Luigi Russolo

 

Butterflies, Dominoes, Microchips: Comparing early video-game music and the Noise of Luigi Russolo

IAN COOKE TAPIA
May 2014.

Abstract:

Chiptune music from the 1980s and 1990s share similarities with the theories presented in the 1913 manifesto The Art of Noise, by Luigi Russolo. Both movements are connected by a line of historical characters, innovations and events, but the line is otherwise ignored by the majority of the population. Historical blindness turns two interlinked movements into isolated events. They are not. By looking at their historical backgrounds, the people who worked within each movement, we come to realise just how similar they are and how.

Introduction

My original intention was to create a timeline describing the butterfly effect that arose after the publication of Luigi Russolo’s Futurist manifesto L’Art dei Rumori (the Art of Noise), in 1913. I thought I would find a timeline of influences, beginning with characters who took inspiration from Luigi Russolo, moving on to who those characters went on to influence, decade by decade, up to the rise of the chiptune music of early video games in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, as my research delved deeper, I found that both Russolo’s theories presented in The Art of Noise, and the way chiptune was developed early on share a lot of similarities. This made me reconsider the focus of my research towards comparing the similarities between what is presented by Russolo, and the early production and evolution of chiptune.

There is a historical butterfly effect that connects two branches of the same tree of artistic innovation, an effect that goes back seventy years. Strictly within the context of the twentieth century, the only connecting thread between an Italian man’s dream of revolutionizing music, and the relentless advancement and evolution of video game music, would seem at first to be technological innovation; but on closer inspection, their similarities stand out. A fitting preface for the following essay is a metaphor embedded in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.(1) Mitchell traces the life of several characters from different decades; characters whose lives in small or significant ways have been defined by the behaviour of a past character. To me, Cloud Atlas is about reaching immortality by simply living a life full of relevant or irrelevant actions that create a ripple effect, not unlike that of a line of dominoes – we touch the domino right in front of us, it falls on to the next domino, and the ripple goes on down the path of human history.

There is a growing tendency in modern life to belittle the importance of history – historical memories are getting shorter and shorter. There is a thin and often drawn-out connecting thread between the conceptualization and development of technologies, ideas and what their end results are. By forgetting, or simply not possessing the information required to see, this thread, these innovations seem to be isolated events that came about within their own microcosm. Under this concept, I would like to ask the following question: what does the rise of video game music, both as technology and art, have in common with the musical writings and practices of an Italian Futurist painter? Quite a lot, as I’ve found out. While I will mention some of this connectivity, I am looking at what appears to be an unprecedented happenstance: the cheer similarities between chiptune and L’Arte dei Rumori. However, this is only “happenstance” if we ignore the butterfly created by the man that “set the template for modern music.”(2) We need historical baggage to understand this connectivity; ergo, I will define and elaborate on both chiptune and its historical counterpart L’Arte dei Rumori.

In the strictest sense, the term chiptune refers to music composed for the microchip-based audio hardware of early home computers and gaming consoles.(3) The music, sometimes written by professional musicians, was translated from scores into computer code languages. This code would tell the machine what tones to produce and when – therefore creating music. Usually, the coding would be performed by people who did not understand music.(4) In broader terms, however, chiptune can also be defined as any music produced to mimic the sound of by early home computer hardware, either by use of the very same machines, or emulators. This later definition arose recently as technology advance and allowed chiptune to exist without the tools responsible for its first rise to prominence.

Chiptune as music arose to meet a necessity

The first video games existed at a time when you could only play them and listen to their doops and beeps in the comfort of arcades and malls, surrounded by a tumult of people. Classical arcade consoles were hulking pieces of equipment, and the simple music they could play was thanks to cassettes and phonographic records hidden inside their armour of plastic and glass. This hardware allowed for a very limited musical experience, as the hardware only played pre-recorded music that was ever only played at the start of games.(5) The arcade console’s very size allowed it to carry more hardware, ergo, allowing for more space for music playback, as the capacity for music playback was directly tied to the equipment within the console.(6) But when gaming consoles moved out of arcades and malls and into the quieter existence of a family’s home, a size reduction became a priority. This reduction imposed restrictions upon video game producers – it was like giving a surgeon a spear to operate. However, although both the pre-recorded sound technology of arcade consoles and the smaller systems used for home consoles were both extremely limited in what they could do, the move from arcades and into homes created a broader market for the production of games and that of their music. With the advent of a market, a boom was on the way.

