It may seem like a stretch to think of a Nintendo Game Boy as a musical instrument, but homemade programs turned the primitive device into just such a thing. European game nerds started a movement in music using the low-bit sounds of old computers and game consoles; it thrives on web communities like micromusic.com and in underground clubs across the world. Chip music sounds a lot like the annoying bleeps and bloops you remember from videogames growing up. The artists using this outmoded technology are, against odds, creating exploratory new music and finding a significant audience for it.
The nostalgia factor is a big part of the appeal; those fat, chunky sounds from childhood are pretty hard to resist. But local DJ and video artist E*Rock says there's more to the phenomenon. "I haven't played videogames much in years, but I'm still into the sound and visual aesthetics that go with it."
8-Bit Generation, a French film about the advent of chip music, screens this Wednesday at Holocene. It'll be part of the 8-Bit Disco party, which features music by, among others, E*Rock and Laromlab. At times, the 26-minute film feels self-mythologizing. For example, it's hard to take former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren seriously when he claims that chip music is a musical revolution on par with the advent of punk in the '70s or hiphop in the '80s. But in common with punk and hiphop, chip music's significance is in its democratic access. If you spent way more time as a kid playing videogames than taking music lessons, you can still make chip music.
Says E*Rock, "Most people thought the synthesized sounds of techno were annoying when the genre first surfaced in Detroit, or hiphop in NYC. Now those styles are part of the mainstream everyday pop music canon. We had people misusing this basic electronic music gear because it was cheap and portable and they could throw parties and make their friends stoked. It's the same thing with chip music, where people work with what they have around them—these games and sounds that have been part of our culture for most of our lives."