Last month, when by amazing dumb luck I met Tob, the guy who did NitroTracker and the DS MIDI Interface, he told me about a little chiptune concert series in the city that he was planning to stop by the next day before he returned to Germany. "It's called Pulsewave," he explained. "I am interested to see what you Americans are doing with chiptune music. I hear you guys have done amazing things using Game Boy and Game Boy Advance sound chips as instruments."
"Sounds cool," I said. "Where is it?"
He scratched his head a bit. "It's not a large venue, very small, I hear," he said. "A little theater off a side alley in Times Square called the Tank..."
You're shitting me. That Tank? The little off-Broadway theater where my Oberlin friends Josh Luxenbourg and Jon Levin do Puppet Playlist, where I've heard Jon Good and Anna and all the others perform? Goodness. The bigger this city gets, the smaller this city gets.
Alas, I couldn't make it that Saturday due to prior commitments. But when I heard there was going to be another one last night, I couldn't pass up the chance.
Have I ever told you guys that the Tank is now my favorite place ever? Between Puppet Playlist, Star Trek improv comedy, rock opera, the Bush Monologues, Pulsewave, and the upcoming Ghostbusters-themed burlesque these guys have a five-fingered death grip on the contemporary postmodernist Internet Generation hipster/nerd/ironic-nostalgia zeitgeist. (Not what you might expect from a tiny out-of-the-way theater space, next to a strip bar, four blocks from the Coca-Cola sign...) Just upstairs they were doing a rehearsal for an avant-garde production of Shakespeare's Richard II, which I would have stayed around for had I not been even more curious about Pulsewave. Awkward dancing nerds with glowsticks on the ground floor, attention-giddy actors in tinfoil crowns on the second--yeah, that's more or less what the inside of my head looks like.
Speaking of awkward nerds, I think I finally understand why people judge them. In a city this big, especially, you're always meeting so damned many people that it's really easy to get overwhelemd and judge everyone by first impression. First impressions are not a typical nerd's forte. Among the cool, reserved VJ types I saw a bunch of gangly, self-conscious hunchbacked dudes just standing around, ogling the hyper-paranoid geek ladies and pathetically glancing around the room, hoping someone would come by talk to them. One guy in a furry convention t-shirt saw my "Is this awesome?" shirt and we had a disturbing conversation about how much his friend liked orcas. They're the kind of people who would make some of my more yuppie-ish female acquaintances smirk at each other at parties and say, "What the fuck? Seriously?"
But, you know, the whole reason why I am familiar with that reaction is because when I talk about video games or subcultural legacies or Internet culture, I am that guy. I am that insufferable prick who is so into what he's talking about that he must be trying to impress you, clearly, because no one would earnestly speak of such things with such fanatical interest. (Yay for cynical anti-intellectualism...) And nerds, if nothing else, have in common a deep passion for some hobby or other that other people find mundane, be it railroads or stamps or computer hardware. Some of them have managed to turn it into charming geek-chic idiosyncrasy (for female nerds this is unfortunately automatic) but for a fair number of them it still manifests itself with "D-d-d-do you think Captain America would, like, be really good in Iraq? Like, killing terrorists and..." *eyes downcast*
All nerds, attractive ones excepted, have been that guy. So we're generally more patient with each other about that kind of behavior than the rest of society is. And this is how we form communities. Where else, save maybe the Internet, would you have one of those fast-talking DJ types answer that question with, "Dude, Mark Millar totally had him do that a couple years ago. It sucked!"?
So orca dude, initial creepiness aside, turned out to be pretty cool, as was Intense Middle-Aged Commodore 64 Guy, Aspiring Teenaged PSP Homebrew Musician, and Frat Dude Who Befriended A Stripper Named "Princess Peach" Who Listens to Anamanaguchi. It was a pleasant surprise to see a good number of ladies there as well, but I met very few of them, as most of them were understandably all like omg too many lonely males.
Also, there is a certain flavor of nerd that gets to be the way he or she is by having absolutely no sense of self-consciousness. This flavor of nerd generally cannot dance. At all. And it is this combination, precisely, that makes them the most awesome dancers ever. (Everybody do the electrocuted octopus!)
