Playing With Ghosts: Timbre and the Chiptuning of Canon in the Bardcore Video Game Project - Brent Ferguson, George Reid, and Matthew Ferrandino
Episode 629th February 2024 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:56:11

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In this week’s episode, game designer Brent Ferguson and composers George Reid and Matthew Ferrandino discuss their chiptune rearrangements of canonical and marginalized composers’ music for the Bardcore video game project.

This episode was produced by Zach Lloyd along with Team Lead Thomas Yee.

SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season03/

Transcripts

SMT:

[Intro Theme: Zhangcheng Lu, “BGM Scales,” followed by producer intro.]

Welcome to SMT-Pod, the premier audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this week’s episode, game designer Brent Ferguson and composers George Reid and Matthew Ferrandino discuss their chiptune rearrangements of canonical and marginalized composers’ music for the Bardcore video game project.

Music:

[Beethoven, Pathetique]

Brent:

Hello, my name is Brent Ferguson and I'm the game developer for the Bardcore project. So, you just heard Beethoven's Pathetique, first movement.

Matt:

My name is Matthew Ferrandino. I'm a composer, arranger, and sound designer for the Bardcore project.

George:

My name is George Reid and I am also a composer, arranger, and sound designer for the Bardcore project. I'd like you to imagine, lovely listeners, what Debussy’s Clair de Lune might sound like if its notation were to be fed through the sound chip of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES, video game console from 1991. Such remixes exist out there already, as even a quick search of ‘Debussy SNES remix’ on YouTube or Soundcloud would reveal. But the chances of hearing such a remix of a historically marginalized composer, excluded from the dogma of classical music canon, is much less likely. Such chiptune remixes and the history they resynthesize are key components to the in-game mechanics of Bardcore: A video game which doesn't just refuse to give up the ghost, namely those of classical music canon and video game music history, but a video game that very deliberately, and musically, plays with them.

Brent:

The Bardcore project was something that I conceptualized and developed to be a musical themed, 1990s style Japanese role playing game or JRPG, akin to Final Fantasy: Breath of Fire or the Dragon Quest series. Playable protagonists include historically marginalized composers such as Margaret Bonds, Lili Boulanger, and Ignatius Sancho, while antagonists are made up of canonical composers such as Debussy, Beethoven, and the entire Bach family. The music composed for Bardcore consists of arrangements of these and other composers' work by both George Reid and Matthew Ferrandino, the other two on this podcast.

Matt:

As composers scholars, our collaborative work on Bardcore has engendered new reflections on our approach to timbral nuance. It has also opened avenues of discussion around the sensitive subjects of canonicity and authenticity—both of which had an impact on our sense of play in composing these arrangements yet lingered as specters over our work.

Matt:

Our episode is split into three parts. We first provide an overview of our compositional approach to the music of Bardcore, in particular the utilization of SNES timbral aesthetics and our own personal attachment to them.

George:

We next discuss the significance of these timbral aesthetics in relation to the game mechanics and narrative of Bardcore, shedding light on the game’s approach to the classical music canon and the ways in which we toy with aspects of authenticity, history, and memory.

Brent:

We then end our episode with a broader discussion about the aims of the Bardcore project and the gamification of music history, considering the broader implications of technology-enhanced music education and accessibility. The music both before the episode and during the breaks are all arranged for this project by both George and Matthew. In this break, you'll hear Justin Holland's An Andante.

Music:

[Justin Holland, An Andante]

Brent:

What's it like to work with the Super Nintendo aesthetic? What did you like and dislike? I think they're good starting questions for this, especially since you are the people making music.

George:

Whenever I think of anything chiptune-related, “fun” is the immediate answer just because everything sounds cute, if that's not a really silly way to talk about it. And the SNES is an interesting one because it's entirely sample-based, that is to say, not real-time synthesized waveforms as in subtractive or frequency modulation synthesis. Due to memory constraints, video game composers of the time working with the SNES would have had really small snippets of audio to work with and had to think about how to manipulate them towards sounding musical, or to make them sound fluid, or just good in general really.

George:

Matthew and I primarily utilized Plogue Technologies’ Chipsynth SFC virtual synthesizer for this project, which very faithfully emulates the SPC-700 sound chip of the original SNES. And what I quite liked was sound designing and composing in a way where I thought, okay, we're taking these old samples and reusing them but Plogue’s VST allowed me to deliberately leave in little bits of what might be considered error by polished contemporary standards, which foregrounded the SPC-700’s distinct way of mediating audio. So for example when you sample things like strings or chords and loop them, you can hear the ticking over of the sample loop point. I didn't want to smooth that out because it created its own musically interesting textures, as well as channels the ghosts associated with this form of chipsound. Matt, I wonder if you also found that to be the case?

Matt:

Certainly, I can jump in with my experience capitalizing on the glitchiness of the whole looping system. When I was arranging Joseph Bologn’s Violin Concerto, [Bologne Underscore] I accidentally changed the loop parameters on the melody line so that the loop had like a “cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh” at the end of each sample as it cycled through. But it worked out really nice because it fit the tempo, so it ended up being kind of this extra rhythmic layer that I hadn't intended on doing. It actually ends up sounding like an intentional tremolo effect! So there are certain affordances like that where it's like such a happy mistake that happens. And it's all part of that sample-based looping that you mentioned.

George:

I found this was also the case with the echo, I love the way the SNES does that. So unique and kind of, in and of itself, has a unique timbral quality. It's not just a repeated signal, the way the SPC chip processes it is what lends it “that SNES sound” and on Plogue’s ChipSynth you can have that option – if you load in an original SNES game music file you can not only grab the samples you can grab the parameters of the echo, so that in itself was quite magical and certainly something I exercised in Bardcore.

Brent:

Let's go into the compositions that you chose for each of the composers because we are dealing with a lot of pre-existing music for this. I chose some of the compositions, of course, but I gave you free rain to choose what you wanted to rearrange. What went into that process?

How has it been arranging it? What issues did you run into? What joys did you run into?

Matt:

I can start with one thing I've noticed. In some cases the pieces we chose were really clear video game-esque examples, like this composer's piece just sounds like video game music! But There were a lot of high classical-era stuff that, for me at least, didn't really work too well. For example Haydn’s symphony 83, [Haydn Underscore] the Hen, was challenging to turn into boss battle music, I think mainly because of the regular phrase structure. JC Bach’s second symphony was also a tough one to make into overworld music, and I think that was due in part to the squareness of the rhythm and meter.

Matt:

One of the things that became really clear from this project is that video games use a lot of syncopation, it tends to avoid cadences a lot of the time to keep that loop nature going. So taking something where it's employing a classical phrase model, classical harmony, classical function, trying to put that into a video game aesthetic was a little bit like putting a square peg in a round hole. But I think it ended up creating a unique synthesis of the two styles, where it's like, okay, this sounds like a Haydn string quartet movement, because it is, but then repurposing it with those SNES timbres and evoking that video game aesthetic creates a new object, a new text.

George:

I like the analogy of a square peg in a round hole. I could not help – and especially after seeing Bardcore, and the visuals, and the kind of game it was – but listen to every piece filtered through a video game lens, and some stuff just so beautifully fits. Edmond Dede’s El Pronunciamento for example, which to me – I listened to it and it was just so intuitive. It sounded to me like, okay, this music belongs to an in-game level that is made of biscuits and candy and icing and it sort of reminded me that the Mickey Mouse World of Illusion video game [Dede Underscoring], that wasn't Super Nintendo, but those kinds of visuals really leapt out. So in that piece it was very much, okay, what instrument patches conjure sugar, sweets, syrup.

George:

And I know these are not exactly specifically musical terms, but it was always that kind of stuff that sort of popped up in my mind – metaphorical stuff – and timbre and metaphor coincide so well. Timbre is something that we can't help but sometimes describe in extra-musical terminology. And yeah, some pieces just so beautifully fit with a video game format and aesthetic and other pieces, like for example, Central Park in the Dark [Ives Underscoring]… I nearly, goodness… the video game filter shut off. Trying to arrange its very complicated and complex textures through SNES timbres which, I mean, the laptop was starting to smoke. I needed a drink. Sometimes it was more intuitive than others, certainly. But it's funny as you said, part of that joy and that surprise is just how naturally a lot of this stuff has a very playful video game kind of feel to it, very easily adaptable.

Matt:

I feel like I was thinking a lot through that video game theme lens, you know, what could I make sound like battle music from Final Fantasy or Breath of Fire, or what could I make sound like world map music from Soul Blazer or Act Raiser. So it was interesting linking that nostalgic element, but also, wrestling with what seemed to fit with the pieces we picked and their context in Bardcore. And sometimes it worked well, sometimes I feel like maybe it was lacking, or it could have been slightly more video game-y, or slightly more true to the original, I don't know. So it was an interesting navigation between the two.

George:

With the boss battle stuff, did you find that there were pieces that were like “how do I achieve this rearrangement” without just going for the de facto “okay, I need to find a sampled timpani.”

