Chiptunes as Wrestling Entertainment

Attended Blipfest 2008 on Saturday Dec. 6. The free workshops from 12-3 pm consisting of demos and how-tos for chiptune music and low-res computer animation were chock full of info and ideas, in particular Baron Knoxburry's walk-through of how he makes a song using the Windows-based Famitracker.

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Commencing at 8:30 pm, the live performances of music made with Gameboys and other videogame-related sound equipment might interest Roland Barthes as a critic of wrestling. The problem for the performer is that most of the music is pre-sequenced and meticulously made in the studio. Live play consists of little more than, say, muting and unmuting channels or twirling EQ knobs on a mixer. So the problem is how to appear to be doing something musical on stage.

Like WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), where no actual combat takes place, chiptune performers have developed a series of ritual moves that simulate intense engagement in the musical process. These consist of repeated fist pumps, making a horn sign with index and little finger, and vigorous dancing and running in place while the machines are playing. These Kabuki gestures ran the gamut Saturday night from krazy kids in kangol hats doing hard trance dance steps to Henry Rollinsesque beating of tabletops and cursing at the audience.

Another similarity to wrestling is an enthused audience that Believes. The Bell House in Brooklyn was packed Saturday with hundreds of fans screaming, moshing, and rushing the stage only to be removed by bouncers the size of industrial freezers. (Am exaggerating slightly--there was only one such bouncer but he did carry a dancing fan off the stage.) The music was mostly a hard wall of sound not dissimilar to a metal concert.

Cow'P, from Tokyo, veered from the pack somewhat with a series of sexy, hypnotic, floor-shaking trance-like bass runs alternating with washes of trebly delay. His music was the most house-tinged and danceable; he seemed the least invested in obligatory stage moves, barring the occasional semi-hearted air fist. And despite the electronic sound-emitting Pikachu toy on stage with him, his set also came across the least game-like, taking the music into new directions and timbres other than the comfortable nostalgia-invoking ones of childhood Nintendos.

Bubblyfish also steers the game sound in a techno direction, or more precisely a hard Euro-electronic body music a la Front 242. Was surprised to see her joining the entertainment posse with multiple fist pumps and diva-like arm-raisings, as her usual mien is quiet and studious on stage. In comparison to chiptune performances in NY three years ago, a strong set of crowd-pleasing stage conventions appears to be developing in this, the third Blipfest, which are becoming hard to buck. These moves have always been in the scene: Bodenstanding 2000 dance, clown, and rock out on stage, too, but in a winking-at-the-audience, "we are scientists who party" way, in contrast to the simulated Black Flag angst on view Saturday. Nerd empowerment can only be taken so far.

Update: A reader suggested that Saturday night's pounding style might have been different from the other nights in the four day festival. Doubtful, based on the Friday night cell phone call I got, but any reports on other evenings would be appreciated.