Modes of Retromania – 8 Bit/Chiptune

Skip to 5:20, Dubmood – Introchip #14

In my email conversation with Simon Reynolds posted here I mentioned 8-bit and he said it was just another nostalgic genre amongst others, (them all?) but I think there’s more to it than that.

Another thing that cropped up in our conversation was my argument that nothing is created ex nihilo, that the ‘anxiety of influence’ was a concern running as far back as the Romantic poets and further and that while music has become more backward-looking, a sea of backwash with the odd tentative wave forward every now and then, I’d argue that this is a matter of degrees rather than absolutes.

What makes 8 Bit more than the sum of its parts or just another retromaniac genre? The change in context from a utilitarian purpose (background/atmosphere for games) to the forefront as ‘art’ or music-in-itself changes its aspect significantly so that possibilities open up within the genre, whether have been exploited so far is another matter and up for debate. But this fits perfectly with the methodology of Ambient, of ‘found sounds’, without aping its specific sounds or just calling back to Ambient of the past.

This shift from utility to art also mirrors the methodology of bringing art from elsewhere into pop music as so much of the Modernist Pop period did: The Fall and modernist poetry, Human League and Science Fiction, Art of Noise and mordernist composition. In the first two instances a form of art is harvested in another mode and transformed into something new by its interplay. With the Art of Noise pop culture is brought to High and this too is a transformative move. To make something absolutely clear: by saying this I don’t mean to drag previous innovative pop music down to my own time’s retromaniac level. These were legitimately innovative processes but to not state these facts is to delve into the area of mystification.

Similar to these three examples, the movement from utility to art represents the same sort of transformation. Now it might be said that these songs aren’t actually much different from the ones that are actually used on old games, or that these old games in the first instance were only alluding to ‘real’ music but lacked the technology to make it. But the context in which it is listened to is, if not everything, very important. There’s a reversion from its original use, this technologically restricted allusion to orchestral music now becomes a return to that restriction when the ability to just tack on the orchestral music games always aspired to is available. Halo does this and it’s boring.

An idea that I really don’t have the expertise of games to fully develop: If the gaming world had realised that its musical/graphical restrictions were what gave it a charge of the new it would have developed in a much more interesting way than the current movement towards becoming mere interactive films. When cinema first appeared, in its silent era it was in a period of similar potentiality to games in the 1980’s that required years of theorising before cinema could properly release itself from the shackles of literature and become a medium in its own right with its own character. Developing in the postmodern anti-theory period of the ’80’s, this thinking about what made games new and gaming in general has fallen into the trap of Film-indebtedness.

It would be impossible, not to mention retromaniacal, to argue that everyone got their Ataris out and threw out their PS3s and 360s because the ’80’s represented a ‘golden age’ of gaming. I’d argue, though, that a move towards 8-Bit music is another iteration of ‘nostalgia for the future’ whereby dissatisfaction with the path that gaming took leads to a return to its infant stage so that a different path might be followed. Indie gaming, by virtue of its lower budgets, is now working alongside mainstream ‘Triple A’ gaming at less technologically advanced levels, (re. Marx’s ‘Uneven development of history’) carving out artistic space in areas of previous technology that had been overlooked. In association with the Chiptune movement, this represents a legitimate and popular resistance to Film-indebted Gaming.

As music, though, Chiptune represents a certain asceticism as against the omnivorous character of the retro time bandits who pilfer in time where I would argue Modernist Pop raided space, be that the virtual space of other art forms or the literal space in World music. Under an incredibly restrictive generic methodology (A range of 9 phone tones on 3 tracks), producers are able to make music which stands on its own two feet where 8 Bit music of its time suffered an inferiority complex as ‘the best we can do at the time’.

While it’s true that on purely technological terms 8 Bit is most definitely retro, can innovation be reduced to nothing more than its position in technology? As an example, does the technology of time stretching which enabled the move from Hardcore to Jungle immediately invalidate all use of a high-pitched vocal as retro? Far from making the point of that technique as a timeless pleasure-giver to be conservatively preserved, a purely technological view of the forward movement of music misses something Technology over the course of pop music’s history has enabled ideas that had long since been imagined to be properly implemented, as expressed by members of Visage in the brilliant (and brilliantly named) BBC6 Synth documentary The Great Bleep Forward.

If technology is the means by which producers implement ideas, its reverse is the view of music whereby technologically retro music is also artistically retro, which seems to be a case of the tail wagging the dog. If new sounds, combinations, ideas can be found in redundant technology, is this retro? This reliance on new technologies seems to now be failing us: electronic music techniques are boundless, music can now be produced entirely on an Ipad with zero investment, and over the course of a few decades their mode of storage rapidly got smaller and smaller, and eventually completely immaterial (and in practice free). Where exactly can technology go now?

It might be said that this argument is a submission to the view that nothing more can be done in music, but in separating technology and art we might come to a view wherein we are not so reliant on technology to hand us musical innovations, to judge music on its own terms. If this is a submission, it’s a compartmentalised one that demands different value judgements from previous journalism and offers a materialistic argument beyond the fogeyist ‘These kids today just aren’t as creative as they once were’.

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