Think about this: When you ditched your old-school Nintendo Entertainment System for a newer model, you unwittingly helped start a musical movement. Practiced by folks who embrace the archaic nature and catchy appeal of first-wave video game consoles, Chiptune (or Chip Music) has mutated into a whole genre based on exploiting NES and Game Boy sound cards to make gleeful, insouciant, lo-fi art. Long a niche movement, Chiptune invades New York City this week, gathering practitioners from around the globe for the first-of-its-kind four-day Blip Festival, held at Manhattan arts space the Tank and celebrating manic rhythms, soaring melodies, and Technicolor visuals.
Festival co-organizer Josh Davis (who also creates ebullient Game Boy pop under the alias Bit Shifter) maintains that this music isn’t just about simple throwback appeal. It’s the shocking ingenuity. “You’ve got devices or implements never previously considered musical instruments suddenly being used for music making,” he offers. “And this results in a certain amount of surprise and interest in people exposed to it.” The movement’s gradual expansion, then, is the natural result of people realizing that limited possibilities can have, paradoxically, endless potential. (It also helps that everyone still loves classic NES tunes—witness the relentless ringtone popularity of the Super Mario Bros. theme.)
As cute as the source material may be, the music itself manages to transcend retrograde kitsch. Using custom-designed cartridges and programs to work the outdated sound cards and interfaces for all they’re worth, these musicians graft chunky blocks of melody and low-tech programmed percussion onto recognizable songforms, effecting a diversity most wouldn’t think possible with the gear’s spare palette. Ranging from Bubblyfish’s moody melodies to Raboto’s acid-techno-inspired Game Boy squelches or the propulsive melodic bounce of Nullsleep (a/k/a Jeremiah Johnson, another of the Blip Festival’s three instigators), these performers aren’t just tweaking controller pads. Instead, they’re offering a slyly subversive critique on what it means to work, play, and perform in our modern times.
“As all these kids who grew up with NES controllers in their hands have come of age, they’ve started taking apart their toys,” offers Mike Rosenthal, the Tank’s artistic director. “I think it’s only natural for them to return to what they grew up with and start getting curious about it, to see how they can fuck with those things, reappropriate them, and take ownership.” And while the music’s manufacture can tap a wealth of philosophical concerns, its sugary infectiousness is the key to the festival’s extended run, as it will offer a taste of the same giddy rush you undoubtedly got the first time you rescued Princess Toadstool or knocked Mike Tyson square on his ass.
The Blip Festival runs Thursday, November 30 through Sunday, December 3 at the Tank, blipfestival.org.