This is the first in our regular feature of the research of students working in the field of popular music. Today’s post takes the form of a broad research overview; we welcome this format as well as more specific segments of students’ work. The call for content can be found here.
Marilou Polymeropoulou is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, Faculty of Music funded by the State Scholarships Foundation in Greece. She has studied music, media and anthropology at the Kapodistrian University of Athens and University College London. Her current academic work centres on chip music and its community. Her general interests include breaking up toys, messing up with electronics, programming, and attending music festivals.
My research project aims to be an ethnographic study of chip music, a form of experimental electronic music making. Chip music as culture begun from Internet communities like micromusic.net (1999) and 8bitcollective.org (2003). The aim of the community is to re-use cheap retro electronics and gaming consoles, and by repurposing and recontextualising them, to not only showcase and expand their technological capacities but also to develop their musical possibilities. The purpose of the community is to achieve technological and musical creativity by manipulating sound chips or by modifying retro game consoles, to distribute their music online for free, and also to perform in festivals around the world.
Blip Festival: Re-format the Planet (2008) is a documentary about chip music. In the following video, you hear sounds that may be familiar if you have played games on a retro gaming console. You may also recognize Game Boy, one of the most popular handheld gaming consoles, which happens to be an equally popular repurposed musical instrument among the chip music community. You will also see 8-bit graphics, performance stages, other musical instruments, electronic boards, and hacked devices.
What is chip music? Anders Carlsson, aka GOTO80, a chip musician and media theorist (2008), distinguishes chip music as a medium (any music genre made with a specific medium based on a sound chip) and as a form (i.e. music genre, not depending on the technology used in the composition of the music). Currently, there are two ways of composing chip music: 1) by repurposing retro videogame consoles and using specialized sound editors in the form of cartridges, (commercial programs such as Nanoloop and Little Sound DJ, and also “hand made” ones, either by musicians themselves or other members of the community), and 2) with any personal computer and appropriate chip music making software.
I adopt an ethnographic approach to understand and analyze chip music, viewing it as a cultural phenomenon. This ethnographic study is part of an empirical in-depth sociological and cultural examination of experimental electronic music in the early 21st century, where the meaning and importance of digital place antagonizes that of the natural place. The aim of the ethnography is to reflect the community’s voice, as examined online but also “un-plugged,” with the use of a variety of ethnographic research methods, such as participant observation, life narratives, and open interviews. Methodologically, I center on expanding ethnomusicological methods by conducting Internet-based research (cyberethnography) in addition to multi-sited fieldwork in Europe and North America.
I center on the following topics:
Aesthetics: Speaking of aesthetics from an ethnomusicological point of view is a thought-provoking idea, as ethnomusicologists have been criticized for not expressing their individual opinion and for not addressing aesthetic issues (see Jim Samson’s article “A View from Musicology” in Stobart 2008). Nowadays one has the possibility to write and publish their own music reviews in an individual or collective blog on the Internet, and by extension, to criticize music journalists for promoting specific artists, as instructed by the music industry, or for adopting monolithic Western aesthetic criteria. In this sense, it would be more beneficial to apply ethnomusicological methodologies to music criticism: seeking the meaning of musical aesthetics in a music-making community, unbiased by marketing or promotion hegemonies often expected by music journalists. It would also be interesting to enrich music journalism with ethnographic research methods, promoting an emic empirical approach, despite the problems this may entail (such as difficulty in establishing long-term access to popular music artists).
Creativity: The emergence of digital technologies, including that of the Internet, has affected musical creativity. Part of the elitist criticism chip musicians receive is that they trivialize creativity as they are “playing” and not creating. The community attempts to show that this is not a game (see also the documentary trailer, where Nullsleep states “we are not standing up there playing video games”).
How is the identity of a chip musician defined and how does it affect or enact musical creativity? Who are the chip musicians? In my research I am also seeking the fine line between amateur and professional musicians in the 21st century – noting here that the majority of the chip enthusiasts are educated about chip music through YouTube videos and the community’s fora. I am therefore examining the underlying relationships between technology and the chip music community, in Georgina Born’s terms (2005) mediation, taking into account “music’s social, technological, and temporal dimensions.” Thinking about the idea of space, the field of human geography offers a significant range of references on human behavioural patterns which are useful in mapping, analyzing, and understanding social assemblages and networks.
The Internet: I see the Internet as a research field but also as a research tool. On the one hand, I communicate with the chip community online, through fora, Skype, Facebook, blogs, and e-mail. On the other, I keep part of my e-field notes on my blog. There are several implications with the availability of information related to my research online, as part of the content may be sensitive information – issues that could be summed up as “Internet research ethics.” Another interesting point derived from the use of the Internet is its online archival role for music and, of course, videos, pictures, and other sorts of information. Chip music is made available online, and one will seldom find any hard copies.
Intellectual Property: There have been several incidents among the chip community of musicians who used samples or songs composed by chip community members without asking for their permission or attributing them. As an effect, a “chiphate” wave has invaded fora and blogs, discussing the matter of copyright infringement (for a recent example see [http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/once+we+were+robots]). Following the incidents, several chip musicians have started using Creative Common licenses. Chip music offers a great possibility to examine cyberlaw and the limits of free culture.
Finally, this study aims to be a cultural history of chip music and its precursors related to electronic music and hacker culture, but also to see the effects on contemporary music: bands like Crystal Castles who use 8-bit samples, dubstep remixes such as Kelis’ “4th of July” mix by Rusko, 8-bitization of videos (Black Eyed Peas – “The Time (dirty bit)”), and also chiptune versions of popular music, such as the chiptune version of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” called “Some kind of bloop.”
I am very much looking forward to receiving any feedback, which may enact to un/re/de/constructive conversations, so please feel free to contact me. [Editor’s note: and comment here!]