Thursday, January 10, 2008

Virtual Rock Bands: Good or Evil?

Apparently there are all sorts of Virtual Rock Bands springing into existence. Mainly through the various Xbox and Playstation games. And these virtual rockbands getting all sorts of hacks and add-ons and what not. Then I wonder about what this means to music. First off, I would say that music has always been an important part of playing video games. A good video game score sets the tone and enhances play--no doubt. There is some video game music which I find deeply moving and beautiful, particularly from the old Squaresoft games. And I have rediscovered the beauty of the 8bit sounds through tweakbench--as I've discussed before.

I tried playing one of these Guitar Hero games in Korea, and it just sort of confused me. It is much about reflexes (of which mine are TERRIBLE) as the music. Of course, one could say that about a classical musician in a normative orchestra of today. The musician is a sort of gamer following the notes, using reflexes refined by intensive practice (sight reading) or are just naturally very able at hitting the notes and shaping each one according to their training or intuition. I studied both classical and jazz piano and I appreciate the depth of skill and dedication needed to operate at the professional or even semi-professional level.

Personally, I look for video games that are a little bit different, allow for some exploration, lots of chance encounters--virtual worlds. Grand Theft Auto is the greatest video game I have ever played. It has missions, but you are free to do anything you want, within a certain number of parameters. Since returning from Korea, I have almost exclusively played a video game called Tokyo Xtreme Racer 2, on my dreamcast. It's not a great racer, but the best one available for Dreamcast. The options are limited, but you have many choices of vehicles, and you can greatly modify their options. The races are exciting, but much of the time you are driving the streets of Tokyo looking for big shot racers to test your mettle with. There is a certain atmospheric appeal to me. And, it should be noted, that I usually turn the music off, leave the sound effects on and listen to internet radio or something else. (That's when I started really getting into WFMU.

The idea of music and gaming merging is not immediately discouraging to me. There was that South Park episode where Stan's dad was aghast with his son's fixation with the Guitar Hero game--and he pointed out that in his day people actually took the time to learn how to play guitars and be there own heroes--not to mention electric jugs! Music, it's context in our lives, and the means of its creation are always changing. Just like language itself. There is lots of creative potential in this field, as evident by the 8bit festivals and the possibilities of live synthesis from programs such as Ableton Live. I'm not discouraged. And when we make music, we are playing. Play is a funny word, as one can "play" a sport or guitar or Super Mario Brothers extremely seriously. Some of the more cerebral, or at least static-seeming genres out there, such as pure revivalist garage-punk, or mainstream classical or Academic Jazz could use some infusions of this serious play. (And I'm sure there is a world of teeming examples and counter-examples out there.)

I watched a documentary a couple nights ago, Speaking in String, about the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg which was both enlightening and harrowing; much of what she said I could perfectly relate to. And I'm sure others who have had some conservatory experience can relate to. Mainly, that the American classical world is exceedingly conservative, and certain things are expected. This woman is a live-wire. She lives her music and is not a "lady-like", reserved performer. To reach the level of intensity that she needs to perform, she abandons all reserve and flails and, quite simply, rocks. The performance footage didn't really give me the sense of the quality of her playing. People seem to either love her or hate her. I think because she is such a virtuoso and a spectacle and a legendary figure, she can survive. But not without consequence. The woman gets into great depressions. One time, alone and utterly depressed, she took a gun loaned to her and pointed it to her skull and squeezed the trigger, but was unable, thank the gods, to pull it, simply because the gun was so new that it's interlocking parts were too freshly made and therefore not "broken in," it was too stiff, and the she was unable to squeeze the trigger in consequence! My God! Obviously, there are manic-depressive people everywhere with internal conflict and irresolvable pain; and Salerno-Sonnenberg deals with this quite explicitly in her performances. Is this what music's for? Is there some Finnish dude in rural obscurity thrashing out comparable demons from his soul by mere air-guitar play?

I don't know. But proficiency, and the idea of music are indefinable. At least for me. When I set up sounds on my various virtual synths in my mom's basement and I start setting up sequences that are pleasing to me, am I a performer? Am I a composer? Am a game player? I imagine it's a combination of the three.

Pretty soon we'll be able to jam with people all over the world. I mean, it's already happening. But it'd be cool to have a jam session with strangers over the internet. Get some tabla master in North India, a bouzouki freak in Greece, some free-dub basement recluse in South Wales--a mixmaster in a basement in Aurora (or in central Seoul.)

No comments: