Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An 8-Bit Flashback

Things were not better in the old days.

Make no mistake, my iPhone circa 2011 is way more cooler than my TRS-80 circa 1979 (though I still wish I had it), and my iPad does so much more than an Etch A Sketch. But one thing I sometimes miss, is a world in which songs were not slammed together in the titillating Celebrity Deathmatch we call the mashup.

Yes, mashups are fun, entertaining, –a bold new art form, perhaps.

But have you noticed, the mashup is not just a technique or medium, but in fact a mindset which has produced a transformative effect on the way we measure the value of objects which otherwise serve no utilitarian purpose. I know that in and of itself sounds rather negative, but of course, I'm talking about Art.

For instance, if you are old enough, or have some understanding of the history of computer assisted composition, recall that prior to the turn of new millennium, music composed with, on, or by computer was far more original by any subjective measure than that which is produced today with Digital Audio Workstations which arguably offer far greater means of expression for their operator/ programmer/ composers than the room sized chips of past.

What I mean by this is that early computer music composers were more interested in seeing what they could do with these machines to produce that which had not been done before, and I don't mean sending untrained singers up the pop charts. Contrast this with today's music producer who employs computers not so much in the execution of something different, but in the mashup and remix of the 'pre-existent'. And it is this activity that is in fact the primary and popular trend in both the popular and fine arts alike at the present.

We don't even have to go as far back as Max Matthews or Morton Subotnick; or confine ourselves to the halls of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; or IRCAM. Even the 8-bit music of Pac-Man for instance, whether you think it amusing or annoying, simple or cheesy, and lacking a sophisticated polyphonic tapestry, nevertheless embodies –if we may say that about sound– originality.

Pac Man Arcade Game Play

Contrast that with the fact that some 30 years later, we might amuse ourselves not by creating something equally original for our time, but rather by replicating the sound of 30-yr old 8-bit compositions, only we're doing so on our tricked out ProTools systems.

At least chip tune composers using 1980s-era technology, embedded with SID chips, can now be found creating new original works, and many have become micromusic virtuosos of this technology.

Rymdreglage - 8-bit trip

Arguably, some of this originality is born of limitations. Except that now we live in age with few and possibly no limitations.

But what if originality is actually the child of limitation?

Uh oh.

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