Matt:

For the boss music, and the random battle music as well, anytime it was in a major key or went to a major key I had to stop myself from thinking “this doesn't sound ominous enough!” But I didn't want to just,turn it into minor and be like, okay, now it's evil boss music, cause that seemed a bit simplistic. The one that comes to mind for me was Leopold Mozart’s Burlesque Symphony [L. Mozart Underscoring], which has this very Classical fanfare opening and playful melody. I ended up emphasizing that playful-ness with the SNES timbres and emphasizing the march feel to repurpose it as random battle music. So this was an interesting component to the arranging how can I make something that doesn't sound like it would fit… fit? And I think a lot of the solution for me was playing with timbre and adding percussion and grooves to it.

George:

I found that with Clair de Lune [Debussy Underscoring] especially because that is a very serene piece at times, but I thought I could create a lot of juxtaposition when possible. For a lot of those moments I tried to sort of contrast with areas where I completely remix ideas or had stuff that's more percussively driven and things like arpeggios for pace. And we might talk about this more later, but the fact that you're taking something that's so well established and surrounded by its mythos and historicity and not only flipping it on its head by putting it through the Super Nintendo chip but also the rearrangement process as well.

Matt:

Yeah, that's interesting. You know, what just came and flashed into my head was Wendy Carlos, Switched on Bach, which is basically what we're doing.

George:

Chipped on Bach! There we go. I think that would be a good tagline for the Bardcore project.

Brent:

It's interesting in that regard because I mean you get into the Adorno and Eisler Composing for the Films, this real heavy critique because, you know, just because you're chopping up the greats and things like that. But it's already been proven enough like in multimedia by plenty of scholars that, if anything, TV and film has only helped interest in classical music and video games as well in that regard.

George:

Yeah I recall when we discussed the project as we developed it, we touched upon arguments around authenticity and timbre, thinking through scholars like Richard Taruskin and Isabella van Elferen’s research on timbre especially. Of course, what we're doing is overtly playful and slightly subversive. And I'll hold my hands up because, for me, even chiptuning these pieces has been quite an education because I’m a music technologist foremost. This kind of history was not something that was heavily present in my education up until now, at least in this depth. So initially I felt doubly sort of “oh my goodness, how dare I?” But that absolutely dissolved through musical play, being playful with music, through the agency of ludomusicality.

Matt:

So not only can you play the video game but our choice of the SNES also ties in with the idea of being playful and fun. And then just choosing what pieces to do for each composer was another element of play, Some cases I went with like standard kind of textbook pieces and other times I kind of dug in some more looking at more obscure Opus numbers for these composers.

George:

We mentioned nostalgia briefly earlier as well. And I think that's, for me, played a big role in a lot of what I do but I'm wondering amongst all of us: was that something you found to be quite a driving force in how you arranged the pieces and particularly in terms of how you used ChipSynth perhaps.

Matt:

Yeah a lot of the timbres I chose I basically took from games that I remember. So some that were big ones for me were Soul Blazer, Secret of Mana, Mega Man X, and so on. A lot of the timbres in Soul Blazer show up in my cues, especially the slap-bass sound. I also used the snare sound from that game almost exclusively, not totally, but it's one of the crispest or “actually sounding like a snare” samples on the SNES that I've heard. Secret of Mana has a lot of kind of really interesting instrumental timbres in the musical cues. I’m curious Brent if I can ask you a question, We're throwing these cues at you and now we're up in like the sixties number wise, are there any that are for you: “this sounds like this is from this game that I remember,” so was there kind of a nostalgic turn for you?

Brent:

I grew up with these games as well, it’s one of the reasons I chose the aesthetic overall and the game design as well. So it's why I continue to choose that aesthetic. So y’all have me wax nostalgic every time I listen to some of these cues. So it's really nice. I mean I hear bits of influences of everything but also I mean these are, it's also these canonical pieces and non-canonical pieces that we're hearing put through this kind of filter and it's pretty amazing for me. If you say video games is what got me into music, it's the same for me as well.

Music:

[Margaret Bonds, Troubled Water]

Brent:

You just heard Margaret Bond's Troubled Water. All right, so we're talking primarily about authenticity in this part and the timbral significance of that. So I guess the first question that I'll ask both of you is whenever you are engaged in making the chiptune aesthetic, there's a difference in this field between, I guess what some might consider authentic chiptune and what's called “fake bits.” I'm very much on the side that it doesn't matter for the most part, but, and that could be left up for grabs or whatever, but what method did you engage in? Did you actually go in with trackers to make your chiptune, was it more of a synthesis in digital audio workstations, or DAWs, and something like Reason? What processes did you go to to make the SNES chiptune sound? I know virtual studio technologies, or VSTs, were used in some of this as well.

