Essay: Music or game?

With albums released as virtual environments, and video games forming new instruments, Adam Harper considers playing music in 2012.

Music is always interactive, even when we just listen to it. People tend to think of music as a passive, receptive activity that encounters a performance directed by someone else, or a fixed and repeating object such as a recording – but of course, we have a significant amount of control over our presence at these performances, as well as the production of the music itself, as we coax it out of whichever device plays us these recordings. But even within these performances, after we’ve made ourselves entirely subject to them, music is still interactive.

We have control over our attention and its focus on the flow of musical events – the musical performance provides a space within which our minds can move. We might be listening to the bass one second, the hi-hats the next, or listening to the interaction between the two, or anticipating a moment of expansion or resolution. We might even conjoin the music with the (so-called) non-musical world outside it, and begin to lose ourselves in the associations – maybe memories – that the music evokes, or start to witness the interaction of the music with the physical space it’s working with, and the occupants it contains. Music is always a game, an adventure of the mind and the body and the wider cultural values they connect to.

But a game can also be music. Games have long involved sounds, not just those that are apparently purposeless – the shout of a mid-air tackle, the bizarre internal resonation of a basketball, the electronic munch of Pac-Man chowing down on whatever it is he’s eating – but the purposeful too: the whistles of football, the buzzers and klaxons of gameshows, the beeping of low health points necessary when a game hasn’t gone as far as inflicting actual pain on you.

A game can be even more ‘musical’ than this basic union of sound and prospective action, however. Modern video games can be praised for their extensive, complex or inventive soundtracks, which are often available separately. In this case, the music is more or less a supplement to the game, but one recent release inverted that model, providing a game – or at least a series of virtual environment to explore – to supplement the music. This was Exo by Gatekeeper, with the environment designed by Tabor Robak. I listened to Gatekeeper’s music long before I entered the virtual environment, but doing the latter radically changed my perspective on the whole project. On its own, I concluded that the music was dystopian, semi-cynical and somewhat satirical, and I aligned it with music by BODYGUARD and Fatima Al Qadiri, but I’d only read half the story.


Gatekeeper’s album / 3D environment ‘EXO’, designed by Tabor Robak

Step into the virtual world of Exo, with its plethora of detailed alien worlds (‘exoplanets’), and the idea of the project as a kind of cultural negativity becomes more difficult to maintain. Sure, the rush of Exo is not merely pleasant so much as a thrill, and the worlds that we tour through are eventually destroyed in some cataclysm, but it has a futurism and a beauty that, at least to some degree, demands to be taken seriously. This radical change of perspective brought about when music and ‘game’ were unified led me to conclude that Exo was both more than music and more than a game. You might say it becomes a different form of art entirely. Listening to Exo without entering its virtual environment is like eating the bread without the filling (or vice versa), or listening to the end of Richard Wagner’s opera Twilight of the Gods without seeing the end of the world dramatised before your eyes. (By the way, if you liked Exo the game, try Dear Esther, a very similar project connecting the exploration of a virtual space linked not with music so much as a literary text, albeit one with a rather overactive attention to symbolism).

The integration of ‘game’ and ‘music’ to become something more than both can go still further. I was recently contacted by David Kanaga, who’s based in Oakland, California and writes music, music for video games (see below), and notes on the theory of game music on his blog (earlier this year he was interviewed by Pitchfork). Kanaga is also interested in the idea of music as a game outside of videogames, for example the work of John Zorn (such as Cobra, akin to a game of ‘capture the flag’) or ‘improvising software’ such as that used by Anthony Braxton. Musical games are nothing new of course – the breathing games of the Inuit and the structured group improvisations of many central African tribes are ancient – but the sonic and mechanical possibilities are multiplied exponentially in the age of the microchip. I’m not much of a video-gamer really, and I don’t have anything to play them on except a seven-year-old computer and an old Nokia (so much of what I say belopw is only based on YouTube trailers), but through Kanaga’s blog and emails I was introduced to a number of indie gaming projects where the control over and appreciation of the game is merging with control over and appreciation of music – many of them are described in a recent article Kanaga pointed me towards. If underground music artists and fans are encountering games through Exo, underground games designers and fans, on the other side of the equation, have been making many more in-roads into music.

