Is it VGM? – “Spontaneous Devotion” (Random)

January 12, 2010

This week, I am starting a series called “Is it VGM?” where I’ll be exploring that same question. There’s a lot of music that appears in games or is derived from games, so it’s important that we take a look at different aspects of this. First on the list is a piece by Random, a Swedish chiptune artist who was featured on I Am 8-Bit. “Spontaneous Devotion” is a wonderful piece of chiptune from his album Bad Joke, and it is one of my favorite pieces of chiptune music out there (the album is also available for free download).

Bad Joke – “Spontaneous Devotion” (Random)

First off, “Spontaneous Devotion” is a piece of chiptune music, or music generated from sound chips of old computers and game systems (in this case, a Game Boy – or maybe two Game Boys, as this is in stereo and seems like it has more than four instruments). The brightness of the notes and the song’s complex layering make it candy for the ears – the song seems as much about worshiping happiness as it is the pure joy of music. Random pushes the Game Boy to its limits.

Random also presented this song as a live performance at the chiptune show Pulsewave 3, where he used a light and video show also generated by Game Boys. He manipulates and performs on the Game Boys like a DJ, completely absorbed in the mixing and the music, a master of the craft and a scion of new media.

Hundreds of artists have been influenced by the unique sound produced by old electronics – no physical instrument has the same feel as a square wave arpeggio.

The chiptunes movement technically begins in the the early 1960s with the production of Expensive Typewriter for the TX-0 mainframe computer by David Gross; as Steven Levy notes in Hackers: Heroes of the Revolution, this was the first time in history that music had been produced by something other than an instrument or the human voice: music could now be generated by a computer. At the time, the hardware was much cruder than today, but these first tentative steps into digital music (Bach and Beethoven on a three-channel sound processor) was novel and way ahead of its time.

There is an incredible movement on chiptune music centered around the collective 8bitpeoples,  which proves there is still life in the old hardware, and absolutely mind-blowing pieces like “Spontaneous Devotion” really demonstrate the potentials for musical nirvana these systems can unlock. It kind of makes me wonder what Game Boy designer Gumpei Yokoi would have thought if he had lived to hear the 8-bit movement. I think it would have given him a big smile to know that something he made is enjoyed by so many people, particularly in areas outside of games.

The question though remains: is “Spontaneous Devotion” (and by extrapolation, other original chiptune compositions) vgm? The answer must be no. While a good deal of vgm is chiptunes (by definition, music produced on a sound chip), the factor that defines what vgm is, its presence within a video game, is not enough simply through generation by game hardware. Chiptunes and the rest of the demo scene may be children of videogames and early computer technology, but to consider a chiptune to be vgm is akin to considering a jazz song in a film as indicative that all film scores are jazz. While form in this case helps define genre (as chiptunes are by definition), it does not indicate context.



    • This is a most useful cobonirutitn to the debate

  1. […] Album hat schon über zwei Jahre auf dem Buckel, allerdings stieß ich erst heute über diesen Artikel darauf . Es ist wirklich unglaublich, was der Mann aus dem alten GameBoy kitzelt. […]

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for your nice comments on my tune!

    A few corrections (or clarifications):
    1. The tune is made using only one Game Boy. There is in fact only four instruments heard at a single time. It may appear to be more, but that’s a trick of the mind/ear. The Game Boy does have a stereo output (you can chose for a sound to be either completely Left, Center or Right).
    2. The visuals in the video are not made by me, and are not in any way generated from from a Game Boy. They are made by Paris Treantafeles (who actually has made a software for GBA to do visuals, but are not used here. Check his website: http://www.parisgraphics.com/)

    I’m glad you came up with the obvious conclusion of this post 🙂


    • Thank you for the clarification! I should have known that it was only one – if you maximize the use of each track on the system enough, it can sound like you have more than is actually there! By the way, it was that video that let me learn about your work. This was about the time we were studying PureData. Now it stays on my MP3 player 🙂

      Thank you again for stopping by!

  3. “Chiptunes” (eek) is not a genre, it’s a method or a medium.
    That’s why VGM music is chipmusic. Same carrier.

    • I consider a sound chip more an instrument than anything else. You can have a piano produce classical, jazz, or what have you, but it is ‘piano music’ because it is produced on a piano. Not all vgm is chiptunes though because not all vgm is produced on a sound chip. VGM is defined more by its context (appearance in a game) than by what produces the music.

  4. […] Random. Das Album hat schon über zwei Jahre auf dem Buckel, allerdings stieß ich erst heute über diesen Artikel darauf . Es ist wirklich unglaublich, was der Mann aus dem alten GameBoy kitzelt. […]

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