In the 1970s, hardware size was attached to hardware capability; this offered early game consoles like the Atari 2600 (1977) and computers like Apple II (1977) a very limited memory space and hardware performance capacities too. Producers were then forced to work with a very limited palette of available sounds: those that the hardware itself could produce.(7) It was in this limited environment that chiptune showed its face for the first time, at first allowing only extremely limited sound like those present in the legendary Pong (1972) and the ground-breaking Missile Command (1982). Later on, the development of smaller and more powerful instruments allowed for the creation of musical masterpieces like what is heard in Gradius (1985) and Bomberman II (1992). It follows, then, that the facetious complement of rapid technological advances and the insight of specific innovators that sparked the arduous and eventual establishment of video game music as more than simple, oscillated static sounds more akin to a microwave malfunctioning than music. I present that the technological, stylistic and theoretical evolution of chiptune share many similarities with the way Luigi Russolo presented his theories in 1913, and then went on to develop them. I will expand on this further on.

At first, video game music was defined by its limits. “Early on, you were just thankful to get any sound out of the thing,” says Mike Pummell, a composer for Acclaim software, when referring to creating music for early video games.(8) Over the years, chiptune evolved as pioneers developed hardware, and found new ways to produce masterpieces well-received compositions with a very limited palette of sounds. One example of how hardware limitations forced producers to innovate was the work of Gary Kitchen, a game producer at Activision. During the development of the game Pressure Cooker (1983)(9), Kitchens, realising the limitations of the Atari 2600, worked around its limitations and those of its music producing equipment; the television interface adapter (TIA). What the console could produce was limited to two channels only, and was “notoriously difficult to tune”(10). Instead of trying to force alien traditional music production methodologies onto the hardware, he embraced what it could do. Kitchens hired a professional jingle writer to compose theme music using only the pitches possible out of an Atari 2600, (11) managing to work in liaison with the instrument rather than against it.

It is at this point that we have to start looking at the equipment used in the production of chiptune, at those microchips, TIAs, oscillators, harmonic passages, electrical wiring, motherboards, etc., not as simple pieces of hardware inside a computer, but rather as musical instruments that acted as pieces of hardware. Those little devices produced music, albeit a very simple form of it. On their own they produced noise, but when wielded by an expert they turned into something as interesting and innovative as the theremin, an instrument that did not require the player to have physical contact with it.

While the likes of Kitchen innovated with the resources at their disposal, there were those like Robert Yannes, who found themselves frustratingly constricted by what they had. Yannes described the hardware of the TIA and the likes as “primitive” and having being “designed by people who knew nothing about music.”(12) He developed the SID (Sound Interface Device), which was designed to be used in game consoles and music synthesizers.(13) It was this latter differentiation that allowed for greater freedom. Originally built into the Commodore 64 (1982), Yannes’ SID was a dedicated device that only produced sounds, unlike the TIA, which had to process both sound and graphics. Yannes’ innovation gave game producers much more flexibility on what they could create. One of the SID’s greatest advantages was that it could emulate the conventional instrumentation of a four-piece rock band – drums, guitar, bass, and voice.(14) One such example is Nobuo Uematsu’s Opera series on Final Fantasy 6 (1992). Its ability to “mimic” other instruments will be of note later on.

As I have mentioned, chiptune production is quite similar to the work of Luigi Russolo, more precisely the theories he presented in a manifesto in 1913, and then went on to develop in practice. But, who was Luigi Russolo, the man considered to be “the founding father of electronic music”(15) and who “single-handedly changed the course of music and art history.”(16)

Luigi Russolo was an Italian Futurist painter, composer and inventor who introduced groundbreaking concepts to music production and art with his 1913 manifesto, L’Arte dei Rumori (the Art of Noise).(17) In this manifesto, Russolo spoke of how “life in ancient time was silent” and it wasn’t until the “nineteenth century, with the invention of machines, that Noise was born”(18). What Russolo referred to as Noise was an umbrella term that covered those sounds produced using man-made tools, and those sounds that existed in nature but without the “purity and sweetness” of otherwise traditional forms of harmonic music and musical instruments; the former defined as noise-sounds, the latter as music-sounds. In his words, Noise was therefore better suited to allow free experimentation and for “the complete renovation of musical arts.”(19) However, he also pointed out that in order to truly experiment, one should not have been corrupted by already established musical idioms.(20)

