I Got Game

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.

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11 thoughts on “I Got Game

  1. EvanJohnson

    Colin, you’re going to get a lot of $*(@ for this, so I’ll try to keep my helping relatively mild.

    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”

    Speaking as someone whose work (most of it, anyway) you would probably place in that category: no. “Solving” is, in fact, quite absolutely beside the point; in my case, and in that of the music I most admire, the construction of obstacles (be they formal, instrumental, sonic, whatever) is part of an attempt to avoid the entire question of solvability; to reject as far as possible the default situation of “one piece / one experience.”

    Music that can be solved is boring music. And by “solved” I don’t mean – as I trust you don’t – ferreting out any precompositional structures or figuring out how this thing was put together, but “finding” (or, probably better, being found by) the “message” of the piece, hearing what you are supposed to hear and reacting in the ways in which you are supposed to react. The most compelling music, for me, is that which cannot be pinned down that way; it’s what binds Ablinger, Tom Johnson, late Nono, some Ferneyhough, the Wandelweisern, some Aldo Clementi, and hell let’s throw in late Dufay and Machaut and Ockegem together into my personal vision of How Things Ought to Be Done.

  2. Colin Holter

    Music that can be solved is boring music.

    What if the solution is fascinating?

    Music is a poor medium in which to make statements, I think, but it’s an ideal way to ask questions. My goal is to ask difficult but clear and (most importantly) finite questions. Each question may provoke a wide variety of different answers, and I am completely satisfied with this (potentially infinite) spectrum cast by an (entirely circumscribed) prism. That a piece can be solved does not necessarily mean that there’s only one solution. A great deal of the music I admire most – Ives, late Cage, and mid-late Carter, to name a few names – is connected by this principle.

    Speaking as someone whose work (most of it, anyway) you would probably place in that category: no.

    I regret to say that I don’t know your music; I presume that you don’t know mine either. But take my word for it: My pieces have to be solved. How about everybody else? Let’s keep a running tally.

  3. EvanJohnson

    If you consider late Cage as “having to be solved,” then I’m afraid we’re using very different definitions of the term.

    Is “solve” different from “interpret?” To me, “solve” implies the existence of a discrete problem with a discrete solution.

  4. JJeffers

    I have been waiting to read about discussions of the state of composing for the gaming industry, but this thread has taken a more academic turn. I was interested to read this post because some early video game music had a large impact on me. No I will not name the game :)

    I have not really considered my stuff to be a problem or obstacle in need of solution, I just haven’t composed in that perspective I think. Of course, I want the listener to “get it”, but that thing that they are “getting” will be one of many things I may or may not have intended. Let me ask something…what is an example of a piece that has an obstacle that the listener should solve? And not too obscure please. What is the obstacle and how does a listener solve it? Those are my questions.

  5. amc654

    I agree w/ Evan. What are the ‘finite questions’ in late Cage? (The late Cage I most admire is fundamentally about open, infinite questions, I would think.)

    And, Colin … you should have a listen to Evan’s Reaktionmaschine — first-rate music. It’s probably the best (certainly the most interesting) starting-point into Evan’s aesthetic. Make him send you a complete copy — the little 30″ clip on his website doens’t begin to do the piece justice.

    His Clutch is also excellent and quite unique, and the full score & recording are available online at his website.

  6. Colin Holter

    Evan: I guess I’d say that “solving” is a subcategory of “interpreting.” I refer you to the text of my column: “Solving” may not be the best term for the type of experience I’m talking about; I haven’t seen this word in the media lately, but one used to talk about “beating” a game, consummating it, if you will, by achieving all of the game’s goals. This completion isn’t always predicated on determining an “answer” through problem-solving or deductive reasoning but maybe through persistence, some synchronization of mental and physical behavior (muscle memory plus actual memory), or even lateral signifier association. I think we’ve gotten a bit far afield of my initial proposition, which is just that a manner of listening incorporating manifold levels and types of analysis at once is a) necessary to “get” the music that (some of) my colleagues and I do and b) parallelled in the kinds of diversions with which we shouldn’t have been amusing ourselves in middle school.