George:

Well, the authenticity question is always a thorny one, but I'm on the similar side to you in my own chiptune practice and in my research, and this is why I think timbre is so important. I don't care how it is really made – if it sounds like chiptune I love it, this is chiptune. You know, I've met some people who wouldn't even consider what the SNES does chiptune because it's more like sample based and you know people of course everyone has a different kind of opinion approach and that's fine provided they aren’t actively excluding people. But for this project, with timbre as the main focus, I was mainly in the Logic Pro digital audio workstation for this and using Plogue’s Chipsynth SFC because as I mentioned previously: I really love how accurately – I'm not on commission I should add – they have captured that SNES sound, that muffled sound… there's not a lot of high-end on the samples, not a lot of crispness at times. And, of course, the echo…

Matt:

Yeah, it's funny because I hadn’t consciously thought about that until you just mentioned it, but yeah, that was certainly a characteristic.

George:

I think the reason why that really stuck out to me was because I quite like sample-based chiptunes. I grew up with the Commodore Amiga computer. And the Amiga sound chip adds a lot of aliases and crisp high end to the samples. So whenever I used to compare video game tracks between the Amiga and the SNES, the unique muffled-ness is quite present in the latter. So the nostalgic element is different for me there because like there's that very subtle timbral shift, but I think what I was focusing on within Logic was how would I arrange this as if I were using a tracker. Because trackers I would normally use if I'm doing a subtractive synthesis-based or FM – I prefer to use trackers for that. But for samples, it's a bit of a different method, but how did you find it with this?

Matt:

I would actually compose things out in Sibelius first then move into Reaper and choose timbres. So I would have a score just so that I could see the individual lines – and I treated most of the lines or tracks monophonically. There were a few cases where I did do some polyphonic tracks, but that was fairly rare. I also decided to limit myself to 8 monophonic voices for a lot of the cues. And separating drums out. So, snare drums would be a track, bass or kick drum would be a track, or hi-hat or tambourine or whatever a separate track and so on. So each percussion timbre got its own track which probably isn't utilizing all of what the SNES could do but for me it kept things organized.

Matt:

A lot of the fun for me was thinking how could I get that video game aesthetic or the SNES aesthetic from these compositions. Sometimes you're just looking at a piano part thinking “what voices can I pull out of this that would sound good in like a faux clarinet SNES sound” which has very low attack, and has a weird breathy crescendo at the beginning. That was my process, first writing them as individual lines or as monophonic tracks, then taking those tracks into Reaper or into a DAW and then saying, okay, well, what timbres would work well here or what timbres would work to make this sound like battle music or a dungeon cue? I don't know if that was similar to your approach or not George.

George:

Similar. Yeah, and like you I broke down the score in MuseScore – which is basically also music arrangement software like Sibelius – just to rearrange bits or I would arrange it in the Logic and then even further cutting sections up, or the MIDI. It's interesting what you're saying, and some of the drum stuff resonated with me. I quite liked the use of sound effects or one sample for multiple parts. I did this for Clair de Lune [Debussy Underscoring], where I would have a snare sample that, if it played at a lower register, it sounds more like a kick. And that same sample, pitched higher, would sound more like a snare at its original sample rate.

George:

So for me I wanted to be slightly obvious that this is the same because, again, it's timbre… and so while we're not composing what some might call “authentic” chiptune in the sense that it's not a tracker sequencer we are using or it's not original hardware but an emulation, I think we are being “authentic” if you want to use that term in a very roundabout way to a certain timbral aesthetic or way of audio processing, that was really the goal there. And I think that’s where that sense of “authenticity” was much more playful. Especially when it came to thinking about: do I adhere more to how this composer would have arranged something like this or the original piece, or do I go, no, this sounds immediately like video game music, I'm gonna do this and that's that, you know? Was there that kind of playfulness with you as well?

Matt:

Yeah, certainly. And I think the authenticity question for me, is very similar. It was less to do with like, am I doing this “appropriately” for chiptune culture. I was more like does this sound like video game music and that was the hurdle for me, and so it was my own personal barrier. Depending on the composer, I sometimes went out of my way to make it what they wouldn't have done or what I imagine they wouldn't have done. I know there were a lot of Wagner cues I did where I was like, “I have to do something to make this fit within a video game aesthetic.”