Even though Russolo referred to Noise as the new step in the evolution of music, he understood that noise on its own couldn’t transform the world of music as it was meant to. A key element in Russolo’s theories is the connecting element between chiptune production and what is written in The Art of Noise. He spoke of needing to “fix the pitch and regulate the harmonies and rhythms of these extraordinary varied sounds.”(21) In other words, Russolo had to transform noise and present it as something more evolved – his Noise. To this extent, Russolo designed devices named intonarumori,(22) instruments that imitated natural noises and allowed control of their pitch. While conceptually inventive, these instruments were not technically revolutionary – they did not produce new music but rather “pushed the boundaries and were used to create new forms of music”.(23) In parallel, Nobuo Uematsu’s Opera series is a modern example of manipulating the pitch of noise, as they use nothing but noises from chips to give the illusion of a soprano voice.(24) It is only after understanding that both chiptune and Russolo used the natural sounds – noises – of devices and forged them into compositions that we start to see how similar they are. Producers programmed chips and hardware to produce the desired pitch and tempo, with the likes of Gary Kitchens, Nobuo Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama pushing the boundaries beyond the microcosm of video games. Uematsu became the most successful video game composer of all times. Sugiyama, composer for Dragon Quest (1986), composed the first collection of video game music that saw commercial success as an album.(25) All three turned machine and electronic noise-sounds into music. They wanted to create a new experience of sound, one that would give a deeper dimension to the pixel graphics of early video games. They followed nearly the same lines that Russolo did when set out to put his ideas into practice; he used his intonarumori and to create orchestras or, as he described them, “network of noises”. Russolo introduced a new way of listening to the world; he wanted to expand the world of music and show that we could no longer stick to the classical notions of beautiful sounds – in other words, a new experience of sound. It is said that, while his compositions were not very innovative, they did create the basis from which others would later derive from to establish a more alternative tonal world.(26)
This tonal world was taken up and further developed by a series of influential sonic artists. Russolo influenced Pierre Schaffer, who then influenced Karlheinz Stockhausen.(27) Kraftwerk -German electronic music band and pioneers – studied Stockhausen; as did the The Beatles, and Yellow Magic Orchestra, a Japanese electronic music group famous for borrowing sounds from video games and then influencing video game music with their style.(28) Similarly, The Beatles influenced progressive rock, which was a main source of inspiration for the musical styles of early chiptune compositions after the appearance of the SID.(29)

What started as a revolution became common practice

Intonarumori allowed Russolo to control the pitch of noises, turning erratic, dissonant sounds into something that had a tonal purpose – music, if not music with harmonies the general public were used to. Russolo set out to revolutionise music; chiptune set out to revolutionise video game immersion. Both presented a new dimension of artistic expression to the world. Yet, it wasn’t an instant development. It is of note that both spheres were not quite as musically innovative as Russolo hoped. Russolo spoke of the need to move on from known musical movements and genres and to turn Noise into genuine innovation; but his compositions borrowed heavily from his musical background and that of better-appreciated pieces.(30) Ironically, his surviving compositions borrow heavily from what he sought to remove himself from, while he simply used new revolutionizing instruments to show a new side of the dodecahedron that is music and the arts. Chiptune did the same: music composed for games borrowed heavily from styles and genres from the 1980s, to the point that several of the earliest videogames sounded nearly similar to what was commercially available at the time.(31) It is a fact that it takes time for new technological breakthroughs to mature and for artistic theories to draw enough attention and experimentation for them to grow into their own microcosms and develop their own “styles” or “branches”. For chiptune, it wasn’t until the technology reached a defining point that composers like Uematsu and Sugiyama were able to push forward the frontiers of prior innovations.

The similarities between chiptune and Luigi Russolo’s initial work do not become apparent until we immerse ourselves in the histories and intricacies of both. Historical contextualizing both is a prerequisite of addressing the both obvious and more subtle similarities shared by the two music movements. To sum up, I have proposed that the philosophy of an Italian artist in his prime in the early twentieth century remains relevant seventy years later, even if most of those who worked with it in the 80s didn’t know that they lived under the shadow of Russolo. It has been a hundred years since Russolo pushed his domino in the line, setting in motion and increasingly rewarding and approachable development of electronic music. On that note, I would like to go back to my comment on Cloud Atlas and simply ask:
Which of our domino lines will initiate a progressive age of innovation, as the line that Russolo set in motion?

 

References:

