Corral gallery in Copenhagen. I was asked to write a free-floating essayoid text about 8-bit music, and I came up with this. I added some links here too, for further reading/watching/listening.

When practitioners of 8­bit music like me write about the genre, it is hard to ignore the skills and effort needed to make the music. To play 8­bit music you need to master a not­so­intuitive software interface in order to communicate with a computer chip, that in return produces bleeping sounds from cheap digital logic. On or off, increase or decrease. These inputs are the basics of digital technologies, making it as if there is something timeless about 8­bit music, although it might seem really old: 30 years in digital terms is the equivalent of something like 1001011001010101011111101011 years.

8­bit music can be understood as a low­level cultural technique of music hacking, where different stories can be told. The sceptic might tell a story of nostalgia for videogames, where the composer makes simplistic music because the tool used doesn’t allow anything complex to be made. Indeed, that would be a normal story to tell if we believe that newer is better, and that new expressions require new technologies. It’s an almost logical story in a society that values quantitative increases over quality.

The most common story about 8-­bit music among academics, artists and journalists, however, puts the human at the centre of attention. It sometimes has a similar narrative to an old monster movie. There is a hero who learns how to manipulate and finally control some sort of wild beast. Instead of a monster, the Obsolete Computer is a mysterious relic of old school digital consumerism that is nowadays hard to understand, both in terms of purpose and function. A young white male hero appears and tames a frightening thing with rational choices, and probably kills it with physical or symbolic violence. He achieves freedom and love and/or emancipation from capitalism or modernism or something. The end.

I should know, for I too have told this kind of story. Many times. I started making music with 8­-bit machines as a kid in the early 1990’s, when that was (almost) the normal thing to do. Thing is, I never stopped using them. Throughout the 2000’s, as 8-­bit music started to intertwine with mass culture again because of the current retromania, people like me had to start explaining what we were doing. Journalists started to ask questions, promoters wanted biographies that would spark an interest, art curators wanted the right concepts to work with, and so on. So during the noughties, a collective story started to emerge among those of us who were making 8­-bit music in what I have called the chipscene: a movement of people making soundchip-­related music for records and live performances (rather than making sounds for games and demos as was done during the 80’s and 90’s).

The stories circulated around Commodore 64s, Gameboys, Amigas and Ataris, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, and other computers and game consoles from the 1980’s. We were haunted by the question “Why do you use these machines?” and although I never really felt like I had a good answer, we were at least pretty happy to talk about our passion for these machines. For a while anyway.

In comparison to many other music movements we spoke out about the role of technology, and we did it at the expense of music. We didn’t care much about the style and aesthetics of the music we made, because 8-­bit music could be cute pop and brutal noise, both droney ambient and complex jazz. We didn’t care about the clothes we wore, or which drugs we took, or which artists we listened to. We formed a subculture based on a digital technology that uses 8 bits instead of 32 or 64, as modern machines do. Defining our music movement as “8-­bit music” was a simplified way of explaining what we did. It was a way of thinking about medium and technology intrinsic to some modern discourses on art. Like, anything you do with a camera is photography. Simple, but slightly … pointless?

The music somehow came in second. Or maybe third. Sometimes the music we made almost became irrelevant. The idea of seeing someone on a huge stage with a Gameboy was sometimes enough. The primal screams of digital culture roaring on an over­sized sound system in a small techno club, was what we needed to get us going, even if it sounded terrible. Some of us were more famous than others, sure, but there wasn’t the same celebrity­ and status­ cults as in some of the “too ­serious” 1990’s­ style electronic music scenes. For us, the machines were the protagonist of the stories. Sometimes it was almost as if we – the artists who made the music – had been reduced to objects. It was as if the machines were playing us, and not the other way around. Yeah.. very anti­human!

To be honest, not many people are willing to give up their human agency and identity, step back, and give full credit to the machine. Or even worse – have someone else do that for you. Well, I didn’t feel comfortable with it, at least. People came up to us when we performed live to interrupt and ask what games we were playing. Or perhaps requested some old song from a game: But for many of us, the entire movement of 8-­bit music was not about the games of the 1980s. It was about the foundational computational technologies and their expressions manifested as sounds. Or something like that, anyway.