As for the show itself...well, the opening guy was unremarkable enough that I don't feel comfortable mentioning him by name. He wasn't bad, necessarily, just sort of minimalist. And minimalist chiptunes embody everything I wouldn't like about chiptune music if I didn't know better--they're dull, repetitive, impossible to dance to, and rely so heavily on negative space that it's sometimes hard to tell if there's anything there at all. I'd be a lot less harsh about his tunes if it didn't sound so much like my own amateurish experiments in soundchip music; overlaying repeating scales and triads over that classic techno oontz oontz bass is fun to play with but not very interesting. I kept being reminded of the part of "Thou Shalt Always Kill" that goes "Thou shalt not make repetitive generic music. Thou shalt not make repetitive generic music," and thinking, ironically, that that little snippet was better than what I was hearing. It wasn't even the kind of minimalist skullfuckery you get at a trance rave, where the subwoofer beat is the song, it was just...sonar. Ping. Ping. Ping-pong-ping. Oontz. Oontz. Ping. Ping. Ping-pong-ping oontz.
The second guy, Forest World, was a lot like the first, except he had a better handle on what he was doing. Pleasant sequenced Game Boy Advance tracks, but nothing to bring down the house.
And so when ComputeHer--what a terrible stage name--was announced as the next act I was already kind of bored and ready to go home. Imagine my surprise when a girl in fishnets and black pigtails and black eyeshadow, looking like she had gotten lost on her way to one of the goth clubs on the Lower East Side, clambered on stage and poked at the keys on a synth hacked together from an Apple II (wtf, that computer doesn't even have a sound chip, inorite), and suddenly HOLY SHIT thumping noise bass over the woofer and an octet of Commodore 64 SID chips going wild, bespectacled geeks and fast-talking VJs halting sigtermed in mid-conversation whirling around in surprise, soaring triangle-wave arpeggios pouring through the amps in sixteen channels, and POW, suddenly all these guys who look like they'd never used their feet since they learned how to walk arein motion, and whistling and cheering slam against the walls of the Tank like a grenade. It's a three-dozen-strong crowd in a theater space about the size of a tennis court, but it feels for a moment like a thousand-person east Williamsburg factory rave. Sine! Saw! Noise! Triangle! Square! Their powers combine, panning, overtoning, reverberating, a veritable symphony of manipulated-wave instruments and analog frequency modulations buzzing, screaming, echolalic-cyborg-drum-machining hardware, and she is effing Captain Planet. She is a veritable Sorceror's Apprentice, hundreds of brooms sloshing a hurricane of sweet waveforms through the concert space at the flick of her wrist. The amps sing, joyous and exultant, in their electronic native tongue. Soaring, high-pitched analog-modulated SID chip pop melodies intertwine harmonically over a hyperkinetic thunderstorm of noise and saw bass, like Stephen Hawking turned sultry jazz singer. And ComputeHer's turning dials and adjusting sliders and bopping her pigtails to the beat and smiling at us, as if to say, ha ha, you thought tonight was going to be dull, didn't you.
It is a trope in cyberpunk that the girl hacker, initially underestimated and marginalized and shuffled off into the background as the token female or the protagonist's trophy girlfriend, ultimately proves to be the greatest hacker of them all. Dressed for the part, and beaming with that same "oh shit yeah, look at me now" confidence, ComputeHer certainly fit the bill.
Also. So much of chiptune music (and techno, which I guess is arguably its supercategory) focus so heavily on rhythm and harmony. Do you see, people. Do you see what happens when you throw melodies into the mix.
This, my friends, is muthafuckin' bitpop.
