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).
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.