Matt:

There was some stripping of a material, changing of harmonies, and other elements of recomposition. But I would say for the most part, yes, I was authentic at least to the stylistic period that they were writing in. In other words if you listen to it you might recognize the tune from, let’s say, a Telemann Flute Sonata, or a Wagner overture. But this is also a really hard question to answer because I feel like it kind of depended on my mood. Sometimes I was more playful in arranging something and sometimes I was more just like, okay, I can cut and paste and put this in here, and I'm gonna do this, this, this, and this. And then it's gonna come out as video game music. So I feel like there are a lot more factors than just authenticity at play as well.

George:

Yeah, absolutely. I think we touched on nostalgia before. And that's something that elicits play in this context. And of course, chiptune is not all about nostalgia either. There's some people that are very keen to distance themselves from this both in an academic publishing, in texts by Alex Yabsley and Chris Tonelli for example, and in chiptune scene discourse. I’d like to give a shout-out at this point to a fabulous chip-musician and friend Throno Crigger – a play on Chrono Trigger – please check out their work. We’ve discussed the nostalgia issue a lot and particularly the essentialist thinking that chiptune is automatically about video games and childhood, which obfuscates a lot of participation and artistry in the scene (especially in relation to demographics and marginalization).

George:

Throno and I are particularly interested in feeling nostalgic for times and places we never knew and chiptune is a big part of that for us [Lili’alukilani Underscoring]. As we have discussed with Bardcore, our nostalgia very much plays a part of it but it’s not quite a straight-forward case of childhood memories and missing those times. I think nostalgia is all too often seen as something that is a hindrance or something that stops you, whereas I think in this context and relation to authenticity, it's been something that has been more playful. It's perhaps it's what's Svetlana Boym would call reflective nostalgia, not restorative, it's not about restoring a mourned past and grafting it onto the present – this might also then lead into the topic of canonicity or historically informed performances with timbre playing a big part in that as well. But Bardcore is very much reflective, toying with the power of ‘what if?’ I don't think respectful is the right word, but we're taking, you know, creative liberties.

Matt:

But we're not being disrespectful either.

George:

Yeah, that's the thing. It felt authentic rearranging these pieces because we were being playful and enjoying ourselves.

Brent:

One of the discussions in chiptune that might not be familiar in the music theory community is the difference between “authentic” composition of chiptunes, this authenticity argument versus what's called fakebit, or the practice of emulating the aesthetic rather than programming it or using a tracker like people in the olden days did. George, can you tell us a little bit about that?

George:

Sure, and as I sort of touched upon earlier, this is a bit of a hot subject and one that can become quite toxic in chiptune discourse. For those interested in reading further on this I want to highlight the research of Marilou Polymeropoulou, who has written on this quite extensively and documented how each generation of chiptune participants, or what I call chippies – of which I proudly am one – carry varying opinions on the subject. For anybody interested the article is entitled Chipmusic, Fakebit and the Discourse of Authenticity in the Chipscene. Of course, opinion is not also rigidly set or homogeneous among each generation of chiptune participants, that would be an essentialism.

George:

It might be worth expanding a little on the term ‘chiptune’ here because even this can be a point of contention for some. Chiptune as a term very much alludes to the technical aspects that give it its distinct timbral character; it has its origins in the kinds of sounds you would have heard emanating from early home computers and video game consoles of the late 20th century. So, the video game music – or chiptune – that you hear in the likes of Pac-Man or Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, which basically came about through memory-saving techniques in audio production. Within the game system or the home computer, there'd be a little sound chip that was basically a mini synthesizer and code within the game would trigger it to generate very timbrally distinct, bleepy, bloopy music in real-time, a world away from the studio-polished recording and production that goes into triple A games these days.

George:

So this would have been the “original” method of generating chiptune, and then through subcultural appropriation these kinds of chip-based music technologies became a means of self-expression. Over the years, of course, this kind of technology gets old – it dies out, it needs to be maintained. I know the agony of having floppy discs on which I've composed stuff on my Amiga, and they die. It's the beauty and the sadness of them. So naturally, things like sampling or emulating these sound chips on more modern computers became a thing and something that's more viable not just for the wallet, but also, interacting with these kinds of sounds is less laborious. Particularly because chiptune, as I mentioned, was coded through a tracker sequencer. And of course, not having knowledge of these codes, you can just pull up a VST.

George:

So there's a lot of discussion about sampling chiptune, or emulating tracker sequencers, or generating it by VST; people very hotly debate about whether it is really “authentic”. [Sancho Underscoring]. And with some irony of course, because chiptune was a cheap way of making music if you had a home computer, and you couldn’t afford synthesizers, recording equipment… and now all of that original chiptune hardware is beyond expensive to purchase, to maintain, and there's a lot of elitism and cultural capital around it. So, I think as we said earlier, when we talk about chiptune and fakebit, we're very much in the camp of, well, if it sounds like it, it is chiptune. And if you can make it via any accessible means, then go for it. I think that’s the crux of it.