I bought a CD and a T-shirt. I thanked ComputeHer in person. I really should have waited. Because when she came back on the stage with SID master Naughtyboy, they teamed up Double Dragon double hurricane kick style and became 8-BIT WEAPON. And 8-Bit Weapon was
Normally I'd say I don't have words for this, but fuck that. I didn't spend four years studying creative writing at Oberlin and three years writing my own shit to not have words for things. It's not sufficient to say it was one of the best sets I'd ever heard, which it was, or that it blew my mind, which it did. It um
Alt-SysRq-REISUB. Blues-dancing cha-cha-cha on core. It terminated all my processes with extreme prejudice. It catapulted my function pointer a fuckin' mile out of bounds. It reamed the canary value through the page boundary, right through the next 0x4A page blocks, and segmentation faulted so hard the RAM pins ejaculated. There was no core dump. There were no errors written to log. This brain performed an illegal operation and was instantly shut down.
The Chinese word for "good" is 好. It is the ancient ideogram for "female" paired with the ancient ideogram for "male." The understanding is that, in heterosexist ancient China, while opinions may differ on all other things that are good, that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see a man and a woman being cute together is universally understood. And my understanding of that word will now forever be colored by the image of that male and female, an epilepically flailing Space Invader projected across their faces and splashed against the screen behind them, with the female all gothed out in leather and fishnets, and the male stout and hardy in a tight black T-shirt with the Commodore 64 "LOAD PROGRAM" asterisk surrounded by U.N. laurels, hovering over a pair of identical silver iBooks, improvising an astoundingly intricate skittery eight-channel duet, grinning like idiots, doing the DJ head-bop thing in adorable perfect unison.
That image just pushes all the buttons, for me. All of them. Makes my brain light up like a Christmas tree (and not in the way that leaves me in a coma). Can you hear it? They are dancing. In 440, 960, 300-660Hz pulses, across mountain ranges of pulsing triangles and humming squares, they are dancing on waves, edge on edge off, with hundreds of tiny stateful feet.
I am told, by people who really enjoy less explicitly chiptuney techno and go to a lot of raves, that there is a point at which dancing is almost involuntary. As much as I can get into the sort of trance that that kind of music puts me into, and as much as I can even let myself loose and go nuts if I force myself, I can honestly say I've never actually been excited into that state until last night. Not that last night was entirely analogous to that experience, mind you. It wasn't so much dancing as much as physically flipping the fuck out. The band might as well have been called "Power Word: Dance."
And, you know, truly sublime bitpop is not like other pentecostal experiences. It's not like being in a Sunday service while a gospel choir is performing. It's not like that repetitive zoning out that trance music induces. It's not like the soulful, melancholy sweetness that good folk rock brings, or the sort of violent physical flailing that you get at a great rock concert, or the intellectual-emotional epiphanies of the Mountain Goats or the emo rocking-back-and-forth catharsis of something like Sunset Rubdown. There are no lyrics, despite some almost-lyrical melodies, so there is no poetic resonance--the joy of the music is purely aesthetic. So what is it like? Well.
It's the feeling you get just before you do a flying high kick off a stone fence. It's the feeling you get when you're leading a swing dance and your follow leans back, and for a brief moment your momentum is all that's keeping her from falling over. It's the feeling you get when a mugger attacks you in the park and you counter with a flawless aikido throw. It's the feeling you get when the heroes are cornered in your favorite anime and the meek, demure yamato nadeshiko sidekick girl slowly pulls out an enormous minigun from under her skirt. It's the feeling you get when you get a 106-step combo in DDR and everyone in the arcade is cheering you on. It's a critical hit target lock counterspell DM flash nuclear launch detected, and it's none of those things. It is--despite their common heritage, the genre's heavy dependence on technological nostalgia, and 8-Bit Weapon's love of Commodore 64-style sound effects--a new and unique experience, one almost entirely divorced from the experience of playing video games.
So yeah, I guess you could say I liked it.
I had the pleasure of meeting the band after the set, and they were evidently flattered by my absurd hyperbolic praise. They're in a weird position where they're well-known enough to be touring--they are from Los Angeles and NYC is but one stop on a journey that will soon include Las Vegas and Portland--but not well-known to be on the radar outside of chiptune's still-tiny niche. I mentioned to Naughtyboy--an incredibly friendly fellow--that as great as they were at the Tank, I could definitely see them performing at a club somewhere, and he just smiled and said, "That would be awesome... if it would ever happen."
The show ended at midnight, heralding the beginning of Pentecost Sunday. I found it sublimely appropriate.