It’s quite interesting how this came to be. How did 8­-bit music become so dehumanized, when it involves quite a lot of human skills, techniques, knowledge and determination? I think an important factor was when the chip­scene was threatened by outsider perspectives. In 2003, Malcolm McLaren, known for creating spectacles such as the Sex Pistols in the 1970’s, discovered 8-­bit music. For him, this was the New Punk and he wrote a piece in Wired magazine about how the movement was against capitalism, hi-­tech, karaoke, sex, and mass culture in general: Through the appropriation of discarded commodities, the DIY spirit, the raw and unadulterated aesthetics, etc.. On McLaren’s command, mainstream media started to report about 8-­bit music, at least for 15 minutes or so.

To be fair, it was a good story – when Malcolm met 8­bit. But it pissed off plenty of people in the scene, because of its misunderstandings, exaggerations and non­truths. It did, however, play an important role in how the scene came to understand itself. McLaren’s story had stirred a controversy that made us ask ourselves “Well, if he’s wrong, then who’s right?”. We didn’t really know, atleast not collectively. McLaren pushed the chip­scene into puberty, and it began to search for an identity.

I was somewhere in the midst of this, and contributed to the techno­humanist story that started to emerge. It was basically this: We use obsolete technologies in unintended ways to make new music that has never been done before. Voila. The machine was at the centre, but it was we, the humans, who brought the goods. We were machine­ romantic geniuses who figured out how to make “The New Stuff” despite the limitations of 8-­bit technologies. It was machine­ fetishism combined with originality and the classic suffering of the author. It was very cyber romantic, but with humans as subjects, machines as objects, and pop cultural progress at the heart of it. It could be a story of fighting capitalist media. All in all: pretty good fluff for promotional material!

Over time, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the narratives forming around 8-­bit. In 2007, I was asked to write a chapter for Karen Collins’ book From Pac Man to Pop Music. I researched the history of 8-­bit music and realized the current techno­centric view of 8-­bit music was a rather new idea. In the 1980’s there wasn’t any popular word for 8-­bit music. Basically all home computer music was 8­-bit, so there was no need to differentiate between 8, 32 and 64­ bits as there is today. That changed in the 1990’s, when the increase of hi-­tech machines created a need for popular culture to differentiate between different forms of home computer systems and the music they made.

The term chip­music appeared to describe music that sounded like the 1980’s computer music. It mimicked not only the technical traits of the sound chips, but also the aesthetics and compositional techniques of the 1980’s computer composers. So 1990’s chipmusic wasn’t made with 8-­bit machines. The term was mostly used for music made with contemporary machines (Amigas and IBM PCs) that mimicked music from the past. It wasn’t about taking something old and making something new. It was more like taking something new and making something old. In other words: not very good promotional fluff.

I realised something. The techno­determinist story of “anything made with sound-chips is chipmusic” was ahistorical, anti­cultural, and ultimately: anti­human. Sure, there was something very emancipating about saying “I can do whatever I want and still fit into this scene that I’m part of”. That’s quite ideal in many ways, when you think about it.

Problem is – it wasn’t exactly like that. Plenty of people made 8­-bit or soundchip music that wasn’t understood as such. The digital hardcore music of the 1990’s that used Amigas. The General MIDI heroes of the 1990’s web. The keyboard rockers around the world, who were actually using soundchips. So for me it became important to explore chipmusic as a genre, rather than just a consequence of technology. If it’s not just a consequence of technology, then what is it? How were these conventions created, and how do they relate to politics, economics and culture?

This is what I tried to give answers to in my master thesis in 2010. Looking back at it now, what I found was that it was actually quite easy to not make chipmusic with 8­bit technology. I mean, if you would hook a monkey straight into an 8­bit soundchip, it’s not like there would be chipmusic. It would be more like noise glitch wtf. Stuff. Art. I don’t know. But not chipmusic. Chipmusic was more about how you used the software that interfaced you and the hardware soundchip. So I tried to figure out how this worked for me, and more importantly, for the people I interviewed for my thesis. How and why do we adapt to this cultural concept of what non­human “raw computer music” sounds like?

I am still recovering from this process. During this time my music became increasingly abstract and theoretical. I started to move away completely from danceable and melodic music, and got more interested in structures and the process of composing music, rather than the results of it. I wanted to rebel against the conventions that I was researching, and find something less human, less boring, less predictable.