1. Mitchell, David. 2004. Cloud Atlas. Sceptre.
2. Medina, Oscar Paul. August, 2010. Luigi Russolo: How the Art of Noise Revolutionized 20th Century Music. Hydra Magazine. (ONLINE) http://www.hydramag.com/2010/08/27/luigi-russolo-how-the-art-of-noise-revolutionized-20th-century-music/ (Accessed April 2014)
3. Driscoll, Kevin. and Diaz, Joshua. 2009. Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes. Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) (ONLINE), vol. 2, Praxis. Available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/96/94 (Accessed April 2014)
4. Driscoll, Kevin. and Diaz, Joshua. 2009. Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes. Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) (ONLINE), vol. 2, Praxis. Available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/96/94 (Accessed April 2014)
5. How To: Video Game Music. Recording Arts Canada – Digital Arts College (ONLINE) http://recordingarts.com/about-us/news/how-to-video-game-music (Accessed May 2014)
6. Driscoll, Kevin. and Diaz, Joshua. 2009. Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes. Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) (ONLINE), vol. 2, Praxis. Available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/96/94 (Accessed April 2014)
7. Driscoll, Kevin. and Diaz, Joshua. 2009. Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes. Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) (ONLINE), vol. 2, Praxis. Available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/96/94 (Accessed April 2014)
8. Belinkie, Mathew. 1999. Video game music: not just kid stuff. (ONLINE) Available: http://www.vgmusic.com/vgpaper.shtml (Accessed May 2014)
9. Driscoll, Kevin. and Diaz, Joshua. 2009. Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes. Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) (ONLINE), vol. 2, Praxis. Available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/96/94 (Accessed April 2014)
10. Driscoll, Kevin. and Diaz, Joshua. 2009. Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes. Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) (ONLINE), vol. 2, Praxis. Available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/96/94 (Accessed April 2014)
11. Driscoll, Kevin. and Diaz, Joshua. 2009. Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes. Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) (ONLINE), vol. 2, Praxis. Available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/96/94 (Accessed April 2014)
12. Yannes, Bob. 1996. Interview. SID In-Depth Information Site. Interviewed by Andreas Varga. http://sid.kubarth.com/articles/interview_bob_yannes.html (Accessed May, 2014)
13. Driscoll, Kevin. and Diaz, Joshua. 2009. Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes. Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) (ONLINE), vol. 2, Praxis. Available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/96/94 (Accessed April 2014)
14. Slocum, Paul. 2003. (Online) Available: http://www.qotile.net/files/2600_music_guide.txt (Accessed May 2014)

15. Osborne, Ben. 2014. Luigi Russolo’s Legacy. Convergence: a music + technology series. (ONLINE) http://www.convergence-london.com/luigi-russolo/ (Accessed May 2014)
16. Medina, Oscar Paul. August, 2010. Luigi Russolo: How the Art of Noise Revolutionized 20th Century Music. Hydra Magazine. (ONLINE) http://www.hydramag.com/2010/08/27/luigi-russolo-how-the-art-of-noise-revolutionized-20th-century-music/ (Accessed April 2014)
16. Russolo, Luigi. (1913) L’Arte dei Rumori. Pendragon Print, 2005 edition
17. Strunk, Oliver. (1978) Source Readings in Music History. Vol. 7, The Twentieth Century, Luigi Russolo: The Art of Noise. Edited by Robert P. Morgan W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
18. Russolo, Luigi. (1913) L’Arte dei Rumori. Pendragon Print, 2005 edition
19. Russolo, Luigi. (1913) L’Arte dei Rumori. Pendragon Print, 2005 edition
20. Strunk, Oliver. (1978) Source Readings in Music History. Vol. 7, The Twentieth Century, Luigi Russolo: The Art of Noise. Edited by Robert P. Morgan W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
21. Strunk, Oliver. (1978) Source Readings in Music History. Vol. 7, The Twentieth Century, Luigi Russolo: The Art of Noise. Edited by Robert P. Morgan W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
22. Chessa, Luciano (2012) Luigi Russolo, Futurist, Visual Arts, and the Occult. University of California Press, Ltd.
23. Venn, Edward. (2010) Rethinking Russolo. Cambridge University Press
24. Uematsu, Nobuo. (1992) Opera – The Dream Oath, Final Fantasy 6. (ONLINE) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zgrR7-iZbI (Accessed May 2014)
25. Belinkie, Mathew. 1999. Video game music: not just kid stuff. (ONLINE) Available: http://www.vgmusic.com/vgpaper.shtml (Accessed May 2014)
26. Osborne, Ben. 2014. Luigi Russolo’s Legacy. Convergence: a music + technology series. (ONLINE) http://www.convergence-london.com/luigi-russolo/ (Accessed May 2014)
27. Osborne, Ben. 2014. Luigi Russolo’s Legacy. Convergence: a music + technology series. (ONLINE) http://www.convergence-london.com/luigi-russolo/ (Accessed May 2014)
28. Zobe, DJ. (2014) The Asian ELectronic Music Connection: Germany had Kraftwerk, Japan had Yellow Magic Orchestra. (OBLINE) http://themicrogiant.com/asian-electronic-music-connection-yellow-magic-orchestra/#.UyrIsfkhB8E
29. Thorpe, Vanessa (16 November 2008). “Forty years on, McCartney wants the world to hear ‘lost’ Beatles epic”. The Observer. (ONLINE) (Accessed May 2014)
30. Driscoll, Kevin. and Diaz, Joshua. 2009. Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes. Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) (ONLINE), vol. 2, Praxis. Available: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/96/94 (Accessed April 2014)

31. Medina, Oscar Paul. August, 2010. Luigi Russolo: How the Art of Noise Revolutionized 20th Century Music. Hydra Magazine. (ONLINE) http://www.hydramag.com/2010/08/27/luigi-russolo-how-the-art-of-noise-revolutionized-20th-century-music/ (Accessed April 2014)

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