    Aaron: Thirteen, one of my favorite late Cage pieces, might provide a good example of what I mean. When I hear Thirteen, I immediately have to confront the question: “What is this?” In other words, how was this made, what are the rules/processes/motors that cause the piece to begin, continue, and end, etc. That question is clear, simple, and relatively objective (unlike, for example, “how does this piece make me feel” or “do I like the sound of the piece”), but it’s a very difficult (maybe impossible) question to answer in the case of Thirteen. For me, the experience of hearing the piece is, at heart, the attempt on my part to “see through” it – to determine how it works and what it means. This attempt requires me to synthesize several “informants” about the piece – what I know about Cage’s musical thinking, what I know about compositional methods in the upper number pieces, and of course what’s going on in the piece itself (an informant with many independent mouths).

    In writing this explanation, it’s crossed my mind that when we call a question “complicated” or “difficult,” we’re really discussing the process of answering it and not the formulation itself. But the “question-answer(s)” model is still not quite what I was trying to identify in my column.

    These Buffalo guys, toughened by punishing blizzards and proximity to Canada, are kicking my ass.

  7. pgblu

    I want a copy of Reaktionmaschine too. But wouldn’t the correct German be “Reaktionsmaschine”? The extra ‘s’ is there to, well, make it grammatical, or at least easier to say… but perhaps its a reference to some lit that I’m not familiar with.

    If you’re talking about the recording of Thirteen produced by the dedicatees, Ensemble 13, you must know that the piece was to a significant degree “composed” by the director, Manfred Reichert. That may make the performance quite different from the composition.

    Having never played video games, I really can’t speak to the solving issue. But we’re talking about three different ways of engagin a piece: figuring out (1) how it came about, (2) why it was made, (3) how we ourselves are hearing it (individually!). Other levels are imaginable too — particularly level (3) includes that everyone listens differently. In this morass of what you call ‘meanings’, interpretation is hard enough without the hope of a “solution” to something.

  8. EvanJohnson

    Yes, it “should” be Reaktionsmaschine; the title is a Gerhard Richter coinage; or, perhaps it’s a typo. I’m not sure.

    Scores and recordings are available for my legions of fans by contacting me via the email on my website. Don’t all rush in at once; form an orderly line to the left.

    But enough about me. Talk amongst yourself about video games; as a former 8-bit NES owner and partisan of Rad Racer and the original Zelda, I can recall only the Mario Brothers theme…

  9. swellsort

    He got game?
    I see Colin’s point.

    There are numerous studies being conducted that say videos games can have a positive effect on certain processes in the brain, Like this story. Perhaps it does have some affect on the way the video game generation thinks about such temporal experiences as music. But, alas, no data to support theory.

    .On the other hot subject here, I don’t think there is any particular solution or correct answer for any piece of music. Any theoretical analysis doesn’t really explain or mean anything. It exists only so we can communicate about the music; theory itself is not the music!

  10. JKG

    Yass, yass…
    Theory itself is most definitely NOT the music. As regards the “solution” to musical works, consdier that in mathematics there is the so-called “neat solution” ideal. If in fact there are solutions to music, are there neat solutions for everyone? Likely not, as everyone hears music according to their own particular experience. Only those who share a common analytical viewpoint would be able to converse about music according to their chosen technical language. One need not know something is a gerund or pluperfect to use such words, nor does the knowledge of linguistic mastery inform anyone regarding gifts of prose or poetry. Nice for the experts, I suppose *rolls eyes*. Is there a “science of meaning” where music is concerned?

  11. swellsort

    It seems, as an experienced game player, that having spent so many hours in front of a tv, pressing buttons and eating potato chips, did at least help some of my brain be more able to process certain kinds of information. All the studies I’ve read suggest that video games help the short term memory out the most. What I wonder is how short term memory plays into composing? Any ideas? There are obvious things, like being able to remember ideas quickly, but how does it help one compose, or does it? Also, it seems like sensory memory would certainly be affected by game play, and that certainly affects the way we perceive music at the very least, which would in turn affect our generation’s leanings and wantings in our own music.

    Just some food for thought, found this article just now. Not exactly pertinent, but close! Click here.


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