Audio Flashbacks

Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum
Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum

You very well may recall the amazing video reporting work Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum did for NewMusicBox this past June during Opera America’s national conference in Los Angeles. She proved to be such a natural that we asked if she’d like to keep the reports and composerly observations coming, and we are excited to say that she accepted. Take it away, Nora! —MS

Today I was collecting vintage sound bytes from the Atari.

The Atari, like a lot of early analog circuit/synths, has been sampled and used widely in electronica and beyond. There are Atari synth based instruments, like the Atari Punk Synth, that sound to my ears like they could sub into a nouvelle Turangalîla.

Besides the iconic beeps of Pong, I came across a lot of early videogame music that I hadn’t heard in a very long time. There’s a lot of music that sounds like this:

Why so Baroque? Do these short bleeps with beautiful attacks and very little sustain live happily as the 20th-century harpsichord? I’ll go further out on a limb to ask if the stylistic languages of Baroque keyboard music are inextricably bound to the harpsichord and, likewise, if the sustain (let alone dynamics) available on the 19th-century piano is responsible for the harmonic radicalism that evolved in Romantic keyboard music? And what does this then mean for contemporary electronics? How do the ways that digital audio work impact the kind of music we write?

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2 thoughts on “Audio Flashbacks

  1. danvisconti

    Hi Nora! Sorry to completely narc on this post but I never did get to welcome you to the chatter pages, and furthermore this post really struck a chord for me. But that chord, as you say, is largely a harpsichord-like bit of neo-baroque ear candy until (I think) about Final Fantasy IV on the SNES or Super Famicom which to my knowledge is the first videogame score that fully imagines (and imitates) the varied timbres of the orchestra rather than the blips and beeps of games past.

    It’s funny how those sounds are so instantly nostalgic. Recently my wife and I were playing “New Mario Bros.” for Wii with my 9-year-old brother-in-law and the game’s use of the harsh “!!!” sound from the original 85 game was immedately recognizable: abrupt, short, and punishing. With modern sampling this stuff would be expressive dynamite in a piece, no?

    Contemporary video game scores have become so like film scores that I often yearn for the simpler, restricted but pungent appeal of these kinds of sounds. Thanks for posting.

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  2. colin holter

    But that chord, as you say, is largely a harpsichord-like bit of neo-baroque ear candy until (I think) about Final Fantasy IV on the SNES or Super Famicom which to my knowledge is the first videogame score that fully imagines (and imitates) the varied timbres of the orchestra rather than the blips and beeps of games past.

    Glad you brought that one up, Dan – there are so many treasures in that 16-bit era. (Arcana is my personal favorite; a reference to that score made it into my sax quartet.) I wonder if we’ll eventually come to see the early- to mid-90s as a transitional state between the unmistakably “video-game-y” music of earlier times – an idiom dependent on the technological limitations of the device but also owing to a variety of referents including Baroque music, samba, and the common-tone diminished-seventh chord – and today’s video game music, which is fundamentally film music.

    To Nora’s original point: In listening to some scores for the Game Boy, whose sound capabilities are probably only a few steps removed from the 2600’s, it struck me that the strict limitation on the number of available voices encourages simple polyphony; complex harmonies have to be arpeggiated rather than exposed homorhythmically, which may account for some of that Baroque vibe.

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