George:

So I think one thing we're hitting on, and this is also the reason why I highlighted Isabella van Elferen’s research on timbre and also Gothic music, is that chiptune, like Goth, very much revels in the excess of its own technological mediality. For chiptune, the technologies – whether that is the physical hardware or something that's emulated painstakingly – is something that puts front and center the fact that this is a sound of a certain kind of mediation, something that is obsolete, something that is resplendent in its anachronism.

George:

And what I was thinking about a lot reading this research, and especially in relation to Bardcore, was hauntology. So, just as a quick preface, Van Elferen discusses timbre in relation to Jacques Derrida's concept of hauntology. Hauntology has become a bit of a buzzword of late – you might have seen how it is often discussed as a musical genre, a certain kind of aesthetic. But, in the Derridian sense, it's not haunting in the sense of the supernatural, it refers to (and specifically through Isabella's research) the fact that music and sound – timbral quality – inescapably conjures associations based on previous experience.

George:

We might all think about hearing a song we've not heard for a while, and all the associations and feelings come rushing back as though they'd never left. But, it's not just straight-up remembrance, there's distortion that happens with memory, including: remembering things that didn't happen, feeling nostalgic things that haven't happened or that take place in fantasy, which I think we can all associate with video games in a certain way. So what we are doing with this, I think in relation to chiptune and canon, relates to the hauntology of that history, playing with it, distorting it, setting the ghosts free and playing with them. Did anything kind of stir with you both?

Matt:

One thing that stuck out to me was a Lawrence Kramer quote referring to any sort of recreation or, any performance of music as a practical necromancy. Which I don't know why but that just that kind of really resonated in a somewhat macabre way with what we're doin., We are revivifying these pieces from the canon, some more at the top of the the canon than others, but this idea that we're taking something that is a score, which is essentially a meaningless artifact, and putting meaning into it by making these performances through the SNES right?

Matt:

And so through these arrangements, we're kind of bringing them back to life in a new way. And I thought that was such an interesting way to think about it, this idea that we're kind of these chiptune necromancers taking these pieces and bringing them to life as video game cues. And I think it is very performative despite the fact that we're working in DAWs and everything's somewhat fixed but there's that element of play in the recreation of this music. We had a lot of play with what timbres to choose, what pieces to choose, how we’re going to arrange this. So that was something that I thought was a very fascinating way to think about Bardcore.

George:

I was gonna say if you wanted to collaborate on a Chiptune Necromancers album…And what you were saying on that was so interesting because, well, canonicity itself is a hauntology: the maintaining of that history, retold over time, reaffirmed continuously by that discourse, by historically informed or supposedly accurate performances which, in and of themselves, will always have differences in their repetitions somewhere. The thing that struck me as you said about the score, and aspects of musicology, is the almost dogmatic respect of the score and its sterility, when it in of itself it's not a musical material – it is inert, it is not animated and so I guess we're kind of reanimating things through what Van Elferen has described as ‘hauntography.’ It’s a play on the words ‘haunting’ and ‘calligraphy’.

George:

It's the medium aware use of transmitting technologies in order to kind of foreground certain aesthetics, or let certain ghosts free. So, what I love about this and especially in relation to the mechanics of Bardcore, which I think Brent maybe can pick up on here after, is that we're sort of destabilizing the canonicity through not just what we're doing in the composition, it's also a part of the game's mechanics to bring other ghosts to the fore – those that have been left out of the canon. So I think that is a really nice dovetail between what we're doing in terms of composition and the broader mechanics of the game.

Brent:

Yeah, and I'll be glad to pick up from there. As coming from the game development side, the whole idea of this is trying to decenter the canon as much as possible by using certain canonical composers from the mainly Germanic canon and the euro American canon of white men essentially as enemies, as antagonists that trap contemporaries in crystals and use them to power their own compositions. And you're one of these composers, trapped by the final boss and you're released at the beginning (mention the cat).

Brent:

You get to name your composer later, but the default name is a few thousand-year-old Ethiopian composer, Mahbuba. The plot is that you take over as this main character releasing other composers, these contemporaries that have been hidden behind these canonical composers and as you release them, their music takes over in these areas for these composers. Also you have different books that teach about these composers. So it's a little bit of a history game as well. You'll learn about the canonical composers of course, but the main thing is to try to learn about these composers from the margins, from the periphery that we are trying to re-center – your main party of allies – and that is what Bardcore boils down to. For this next break you'll hear Isabella Leonarda's O anima mea

Music:

[Isabella Leonarda, O anima mea]

Brent:

We've been talking about the narrative of Bardcore and how all three of us got to work with both canonical and marginalized composers. So I'd like to ask both of you, what did you learn from the process of arranging both the canonical or the marginalized composers as you went through this, by working with their music, by putting it through the synthesis. I'll leave it to y'all now.

