Live Review

Blip Festival 2009, NYC

If only you could find that old Gameboy…

Let’s face it, growing up in the United States in the beginning of the 1990s meant that you had a deeper relationship with your Gameboy than your record player. Constantly by your side, with addictive games from Tetris to Contra, the music of a generation was probably, at an early age, affected more by 8-Bit processors than by vinyl records. So, it comes as little surprise that as many of those kids reach adulthood, it’s not turntables on which they are making music, but mixing beats and songs through the bips and blips of what has come to be known as “chiptuning.” With a touch of nerdiness, computer programming skills and music panache, any Gameboy, NES, Atari or Genesis can be turned into a music maker, blasting out those nostalgic square waves in new and interesting ways. Now a worldwide phenomenon, chiptuning celebrates every year with a multi-day festival, the Blip Festival, this year held at Bell House in Gowanus. The party featured the classics of this decade old musical genre along with some of the still untapped potential that this instrument has to offer.

What becomes quickly understood upon entry into the festival is the diverse use of the chiptuning technology by artists within the medium. CDs of all shapes and sizes, in gold bubble-wrap packages, mini-cds and modded NES cartridges line the sellers’ booth, along with pre-made sequencer cartridges by one of the leading chiptuning communities, 8-Bit Collective, who also provided modified Gameboys with flashy colors and extra nobs that made them look more like Star Trek phasers than the toys of our youth. However, most of the crowd remained unphased by such oddities, with many attendees being amateur chiptuners and recorders themselves. Just a glance at 8-Bit Collective’s prominently displayed main webpage showed the thousands involved with the music, many of whom were asking the sequencers specifics about the chiptuning technology they were hawking.

Over the three nights, it was not the technology that was showcased as much as the diverse artistry that chiptuning conjures. Because of the nature of “performing” in front of crowds with a Gameboy or similar device, which often requires very slight movements, musical artists were partnered with 8-Bit visual artists creating odd and interesting combinations. Veteran musician minusbaby admitted his own surprise at seeing a 15 foot tall NES-style visual of himself provided by artist Enso. French musician JDDJ3J was accompanied by near television static-like pixelated backgrounds punctuated with his logo. Still, other visual artists opted for written messages or digitally degraded photos, mixing with the performers, many of whom openly danced across the stage to their music, and the often rave-like crowd, with their glow-sticks and Santa Clauses in welder’s masks.

The three nights of the festival were punctuated by musical surprises. In a genre that is so often associated more with the theme from Castlevania than hip-hop and DJ culture, the level of collaboration, friendship and experimentation in the night lent itself more to that culture than any other, a point acknowledged by minusbaby, who, as a NYC resident and member of the infamous 8Bitpeoples’ crew, started the Blip Festival four years ago. Performing on the first night, minusbaby brought influences of all kinds into a set accented by Latin-based beats and punctuated by a live drummer. While in past years minusbaby had brought in a number of live instruments, including melodicas, his pared down performance showed his virtuosity on the Gameboy and the disparate genres that can be combined with the simplest of sequencers. He wasn’t alone, the room was abuzz for hours after the performance of New Wave influenced Failotron, from Budapest, who along with a guitarist created a near classic rock show experience.

By contrast, Je Deviens DJ en 3 Jours (JDDJ3J) pushed the sound system at the Bell House with a dark disco rave. Blasting the crowd on his first song with a heavy drum beat and screaming vocals, JDDJ3J was soon leaping about the stage to his dance beats, urging the crowd into a frenzy, along with gestures of exultation during some of the slower bridges. Using ‘Nanoloop’ software to create his music, one would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between what was heard on Thursday night and music at a classic rave. With the right sound system, it was obvious that 8-Bits could easily produce sounds on par with any modern computer synthesizer.

Finishing up Thursday night was a relative newcomer to the chiptuning scene. Albino Ghost Monkey, a Wisconsin native, made his first trip to New York City and clearly was in awe to be performing on the same stage as the progenitors of chip music. Following JDDJ3J, he clearly borrowed some moves from his fellow Nanolooper, but combined it with his own style of dance and punk that brought stragglers outside into the Bell House late in the evening. And with his long hair, thin frame and hooked nose, the comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite performing on stage just couldn’t be ignored.

However, dance music was only one of the variety of styles that rousted the Bell House over the three day festival. I, Cactus, from Austin, Texas, provided a more ethereal approach to his chiptuning, creating soundscapes that ranged from cacophonous to minimal, while interlacing his performance with a few choice words and comments. Many of the musicians seemed to know and reference each other pointing out one other on stage.

Taking a cue from progressive rock were the two performers of Starscream, whose set included a brand of rocking chip music that would be at home in any reincarnation of Streets of Rage or a stadium performance of MGMT.

Classic performers rounded out Saturday’s program, including glomag, who advertises himself as a musician who has performed both in Lincoln Center, and Blip and Bit Shifter, who, as one of the curators of the festival and founders of the 8bitpeoples, has become a spokesman for the musical genre, emphasizing its minimalistic and participatory aesthetic while still bringing strong dance grooves from his 20 year old Gameboys.

Ultimately, the event, which could feel insular with its specific technology and recollection of the past, had a way of enticing anyone and everyone to the dance floor, and it was hard to resist not taking a crack at some chip music when you got home, if only you could find that old Gameboy…

Tags: Features

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