When thinking about the idea of a video-game involving music, the most famous cases that spring to mind might be Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution. These games, however, don’t necessarily take full advantage of the virtual integration of game and music, since they just simulate forms of music-making and enjoyment that come from the physical world. The app suite that accompanied Björk’s latest album Biophilia looks more inventively abstract, offering a range of scenarios in which musical change is represented and controlled (though unfortunately, not everyone owns the requisite tech). Kanaga, too, helped to design this great little suite of abstract sonic-visual systems in a slightly simpler vein for PC.

Often sonic events and soundtracks appear in games that are so abstract that the entire experience is akin to listening to or composing music. Dyad, another game Kanaga has been involved in designing, was described by Indiecade as ‘a tactical octopus action ballet in a reactive audio-visual tube’. From the trailer, it looks like what might happen if you managed to crawl inside Rustie’s album Glass Swords. In other games, music (or what we might call music) is a consequence of the process of game-playing. Sometimes the game sounds musical throughout, as in Electroplankton, Fract (which ‘puts you inside a giant synthesiser’), or the immediately charismatic Beat Sneak Bandit=, a platformer which, as the title suggests, runs to a beat. Sometimes music, or the best, fullest music, results from effective gameplay, whether this is achieved through a structure akin to a sequencer, such as in Sound Shapes or the spectacular, ingeniously represented Pulse, or timing, as in Circadia, or a mixer, as in Auditorium (you can try it out now if you click the link), which uses a series of different types of lenses to direct a stream of particles that are able to activate the music’s volume levels – or at least that’s one way to put it.

David Kanaga had a hand in designing one game I found particularly absorbing: Proteus. In that it involves the exploration of an environment enhanced by sound and music, Proteus is not unlike Exo, but what it loses in terms of eye-popping graphics it makes up for in greater sonic and spatial interactivity and a quiet profundity. The game, for PC, constructs an island that is differently shaped and populated each time you visit. As you explore the island’s forests, beaches and mountains you encounter different musical ambiences as well as fauna that move and react to you of their own volition, such as the frogs whose leaping sounds like tuned percussion or harps. The time of day also changes rapidly, bringing with it new colours and musical encounters, and if you touch the standing stones scattered throuhgout the island (each of which produces its own deep musical pitch) and follow the white specks that subsequently fly off them, you can transport yourself to the island in each of the four seasons, too, – each, again, offering its own musical world. Having had a quick browse of the audio files that come with the game, it’s clear than in my handful of visits to the island I’ve only encountered a fraction of its inhabitant sounds, so, like a rich or well-loved album, I’ll keep coming back to it.

And much like traditional music, the game has no particular goal other than the appreciation and exploration of the space it sets up, but to someone like me, who of late has been experiencing music by listening to gigs, records, CDs and mp3s almost exclusively, this fresh type of musical encounter, requiring a little imagination as it also does, felt quite enlightening. Now I can say that one of my most intriguing musical experiences of the year has been chasing a frog up a mountain.

At the moment, all of these musical games, or game-like musics, seem like little more than one-off gimmicks. But it’s not difficult to imagine entire genres of interactive musical activity arising over the coming decades – whole cultures of virtual musical environments to explore like Exo, or many dozens of sound production games that are rich and broad yet subtle, thoughtful, famous and collectively experienced. Imagine if there were as many different Beat Sneak Bandits or Proteuses as there are, say, dubstep tracks. Well perhaps one day musical activity and culture will even be so bound up with interactivity that ‘non-interactive’ or less interactive music will be as outside of the mainstream as films without the dimensions of sound or colour are today. In any case, we’d always do well to open ourselves up to new forms of musical interaction and adventure.

Adam Harper is an author and academic. His latest book, Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making is available through Zero. Joshua Armitage is a London-based illustrator, whose work can be found on his website.

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