George:

Well, as I said to you initially – even composing and arranging for this has been an education in and of itself. I'm not shy of the fact that this is not really my background, not really my area as a music technologist. So to have the opportunity to not just dive into this history and learn about marginalized composers, but also to take all these works apart and kind of figure things out for myself is something really eye opening. In particular, and I guess this probably links back into the narrative of Bardcore, but noticing the composition style of the more marginalized composers, how they write, and then thinking about that in contrast to more well-established canonical figures was really interesting in terms of that kind of contrast. I don't know if you have found the same, Matthew, in comparing between sort of the giants of canon and the outliers.

Matt:

Yeah, it's interesting because I did the initial marginalized composer’s all first. And, Brent, you did a really admirable job selecting these marginalized composers and that in itself was an education for me. I then went through all the canonical cues [Giuliani Underscoring], and after we decided to add more cues for the marginalized composers, I did those last. It's interesting George that you bring up the idea of comparing them, because it's not something I had really thought about in terms of how I was arranging the cues or how I was approaching them. One of the challenges though was just the number of available scores to choose from. It’s incredibly easy to sift through the Mozart family scores on IMSLP, looking for something that would make a good cue. But looking for an Emily Giuliani score was incredibly difficult, IMSLP has two scores, so that sort of limitation or inequality was definitely apparent.

Matt:

I think once the game is ready to play and available, that will be maybe something to kind of weave into the narrative. I know the music will change after you defeat or you dethrone a canonical composer and it gets replaced with the marginalized composer's music. So that might be something where maybe the dialogue in the towns with non-player characters can reflect that change in some way, I think that would be an interesting way to compare the giants of canon, as you say, and the outliers.

George:

I think that also relates back to the mechanics, like the idea that you set them free. And their musicality is something that is given back to them. But it's funny you said as well – likewise I went straight to the marginalized composers, I think my first one was Lili Boulanger… I don't know what it was, there was just something about the name that sort of struck me. The others, the more well-established sort, links back to what we said before with the hauntology aspect. The spectre of those great works kind of hanging over you is sort of a heavier responsibility of thinking “oh my goodness” – strangely off putting it in some instances I found, or more labored actually, Beethoven’s 5th springs to mind, but for the more marginalized composers the element of play was greater for me.

Matt:

Well, I think also that familiarity with some of the canonical pieces that were chosen plays a part. You might have recordings in mind or you might have performed it before, and those things kind of build up these, I guess inhibitions to play.. So it's kind of like deconstructing those barriers for the more canonical composers was a necessary act. I do agree that it was less of a problem or I had more fun with the marginalized composers’ music. And partly I think was the discovery element too, you know, it was new, it was fresh, and it was educational.

George:

Exactly, and the word ‘fun’ has come up a few times in this podcast already and I think that it's such a nice way of putting it. Not only that, but having a hands-on experience with these works, and we might talk about edutainment in a moment, but the hands-on way of playing with these materials and learning about them that way as opposed to the authority of scholarly works that have been written about canon that are also a kind of a spectre when thinking about approaching these works or their, if you want to say, “authenticity”. Yeah, the fun factor was much greater I found with the marginalized composers. I think it was sort of the unknown of it was quite nice. And they surprise you, constantly.

Brent:

You brought up the word edutainment, so let's go ahead and get into that a little bit. This is an idea I first came across from first Karen Beckman’s edited collection Animating Film Theory and specifically Marsha Kinder’s presentation Media Wars in Children’s Electronic Culture, talking about animated TV in the nineties with Carmen Sandiego as both entertainment and educational in that way, and how it strived to do that both the animated TV show and the video game itself. So with this being pretty much a piece of edutainment, it is, I plan to make this freely available, a product that's free so it makes it really accessible. It seems like this could be an obvious question but I just want to pose it anyway: how do you think this could be used in musicological or music theory pedagogy?

George:

I found there were two distinct ways that this project struck me and this is the first time I've really sort of dipped my toe into the waters of this kind of product or composing for this kind of product, and these kinds of mechanics. It's really opened my eyes in a number of ways. I think first of all, I'm often thinking about how we can enhance things like asynchronous learning and resources for students to use outside of a one to one tutorial or lecture, and how those can become engaging in a way that this information is not only accessible, but interactive, or perhaps the information is delivered in a way that's something more engaging than just a textbook or another PowerPoint or that kind of thing.

