Inspired by an earlier reader post, I was going to write a big thing about the oft-overlooked role of meter as a determinant of audience reception of new music. But the hell with that. It’s Christmas—I’m writing about video games.
What on earth do video games have to do with new music? Well, for starters, there’s a whole generation of composers who are intimately familiar with the canon—the standard rep, as it were—of video game music. If you play us a Castlevania ostinato or the first few bars of a Mega Man II selection, we’ll be able to name that tune in a matter of nanoseconds. I try not to think about this too much, because if I seriously consider how much of my brain houses 16-bit leitmotifs at the expense of better music, the tears are not easy to restrain.
What’s much more important than video game music, however, is the imprint left by hours of exposure to the experiential contours of video games—a medium in which an ordinarily elusive characteristic like “experiential contour” lies very close to the surface of the activity. We now live in an era of practically cinematic production values, but there was a time (specifically, 1994) when the bulk of a game’s salability rested on its ability to produce an experience in which the player could be absorbed, a careful balancing not just of difficulty but of a plurality of interrelated difficulties. Studies showed that kids who played more video games were willing to stick with difficult tasks longer. Is it possible that our being accustomed to overcoming fabricated challenges accounts for elements in our music that resist conventional means of understanding—or, at the very least, demand a multitude of analytical tools that must be employed by the listener in “real time” to get the message?
I’m not sure I could substantiate this claim with quantitative data, but I feel that a great deal of my and my colleagues’ music has a “fabricated challenge” quality; part of the nature of our pieces is that they resists immediate comprehension, that they must be solved in order to be understood and in order for their significance to be, so to speak, “unlocked” (to use a term from the video game lexicon). Perhaps it is a receptiveness to parameterized sonic information that is required to make sense of the piece, for instance; perhaps it is an ability to think analogically between textural topologies, a sensitivity to obscure quotations from the literature, or a readiness to shift rapidly from one mode of musical discourse to another. Unlike the latest PlayStation 3 release, however, the listener earns meaning, not bonus stages, from applying himself to this arduous and sometimes even punishing task.