What New Music Can Learn from Video Games

I’m always interested in how various artistic communities deal with the looming specter of experimentalism. With any art form, there’s almost inevitably some resistance to the experimental, leading to a reactionary defensiveness on the part of the experimenters. (“You can’t fire me, I quit!”) From my mostly-on-the-sidelines, grass-is-greener vantage point, the indie video game community seems refreshingly free of these trappings. Lately I’ve been wondering why this is, and what the new music community might learn from this.

One immediately striking thing about indie video games is that the line between experimentalism and commercialism is often fuzzy at best. If you look at it as a spectrum, it can be hard to figure out where the poles are even located. Lots of game developers—Stephen Lavelle, Andrew Plotkin, Anna Anthropy, and Terry Cavanagh, just to name a few—seem to dabble in both worlds, and even they can’t always predict which side of the fence a particular project will land on. Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon, an iOS game with a minimalist visual aesthetic and punishing difficulty, seemed like a niche  effort even to its creator until it became a surprise hit.

Part of this is certainly due to a different sort of market. At least right now, people seem more willing to pay for games than to pay for music, which allows for a little more leeway in what developers choose to work on. At the same time, these developers deserve at least a little bit of credit for creating this environment and inspiring such devotion. In particular, I’ve been impressed so far by the openness of this community, not just in the diversity of the things they make but also in their encouragement of others. In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy argues that anyone should be able to make games, regardless of what kind of background they have in the field.

This is quite a contrast to the world of concert music, where performance and composition are regarded as elite professions that demand decades of highly specialized training. I don’t want to minimize the importance of this, but I do wonder what it would be like if we were a little more welcoming to others outside of the profession, not just as audience members but as potential creators. I sense that there is a fear among some that this would be like opening the flood gates—the derision that greets any new tool that makes it easier to make music is a pretty clear indicator here. But what if, instead of regarding them with suspicion, we viewed them as stepping stones to other kinds of musicianship? How could we help bridge those gaps? Instead of diluting the craft and rigor of concert music, new perspectives would enrich the field, and a more musically literate population would mean more fans who appreciate the effort and talent that goes into the act of making music.

As far as what this radical audience participation might look like, I’m not sure yet. But I’d like to find out.

One thought on “What New Music Can Learn from Video Games

  1. Eric V.

    This is a topic I too have spent a great deal of time considering, the rise of indie gaming and its success are certainly phenomena worthy of attention. I think especially interesting is when music tends to play a big part of the experience of these games.

    Dear Esther comes to mind and actually uses a soundtrack composed for it Jessica Curry, a soundtrack which is truly a part of the whole package. On the flip side, a game like Braid is also served by a seemingly flawless soundtrack even though all the music was pulled form a website that sells tracks for use!

    To me these games and the market for them seem to offer interesting opportunities for composers to collaborate on works that reside in the fun artistic area that is, as you say, on the line between experimentalism and commercialism.

    As ever, great choice of subject matter!

    Reply

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