George:

And it also is something that I've found students like to hear about, especially in terms of industry connections and post university pathways. I’m sure we all recall that spectre that haunts students about developing their own skills and what might come afterwards, and as such projects like these are something that students are very interested in hearing about, from the angles of what we've been considering. Accessibility, inclusivity, diversity, the fact that you can actually, in terms of what you do creatively, use it as a platform for these kinds of political aspects or as a way of getting voices out there, whether that be your own or in terms of other communities for example. So those are the two for me, I don’t know if you found the similar Matt.

Matt:

Yeah, the student interest is definitely there. At the beginning of the semester when I introduced myself to new students, I mentioned the Bardcore project because it's been on my mind, and it gives them a sense of where my creative and scholarly activities are. And I had students just shout out “Hey when you need testers, let me know”. I’ve had several students say that to me or one student come up to me and say something like “I'm really into doing video game composition” and then, it opens avenues of discussion that probably wouldn't come up.

Matt:

I can definitely see ways that these chiptune arrangements we’ve done could be used in the classroom. Like we could do a comparison with students: so here's an arrangement of this tune and now here's the original from like a YouTube recording. So what does it mean to have these two realizations or two performances. And I think there are great avenues for discussion for students to get really invested in and think critically about it. And I think it opens the door because of that playfulness again. I don't want to say it a erases or washes away some of the seriousness of the conversation, but I think it washes away some of those, like you said, the hauntings of the canon and academia and scholarship.

George:

Yeah. And I think video game music in general is great for that and chiptune I've found especially because, and again I've said this before in a loving way, it is fun, there's a silliness in a sense, and it's stripped back in a way that is musically accessible but also playful in both tech based practical classes and musicology classes that I teach. Chiptune’s been quite useful for example in a module I teach called synthesis, sampling, and sequencing, which in and of itself learning about the principles of sound synthesis can be quite dry but in a video game context and getting them to using these techniques in a modern DAW has been a great way for that to be relatable in some way, or to see an industry related product.

Matt:

There's a deeper discussion point that can be pulled out of this and I think a lot of it is that music is fun? Right? And studying music can be fun. I think that's important too.

George:

The fact we need to emphasize that…This project and chiptune it just wears that kind of fun on its sleeve when it's playful, when it's open-ended, when it's accessible. Whatever you're using to compose chiptune, join in.

Brent:

So we're talking about all these future prospects for this project and it's really exciting. To see it getting towards completion. And I really wanna thank both of y’all for coming on here and talking about it and just being a part of this, and we're having fun and it's something that William Gibbons brings up, you know, music is fun. Music is play, and play it's supposed to be fun as well, or most of the time, I guess you could say. But music is playing, and therefore music can be fun in that regard and we're having fun making this. I just want that to be carried across as well; when we meet, we're laughing and having a great time about it because we get to play with things that we've known for years and learned about. We're playing with ghosts and it's absolutely a ball to do. And with that, I guess I can give a little bit of a plug for another project that we're working on that follows Bardcore’s vane of edutainment and perhaps maybe we'll talk about this with SMT-pod at a later date, that will be up for them to decide.

Brent:

But we were also working on a game called Conducktus and it's very, snarkily titled and spelled with C-O-N-D-U-C-K-T-U-S. So you play as a duck that's learning about musical concepts and you do it through all sorts of different video games. So it will be free. It's also a love letter to ludomusicologists. There's actually a pretty large team of ludomusicologists that are working on it. And once again, I'm the game developer and I have a game development team as well. This one is being made in Unity rather than RPGMaker. So it's being built a little more from the ground up than the other one. Not to demean our Bardcore project or anything like that, Conducktus will take a little bit longer, but we're hoping for Bardcore to be out sometime soon, at least as a testable demo in 2024. Thank you for joining us. For this last piece you will hear Florence Price's Adoration.

Music:

[Florence Price, Adoration]

Brent:

We would like to thank Jennifer Beavers and Megan Lyons for their role as editors for SMT-Pod. Our sincerest thanks to Peter Smucker for his supportive comments and critical suggestions to our early draft of our script, his input helped us to focus and clarify our episode.

SMT:

[Outro Theme: David Voss, “hnna”]

Visit our website smt-pod.org for supplemental materials related to this episode and to learn how to submit an episode proposal. And join in on the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments @SMT_Pod. SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. Thanks for listening!

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