Rabbits Full of Magic

09 August 2014

 

British Invasion of the 80s

"The ladies of VGM", taken from Beautiful Music Beautiful Lady: an interview with Kinuyo Yamashita

One of my lifelong passions has been video games, and as a child of the 80s I grew up with 8-bit and 16-bit consoles before putting them aside for music, college, and the social life of my 20s. In the past few years I have grown more introspective and with the purchase of a digital projector have rediscovered those old video games. What was once a flickering, beeping toy on a tiny CRT television is now projected life-size on the wall. Beautiful and surreal 2d landscapes scroll by like a moving tapestry or an ephemeral mosaic. The animation and art design of these games is incredible, and have only gained in stature for me. When I was a kid playing these games I had no idea about art history, I knew nothing of experimental film, or surrealism, or avant garde animation, performance art, music theory, etc. One day I would like to put all of my new knowledge to work on reinterpreting these games but at the moment I simply enjoy experiencing them again, as if for the first time.

Despite one anybody says, video games are art, just an extremely post modern version of art that collapses and deconstructs all previous forms of art into a vision of a future virtual existence that we are only on the cusp of. They are the ultimate in mixed media. Today, I would like to write about the music.

Many things strike me when encountering the soundtracks of NES-era games. First of all is the fact that this is largely Japanese-composed music, and as an American my exposure to Japanese music is highly limited. Yoko Ono is the only popular Japanese composer that most Americans have heard of, and she has been a target of endless amounts of hatred and scorn in the West ever since entering the public consciousness. When considering that an entire generation across the globe was raised through the NES, listening to music by these Japanese composers, it is important to place it in musical/historical context. Another rather interesting fact to consider is that many of those composers were women. In fact there seems to have been a much larger ratio of female-to-male composers in 80s Japanese videogames than in any western music tradition. This is including video games, rock music, classical music, film scores, etc. All of this is unprecedented in the history of western music.

At a time when most popular American music was performed by men from LA addicted to coke and hairspray, millions of kids were listening to music by Japanese women. Millions of us were getting schooled in electro, dance, Deep Purple, bossa nova, and speed metal all synthesized through a minimal 4-channel sound chip and played through the warm tube of a CRT television.

Currently my favorite VGM composer is Kinuyo Yamashita, a young woman who graduated from college and took a job composing music for Konami. Konami was one of the top (an arguably the best) game companies of the '80s. Kinuyo had never composed music before, and never played video games, and yet wrote the iconic score for Castlevania. The game series now spans nearly 3 decades and dozens of titles, and her original score is constantly being re-arranged and reconfigured for new presentations. She would come up with a melody and then perform it on a keyboard for her boss, demoing different ideas until they would approve of one. Then she went into code and programmed the music, using the scant 4 tracks of monophonic sound that was the NES sound chip. Much of the iconic nature of these songs are due to this limitation, because restraints tend to force an artist to become more creatively engaged in a project.

Listening to the Castlevania score nowadays is quite an engaging experience, and if you use your imagination you can hear all kinds of influences behind the abstract square and triangle wave arrangements. Classic horror films meld with silent film-era dramatic stings. Jazz fusion meet Bach's spooky organ works. 70's-era Miles Davis drone funk meets surf rock guitar runs. Speed metal arpeggios seem to herald the future of 21st century southern rap. It's all brilliant, forward-thinking stuff. Unfortunately for the artists, video game companies were slow to give credit to composers and artists, much less royalties. Kinuyo's music was often released on LPs without her knowledge, and in Castlevania the music was credited to "James Banana". Kinuyo worked for Konami for 2 1/2 years before leaving (likely due to the aforementioned issues) to pursue a successful freelance career composing music, which she continues to this day.

Here are some great interviews if you would like to know more:

Original Sound Version

Gamikia

Pixelitis


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