But at the same time, I wanted to prove that we don’t need hi­-tech machines to make non­boring music. I despise the idea that we need new technologies to make new things. And I am super conservative in that I, in some way, believe in things like craft, quality, and originality. In some way.

So I was trying to find my own synthesis between me and the machine. Since I am not a programmer, I didn’t work with generative systems like many post­human composers do. I kept a firm focus on the craft of making music. For example, I started to make completely improvised live­sets without any preparations. I got up on stage, turned on a Commodore 64, showed it on a beamer, loaded the defMON­ software, and made all the instruments and composition in front of the eyes and ears of the audience.

I like this a lot because it’s hard work (for me) and it gives surprising results (for me). It’s a bit similar to live coding, if you’ve heard about that, but with a less sophisticated approach, I suppose. It’s more like manual labour than coding. Typing hundreds of numbers and letters by hand, instead of telling the computer to do it. You have to do it “by hand” which opens up for different mistakes compared to when it’s automatized. Which leads to surprises, which leads to new approaches.

I am not in full control, nor do I want to be. Or, more correctly, I don’t think I can be. I agree with the media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s ideas that we can never fully grasp or relate to what a computer is, and how it works. It is a thing on its own, and it deserves respect for what it is. We should not say that it has certain intended uses – like a “game computer” – because that is just semantic violence that in the long run reinforces the material censorship of Turing complete machines into crippled computers, like smartphones.

I think that whatever we use these things we call computers for, is okay. And most of us have odd solutions to make technology do what we want, even if we are not programmers. Olia Lialina calls it a Turing complete user – s/he who figures out how to copy­paste text in Windows through Notepad to remove the formatting, or perhaps how to make Microsoft Word not fuck up your whole text.

What I mean is: even if I make sounds that people say “go beyond the capabilities of the machine”, I don’t see myself as the inventor of those sounds, nor do I think that they go beyond the machine. They were always there, just like Heidegger would say that the statue was already inside the stone before the stone carver brought it forth.

Yeah, I suppose it’s some sort of super­essentialist point of view, and I’m not sure what to make of it to be honest. But I like how it mystifies technology, rather than mystifiying human “creativity”. The re­mystification of technology is great, and the demystification of the author is important. What if the author is just doing stuff, and not fantastic art? What if it’s just work?

My Dataslav performance plays with this question. I sit in a gallery, and people tell me what kind of song they want, and I have to fulfil their wish in no more than 15 minutes. I turn myself into a medium, or perhaps more correctly: a medium worker. I mediate what other people want, but it takes skills and effort to do it. It’s perhaps craft, not art. Or maybe it’s just work. Work that I don’t get paid to do, like so many other “cultural” workers in the digital arts sector.

If the potentials are already present in the technology, and we humans are there to bring it forth, that kind of changes things, doesn’t it? We don’t really produce things by adding more stuff to it. We are more like removing things. Subtraction rather than addition.

And if that’s the case, then it’s obviously much better to use something where we don’t need to subtract so much to make something that most people didn’t already do. If everything is possible, which some people still believe to be the case with some technologies, then that’s a whole lot of stuff to delete to get to the good stuff!

So, start deleting. It’s our only hope.

4 Responses to “A retrospective on the stories and aesthetics of 8­bit music”

  1. Nerdcore › Links: Al Capone, Adam Curtis, vintage Flipbooks, Coldcut, Twin Peaks and the History of the Rewind Says:

    […] A retrospective on the stories and aesthetics of 8­bit music | CHIPFLIP: When practitioners of 8­bit music like me write about the genre, it is hard to ignore the skills and effort needed to make the music. To play 8­bit music you need to master a not­so­intuitive software interface in order to communicate with a computer chip, that in return produces bleeping sounds from cheap digital logic. On or off, increase or decrease. These inputs are the basics of digital technologies, making it as if there is something timeless about 8­bit music, although it might seem really old: 30 years in digital terms is the equivalent of something like 1001011001010101011111101011 years. […]

  2. Jonatan Says:

    Great text, it left me with a nice and mellow feeling

  3. Johan Says:

    En meget fin tekst!

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